ON WEDNESDAY, May 23, HD Kumaraswamy finally took the oath as the Chief Minister of Karnataka, and the resultant pictures jolted India's polity. Sonia Gandhi stood next to Mayawati, Sharad Pawar on the other side, Akhilesh Yadav beaming, Sitaram Yechury in a crisp kurta, Ajit Singh’s glasses firmly on his nose and even Velu Narayanasamy looking like a VIP.
Even as news anchors discussed whether the Opposition unity will hold till 2019, for the people of Punjab, there was something very intriguing about that picture, and rightly so. It was not easy not to miss someone who was not in the frame. The absence was much more jarring than his presence.
Congress effectively has only one chief minister in India now, and that is Amarinder Singh. (If you insist on splitting hair and counting Puducherry CM, then let's grant the party two chief ministers.)
On Rahul Gandhi's comeuppance day, when mom Sonia Gandhi rubbed shoulders with a galaxy of opposition leaders, Amarinder Singh was not there up on the stage, notwithstanding the fact that he is the only CM of the party.
And still, no one missed him! The Congress did not even issue a perfunctory press release to say Amarinder Singh had some other pressing engagement. The national media just did not bother to underline his absence.
The worst thing in politics is when you simply vanish from the headlines. Irrelevance on the national stage is a measure of your unimportance.
On Rahul Gandhi's comeuppance day, when mom Sonia Gandhi rubbed shoulders with a galaxy of opposition leaders, Amarinder Singh was not there up on the stage, notwithstanding the fact that he is the only Chief Minister of the party.
You can always argue that Amarinder’s ties with 10, Janpath go back a long way, and that he was a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi from school days. You can remind me that Amarinder Singh has had a rough run-in with Sonia Gandhi in 2004 also when he passed the Termination of Agreements Act. Each of those facts check out, but the moot question today is: Where does he stand with Rahul Gandhi at this juncture in the party’s future plans?
Rahul Gandhi virtually launched the Congress' campaign for the 2019 general elections with the "Jan Aakrosh" rally at the end of April this year, attended by thousands.
While Amarinder Singh was present on the stage, just count the number of people between him and Rahul Gandhi in scores of pictures beamed across India.
Next came the 84th plenary session of the Congress in Delhi, where Navjot Sidhu spoke at length, made news by apologising to Dr Manmohan Singh who he had often targeted in the past before joining the Congress. Amarinder Singh was barely noticed in that event.
The worst thing in politics is when you simply vanish from the headlines. Irrelevance on the national stage is a measure of your unimportance.
Ordinarily, if a state minister is facing a charge as serious as involuntary manslaughter, the president of the party would be in no hurry to grant him an appointment, even if he is acquitted by the highest court. A cooling off period is always recommended.
But in case of Navjot Sidhu, Rahul Gandhi hardly lost any time in releasing his photographs with him. And then the messaging was massaged further: next in print was Navjot Sidhu in a picture-perfect frame with Sonia Gandhi.
For anyone in Moti Bagh still not able to see the big picture, they released one with Priyanka Gandhi.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi did not call Amarinder Singh to Karnataka even for a single day for campaigning in an election that was a do or die for the young leader.
Rahul Gandhi badly wanted to talk in Karnataka about what Congress did for farmers. He did, but never mentioned what Amarinder Singh considers his big achievement — waiving off loans of farmers with huge spectacles of distributing Karza Mukti Parman Patars.
While Amarinder Singh was not in the picture with Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in Bengaluru, some other people were able to manage an appointment with Rahul Gandhi at lightening trunk call speed. These were three MLAs from Punjab who advertised to every Tom, Dick and journalist that they were miffed with Amarinder Singh following the cabinet expansion.
Rahul Gandhi badly wanted to talk in Karnataka about what Congress did for farmers. But he never mentioned that Amarinder Singh has waived off the farmers’ loans.
Not once did anyone in the high command pick up the phone to say a word to 40 MLAs of the party who went all out, gunning for Amarinder Singh and writing a letter to him, telling him he was not doing enough to catch the big fish involved in drug trade in Punjab. In fact, the gang of 40 was gleefully sharing the draft of the letter with journalists.
Do you think senior IAS officers, those keeping a tab on every twist and turn related to 10, Janpath and political analysts with an ear to the ground as well as the powers that be, do not read these signs? They even read what is not being said. In fact, that silence rings out too loud.
Journalists in Punjab may not have bothered to read such tea leaves, but Divya Spandana, the woman responsible for the aggressive social media presence of Congress in cybersphere, has never bothered much to tweet about Amarinder Singh's government.
In fact, when Amarinder Singh made it a prestige issue to snub Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, saying he will not be welcoming the visiting leader, Divya Spandana went all out to tweet that she will give the youthful Canadian a big hug. This is what a snub looks like!
In fact, the way the rather peculiar relationship between the Congress president and Amarinder Singh has been conducted in the public domain reflects a consistent less than savoury track record.
Do you think senior IAS officers, those keeping a tab on every twist and turn related to 10, Janpath and political analysts with an ear to the ground as well as the powers that be, do not read these signs? They even read what is not being said.
Rahul Gandhi will have to grow a lot older to forget that Amarinder Singh had publicly said he was not ready to assume the party leadership and Sonia Gandhi should remain at the helm.
Amarinder Singh gladly told his hagiographer that when Rahul Gandhi asked him in 2015 if he was planning to break away from Congress and float his own party, he had blatantly told him that that exactly was his plan.
"If I do not fit in your scheme of things, I will need to find an alternative...I have to look for my own path if you don't have a plan for me," Amarinder Singh is quoted as having told Rahul Gandhi.
When Rahul Gandhi said both sides will be losers if that were to happen, Amarinder's blunt response was: "So be it." Amarinder Singh has happily promoted the book, and also its author, and never refuted a single claim the book made.
But that was a very different Rahul Gandhi; to Amarinder Singh's chagrin, the Rahul Gandhi he has to deal with now does not even bother to telephone him and ask him to come to share the stage in Bengaluru at a rare high point in his political career.
Gone is the Rahul Gandhi who Amarinder Singh was able to browbeat when he wanted Pratap Singh Bajwa to be eased out of Punjab Congress presidentship. This is a Rahul Gandhi that projects to the world that Navjot Singh Sidhu is his friend and the man he backs. And Navjot Singh Sidhu tells the world that Amarinder Singh is someone he hardly cares about.
Divya Spandana, the woman responsible for the aggressive social media presence of Congress in cybersphere, has never bothered much to tweet about Amarinder Singh's government.
From dealing with Fastway to taking action against corrupt officials to reminding people about mining mafia (read Rana Gurjit Singh to Hardev Singh Ladi Sherowalia), Navjot Sidhu is someone who tells the town that he carries a gun bigger than the sheriff's kiddy slingshot.
Amarinder Singh wrote an article
in the Indian Express, demanding a bravery medal for the Indian Army Major who trussed up a man on a jeep and used him as a human shield against stonepelters. He wrote an article
in The Tribune, advocating a free hand for the Army in Kashmir and termed any resultant corpses as collateral damage. He, much like Sushma Swaraj, wants
three Pakistani heads for each Indian soldier martyred.
None of that is something Rahul Gandhi can spout as Congress' line of thinking.
Amarinder has never uttered a word against the RSS, never made it a point to join issue with the BJP about beef ban, or lynchings, or hatred against Muslims. He never spoke against love jihad or referred to the Ishrat Jahan encounter or the assault on JNU or the suicide of Rohit Vemula or the disappearance of Najib who still hasn’t come home.
Not long ago, Narendra Modi called Amarinder Singh a "swatanter fauji," someone who the Congress does not control.
On his birthday this year, Rahul Gandhi in a tweet wished "good health and happiness" to "Captain Amarinder Singh ji."
Amarinder tweeted back: "Thankyou Rahul for your kind wishes."
You can attribute the absence of "Shri" or "ji" or even "Gandhi" to the difference between Amarinder's 76 years and Rahul Gandhi's 48, but anyone in politics with an IQ above 30 knows that it reflects not just 28 years of gap but a huge trust deficit.
"If I do not fit in your scheme of things, I will need to find an alternative...I have to look for my own path if you don't have a plan for me," Amarinder Singh told Rahul Gandhi. That was a different Rahul Gandhi, one who did not care that Amarinder wasn’t on stage in Karnataka.
Rahul Gandhi and Amarinder Singh are effectively not on talking terms. A Manpreet Singh Badal has a better access to high command. A Navjot Singh Sidhu manages separate clicks with mom, son and sister.
Why, pray, even the three newly self-anointed musketeers get an audience without even having to send a postcard.
How do you think a party president announces to his rank and file that he has made up his mind, and that a new sheriff will soon be seen wearing the badge? Not by erecting a huge hoarding in Patiala, but by sending twenty different signals that others have his ear. The automatic response is: Thoko taali.
Amarinder Singh's successor is being anointed, and political pundits are busy how will the race among Navjot Sidhu, Manpreet Badal, Sunil Jakhar and a few others will pan out in the last lap.
Meanwhile, Amarinder's stances reflect a lot of saffron hue, and the BJP does not have a leader worth his or her name in Punjab. The Vijay Samplas driven by Vineet Joshis of the world are an apology, and a Shwet Malik or a Kamal Sharma aren't made of the stuff that can carry a party on its shoulder. It has been out shopping for a good leader in Punjab for quite some time. Lending a shoulder to a breakaway heavyweight wouldn't be a bad electoral strategy.
In fact, it may work out well in Punjab's current political scenario where the Aam Aadmi Party is limited to keeping Sukhpal Singh Khaira in front of a microphone and a Bhagwant Mann away from a bottle. The space for a third force is wide open. Is it a hole the size of an Amarinder Singh?
When the Congress was crying from the rooftops that the Centre was using the Enforcement Directorate to arm twist its MLAs into shifting loyalties in Karnataka, Amarinder Singh stayed completely mum. After all, he has had a passing acquaintance with the ED, and the ED has some bank account numbers.
When the Congress was accusing the Centre of using the Enforcement Directorate to arm twist its MLAs, Amarinder was silent even though he knows the ED. The trouble is that the ED knows some bank account numbers.
It was a tough, long night. The Congress high command was keen that Abhishek Manu Singhvi should reach Delhi in time but since the Chandigarh airport was closed, Singhvi would have reached Delhi by train late in the night. Eventually, the party arranged a chartered plane and used the Pinjore airstrip to get him to Delhi.
"You can understand why we did not seek to use the chopper Amarinder flies in all the time, and why no offer came from his side,” said a senior Congress leader.
On NDTV that night, Dr Pronnoy Roy teasingly asked a Congress representative if the party planned at some stage to whisk away its MLAs to faraway Amritsar where they would obviously have been safe.
"If only the Congress did that! Phir to samjh lo seedhe hee Yediyurappa jee ke ghar par pahunch jaate (Then, you should take it for granted that they would have been delivered directly to Yediyurappa at his residence),” chuckled a BJP leader watching the telecast with me.
I am sick of reading the signs. Anyone would be. Besides, the writing on the wall does not qualify to be called sign language. Those unable to read it are politically blind and headed for an abyss.
Look for tough times ahead for Amarinder Singh. Last time he had tried to carve out a lone furrow was in 1992, forming Shiromani Akali Dal (Panthic), and managing to win 856 votes in his Assembly seat. Political security deposits can be lost very fast in Punjab. His brother-in-law Simranjit Singh Mann found out decades earlier. The Royal House of Patiala even earlier than that. The Doon-school educated generation should have a better roadmap planned. By most estimates, it will have saffron edges, possibly a lot of saffron even in the centre.
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