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Chandigarh: Soon after former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh announced he would hold a press conference in Chandigarh on Wednesday, speculation was rife in the power corridors of the state that he would officially launch a new party.
There were rumours about leaders of the Congress party possibly joining him. Perhaps jittered by these rumours, the party began reaching out to disgruntled and miffed leaders to try and prevent Amarinder from poaching them. Even Rahul Gandhi held back-to-back meetings on Tuesday night to assess the situation in Punjab, insiders in the Congress said.
On October 19, Singh had declared his intention to form a new party and hinted at the possibility of an alliance with the BJP and splinter groups of the Akali Dal. This announcement came weeks after he was unceremoniously unseated as Punjab CM.
But his media meet on Wednesday did not live up to the hype. Singh said he would launch the new party as soon as the Election Commission (EC) clears the name and the symbol.
Senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh told The Wire that Singh’s approach was underwhelming. He gave several examples of popular leaders launching parties and then approaching the EC. “By failing to formally launch his party on Wednesday, Amarinder Singh provided a hint that he is still not ready and is unable to mobilise the support he expected,” he said.
During the media briefing, Amarinder Singh claimed that many people from the Congress were in touch with him. However, Jagtar Singh told The Wire that one possible reason for the delay is that Amarinder Singh’s close confidants or miffed Congress party leaders are still weighing up whether the new party will work.
Jagtar Singh added that Captain’s decision to publicly state that he would be open to an alliance with the BJP might have backfired. “Anything associated with the BJP in Punjab right now is seen with major suspicion due to the farmers’ protest. It is unwise for anyone to join a new party that is looking at aligning with the BJP,” he added.
Other political analysts agree that an early solution to the farmers’ protest can prop up Amarinder’s political relevance and give him some leverage to mobilise leaders for the launch of a new outfit.
Otherwise, the baggage of his four-and-half-year term as chief minister will make it an uphill task for him to survive alone politically.
At 79, he has already faced major humiliation at the fag end of his 51 years in political life after the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka – managed to unseat him despite his being in control of the party in Punjab for the past two decades.
‘Appeared cautious of his BJP ties’
During the press conference, Amarinder Singh was more cautious about committing to an engagement with the BJP.
Dismissing as trash Punjab Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu’s tweet accusing him of being loyal to the BJP, he said the thought of seat-sharing with the BJP came to his mind only after he was forced out of office. “States have to work with the Union government to function effectively,” he pointed out.
He claimed that he had not spoken of aligning with the BJP but wanted to discuss seat sharing with the party. “In military parlance, it means concentration of forces,” he remarked, adding that he had, however, not yet talked to the BJP about this.
The former CM made it clear that he had no intention of aligning with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) but only with breakaway Akali groups.
Asked about the reported refusal of Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, president of the SAD (Democratic) party, to tie up with him, Amarinder said, “If Dhindsa wants to put up a real fight, he will have to concentrate his forces too.” He said to defeat the Congress, the SAD and the Aam Aadmi Party, other parties will all have to “work as a joint force.”
To meet Amit Shah on Thursday over farm issues
Given that hopes of Amarinder Singh’s political resurrection hinge on a resolution to the farmers’ protest, it was not surprising when he said on Wednesady that he would meet Union home minister Amit Shah on Thursday to discuss a possible solution to the agitation.
On September 30, he met Shah and even National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
“I think I can help in finding a solution as I have been the chief minister of Punjab and am also an agriculturist,” Captain Amarinder said at the press conference.
“While there could be no pre-decided formula for a resolution to the farmers’ stir, it is something that will emerge during the talks as both sides (Union government and farmers) want a resolution to the crisis triggered by the farm laws,” he said.
Making it clear that he had not met any farmer leaders, the former chief minister said he had deliberately not interfered in the matter as the farmers did not want politicians involved. The farmer leaders had four inconclusive meetings with the Union government before February this year, but backchannel talks have been going on, he added.
Backs Union government on BSF jurisdiction move
Amarinder Singh claimed that something “very wrong and dangerous” was happening at the borders of Punjab, saying the state can ill-afford to ignore these issues.
He rejected allegations by the Congress and other parties that the Union government’s attempt to extend the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 km to 50 km is an attempt to take over the state’s administration. He said these misconceptions were being spread by “certain people” to score brownie points in the run-up to the assembly elections.
“The BSF is here to help maintain national security as we are a border state,” he said.
Amarinder Singh said he was not an alarmist but his 10 years of experience in the Army and a nearly equal term as home minister of the state told him that “something is going to happen.”
“Yet a home minister who has been in his chair for one month claims to know more than me!” he quipped, taking a dig at Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Punjab’s new home minister.
“Sleeper cells of Pakistan’s ISI and Khalistani forces are creating trouble, technology is becoming more advanced. The capacity and range of drones is increasing. At first, they came just 5-6 km from the border, now they reach 31 km,” he pointed out. “We have to be very careful of the clandestine war from across the border,” he added.
He praised the Punjab police but said the force is not trained to combat cross-border threats, asserting that they need the help of the BSF and the CRPF.
Sidhu vs Captain again
Just before Singh’s press conference, Navjot Singh Sidhu slammed the former, tweeting, “We the 78 MLAs of Congress, could never imagine, what we received an arm-twisted, ED controlled BJP loyal Chief Minister of Punjab @capt_amarinder … who sold the interests of Punjab to save his skin! You were the negative force stalling Justice & development of Punjab.”
He further hit out at Amarinder by saying, “Last time you formed your own party, you lost your ballot, garnering only 856 votes … People of Punjab are again waiting to punish you for compromising on the interests of Punjab.”
Sidhu added, “Was it Pity that a 3 Member Congress Committee was formed to make you accountable (when Amarinder was CM)? Why were MLAs against you? Because everyone knows you have collided with Badals! All you want is to defeat me, have you ever wanted Punjab to win? Your 75/25 dealings with Badals and BJP are crystal clear.
Singh rejected Sidhu’s claims of a majority of the MLAs opposing his continuation in office, saying, “Once they (the party leadership) had made up their mind to replace me, all these excuses were made.”
Taking on Sidhu as well as Sukhjinder Randhawa, Amarinder slammed them for indulging in petty issues. “We will fight and defeat Sidhu from wherever he contests the upcoming assembly polls,” he vowed, adding that since the former had taken over the Punjab Congress reins, there had been a 25% drop in the party’s popularity, as per his surveys.
Denying allegations of not delivering during his term, Captain Amarinder listed various works completed by his government and said the Charanjit Singh Channi government was merely implementing what his government had decided to do.
Responding to Sidhu, Singh later tweeted, “You do have the knack of putting your foot in your mouth @sherryontopp! The 856 votes you are mocking came even after I withdrew my nomination from Kharar since I’d won unopposed from Samana. So what does that show? Or are you too dumb to understand.”
He also tweeted, “‘So why don’t you focus on your work instead of wasting your time attacking me all day long @sherryontopp? Unless you’ve made up your mind to not rest till you’ve destroyed @INCPunjab. And if that’s the case then you’re only making my task easier!’
‘You do have the knack of putting your foot in your mouth @sherryontopp! The 856 votes you are mocking came even after I withdrew my nomination from Kharar since I’d won unopposed from Samana. So what does that show? Or are you too dumb to understand’: @capt_amarinder 1/3 https://t.co/WXwARektgC
— Raveen Thukral (@RT_Media_Capt) October 27, 2021
Channi calls special assembly session on November 8
Meanwhile, Channi chaired a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, approving the summoning of a special assembly session on November 8, 2021 to oppose the Union government’s notification extending the jurisdiction of the BSF and repealing the three farm laws. Notably, this decision was taken in light of the consensus that emerged at the all-party meeting held in Chandigarh on October 25, where it was unanimously decided to convene a special session of the Vidhan Sabha.
Channi had also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 22, seeking status quo ante on the BSF’s jurisdiction. But the Union government has not responded so far.
The Punjab CM said that the notification means that all of Punjab’s major border cities and towns will be fully under Central control, describing this as a clear violation of the state’s rights.
Meanwhile, Sidhu said the government would also cancel the power purchase agreements (PPAs) with private power generation companies. However, the Punjab government was silent about this move in its press note.