How Will Amarinder Singh's New Party Affect the Political Winds in Punjab?

The former Congress leader plans to form an alliance with the BJP and other splinter groups in the state.

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Chandigarh: Nearly a month after his ‘humiliated’ exit as Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, 79, announced that he will form his own political party that is likely to forge a pre-poll alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and splinter groups of the Shiromani Akali Dal for the coming 2022 assembly polls.

While BJP welcomed the move and the Congress, in which Amarinder spent most part of his 50-year-long political career, hit out at him, his announcement – made through the Twitter handle of his media advisor Raveen Thukral late on Tuesday – may change the political climate in the state.

There are several immediate takeaways from Amarinder’s latest announcement.

First, his inclination to form an alliance with the BJP did not come as a surprise, as he was warming up to the saffron party for quite some time now.

Many a time he toed the BJP’s line on security matters, whether it was the ‘surgical strikes’ post the Pulwama terror attack or more recently the Union government’s decision to extend the Border Security Force’s jurisdiction in Punjab, which was condemned by all other parties. His moderate image and army background also suits the BJP’s style of majoritarian politics.

Secondly, the larger political front that he is trying to forge with help from the BJP and others will be keenly watched, since power sharing in Punjab has always rotated between two mainstream parties – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress. Even the Aam Aadmi Party could not break the trend in the last election, where the Congress under Amarinder’s leadership won the election with a nearly two-thirds majority.

If Amarinder is successful in forming a larger political front along with the BJP (which earlier remained in power with SAD and is now planning to fight alone after SAD walked out of the NDA last year due to the farm laws) and other factional groups – headed by Akali stalwarts like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and Sukhdev Dhindsa – as his main allies, the fresh assembly polls in Punjab will be a four-cornered contest. Which way the wind blows next will be anyone’s guess

Amarinder’s tryst with the new political front is not his first experiment. In 1984, he left the Congress and joined SAD to protest the army attack on the Golden Temple. Later breaking away from the SAD in 1992, Amarinder formed his own political group called the SAD (Panthic), which did not make much of an impact. He then later merged his political front with the Congress when he joined the party again in 1997.

Since then, Amarinder has remained in the Congress, responsible for forming the government twice in Punjab, once between 2002-2007 and then between 2017-2022, although he could not complete his second term as chief minister and was forced to resign after Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi sided with Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Some say this will be Amarinder’s last foray in politics before the sun sets on his long political career.

Early resolution of farmers’ protest key to Amarinder’s new plan

As Punjab is in the midst of farmers’ protests for the last one year against the BJP government’s controversial farm laws, an early resolution to the prevailing crisis is key to Amarinder’s political ambitions.

His latest statement that “he is hopeful of a seat arrangement with BJP in 2022 Punjab Assembly polls if farmer Protest is resolved in farmers’ interest” is a clear indication that his attention before forming the larger political front will be on resolving the crisis.

In an interview with The Print on Tuesday, where he first disclosed the launch of his party, Amarinder is quoted as saying that the prolonged farmers’ agitation over the three central farm laws may be heading towards a resolution soon, with the government holding talks with farmers’ representatives.

His decision on accepting the BJP as a partner will depend on a satisfactory resolution of the farm laws issue, he added. “Before the farmers’ issue, this was not a problem in Punjab (against the Narendra Modi government),” he further told The Print.

He was further quoted as saying that he would “like an alliance” with the BJP, and does not consider it a communal and anti-Muslim party. Do you see any problem in Punjab between the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, he asked.

He also met Union home minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval recently, where the major discussion, according to Amarinder, was on finding a peaceful resolution to the farm crisis.

Amarinder’s political agenda to centre on peace, security

Through his tweet, Amarinder has made it clear that his major political agenda for the coming election will centre around peace and security apart from farming

“I will not rest till I can secure the future of my people and my state. Punjab needs political stability and protection from internal & external threats. I promise my people I will do what it takes to ensure its peace and security, which is today at stake’,” he tweeted.

Amarinder has in the past alleged several times that Pakistan’s ISI-backed Khalistan ideologues of the banned outfit Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) are making continuous attempts to disturb the state’s peace, stability and communal harmony.

In a post-resignation letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Amarinder also raised the issue of challenges of being a chief minister in a border state that “has many geo-political and other internal security concerns, which he said he tried to handle effectively without any compromise.”

Who will join Amarinder?

One question that will be closely watched is who will join  Amarinder Singh when he launches his new front.

Sources said that Amarinder is in touch with more than dozen Congress MLAs. It will be interesting to watch how many of them join him when he actually launches his new party.

Amarinder’s attempt will be to inflict maximum political damage to the Congress before he forms a new political front.

The possibility of this looks certain, since the present Congress unit in Punjab has gone deep into factionalism with Navjot Singh Sidhu standing in one corner and new chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, in the other.

If a sizeable number of Congress MLAs join Amarinder, it will then be a new crisis for the party that is facing one crisis after another for over six months now.

‘Knew Captain was all along with BJP: Congress leaders

Reacting to Amarinder’s decision, Punjab Congress affairs in-charge Harish Rawat slammed him and said that the Congress was feeling right from the beginning that he was somehow working under the influence of the Modi government and even supporting them.

According to Rawat, Amarinder’s claim that he is floating the party for Punjab’s future is baseless. In fact he is doing it to help the BJP, a party that has been “killing farmers”, to revive in Punjab and damage the Congress. “But he will not be successful since people have understood his game plan now,” Rawat said.

Maanmohan Singh Pahuja, Congress national social media coordinator, also hit out at Amarinder through a tweet saying that news about Amarinder forming a new party, in possible alliance with the BJP, has proven Rahul Gandhi correct. “Trust the leader. RG is very clear about ideology, he will not compromise on it. Captain’s comments should shut up those who criticised Congress leadership.”

He was referring to the criticism from various political quarters against the Gandhi family after Amarinder’s unceremonious exit. But the Congress is now using Amarinder’s announcement to vindicate its move to remove him as chief minister.

While a statement from Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi or Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu is awaited, Pargat Singh, who was inducted into the cabinet recently, also attacked Amarinder by saying that he was in bed with the BJP all along. “I had said that the Captain is in bed with the BJP and Akali Dal. He used to get his agenda from the BJP. Now it has proved,” Pargat Singh said.

Another Congress minister, Raja Warring, too slammed Amarinder on similar lines and said that he was working for the BJP over the last 4.5 years as chief minister.

Meanwhile, BJP leaders in Punjab have welcomed the move. Subhash Verma, general secretary of the Punjab BJP, said Amarinder joining hands with them would be good for the party. “As of now, he is the tallest leader in Punjab. There is no one else close to him. If he wishes to float a new party and extend support to the BJP, it will be good for the Punjab BJP. Let’s see how things turn out.”

Dinesh Kumar, organisational secretary of the Punjab BJP, said: “He (Amarinder) is a senior leader and he was humiliated by his party. If he desires to form his own party and extend support to the BJP, we welcome his decision. Leaders like him have a mass following and parties should know how to give them due respect. It is sad that the Congress insulted such a tall leader who was the face of the 2017 Vidhan Sabha polls in Punjab, and because of whom the Congress got a thumping majority.”

Another BJP leader, Harjeet Grewal, welcomed Amarinder’s decision and said, “It is up to Captain Amarinder Singh to form a party. This will split the Congress even at an all India level. We welcome this move. Central leadership will decide but we are happy to align with like-minded people. Captain Amarinder was accepted by Punjab twice and has a base in Punjab.”