IN 2002, JUST A FEW DAYS after Amarinder Singh was sworn in as Chief Minister of Punjab for the first time, an excise inspector walked into the office of the Punjab Public Service Commission on March 25 and paid its chairman, Ravi Sidhu, Rs 5 lakh as part of a bribe deal. Precisely at that moment, Vigilance Bureau officers barged in and the sting operation made headlines that catapulted Amarinder Singh into the league of corruption-busters.
Punjabis worldwide watched with voyeuristic pleasure the public spectacle of currency notes spilling out from bank lockers — every visual splashed on front pages was a certificate to Amarinder Singh. You could have sold t-shirts proclaiming Mr Clean, with a picture of Amarinder Singh on the front.
This week, Ravi Sidhu was convicted and sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment in the corruption and loot case by a court in Mohali. Amarinder Singh did not issue any statement and his media advisors and minders did not squeak a word to take credit.
They dared not. The Mr Clean t-shirts were not in demand.
Amarinder Singh was stuck in quicksand. Or sand. Sand mined by his close buddy, Rana Gurjit Singh.
Just like in 2002, this time, within a few days of Amarinder Singh being sworn in, the issue of blatant corruption at top echelons of power made the headlines yet again: "Punjab minister’s cook is Rs 26-cr sand mine owner."
Every form of polemical acrobatics was tried. Every convoluted graft-hiding yogic mudra was adopted. Every press release/leak/plant/whisper mantra that could be thought up by crafty minds, was used.
Denials. Outright denials. Non-denial denials. Red-herrings. An inquiry. A Commission. Clean chits. Nothing helped. There's no John Kelly in Amarinder's office to tell him when to cut loose and cut losses. (Imagine being poorer than Trump in image management!) There are a plenty of men who advise him that he is a maharaja and must not act like mere mortals, and that things will soon be under control, headlines will fade away, and it will be business as usual.
Denials. Outright denials. Non-denial denials. Red-herrings. An inquiry. A Commission. Clean chits. But nothing helped. There's no John Kelly in Amarinder's office to tell him when to cut loose and cut losses. (Imagine being poorer than Trump in image management!)
Better advice was available. For free. From saner heads.
Six days after the scam hit front pages, The Tribune wrote an editorial on May 31, 2017, with a headline so simple that even those who left the world of journalism to write press releases defending utterly indefensible positions as the god-ordained paths of dharma, would understand: "Oust Rana Gurjit Singh."
Of course, editors often set tough agendas. In this case, it seemed an impossible one. The sub-head declared: "Reset the integrity bar high." The editorial added that "Rana Gurjit Singh’s continuation as minister (was) untenable."
In these material times, who listens to advice that has not been paid for? So, the CMO decided to defend Rana Gurjit at all cost. At least, at a cost that was much too high. So high that the stock of old Mr Clean t-shirts would rot for a long time to come.
The sand scam, with its ancillary land scam, was not the only reason for such criticism.
"Rana Gurjit Singh...handles two ministries — irrigation and power — and has apparent personal business interests in both. His company is selling power to the Punjab Government and many of the sand mines are in rivers that he is expected to guard. This conflict of interest was way too obvious for the Chief Minister to ignore in the first place," the scathing editorial reminded the government.
Eventually, the scam blew up in the face of the government. With dollops of help from that obdurately pertinacious Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who is a master of dogged pursuits, and a handful of Chandigarh-based scribes who pay little attention to advisors and refuse to give up on the smell of a scam, the minister's position actually became untenable by even the lowest standards.
Not that advisors had refused to write more press releases to defend a minister sinking in quicksand — they have enough diction to defend the Satan if need be. It is just that Rahul Gandhi's patience with party leaders who start looking like Rorschach test samples has been exhausted.
This is where the script went wrong even more awfully.
* * *
Rana Gurjit Singh submitted his resignation on January 4, it has now been confirmed. For more than 10 days, it remained a secret. On January 16, the Indian Express broke the story that the minister has finally put in his resignation.
This is when massive damage was initiated to the standing and reputation of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the one person whose reputation all Congress leaders, chief ministers, ministers, MLAs and activists down to the last mohalla level cadre person are expected to guard fiercely.
"I received Rana Gurjit's resignation about 10 days back. A decision will be taken after a discussion with the Congress president Rahul Gandhi," Amarinder Singh said on January 16. Rana Gurjit was hardly any help when he said, ""Yes, I have resigned. Now, it is up to the Chief Minister and the party high command to take further action."
The narrative was re-set, and word went out: Rahul Gandhi is to decide whether Rana Gurjit is to be dropped as a minister or not. Nothing could have been more damaging to Rahul Gandhi than this line propagated by the CMO.
Translated in simple terms, this is what Amarinder's image managers meant to convey:
-- That a minister was accused of serious scam.
-- That we tried our level best to defend him.
-- We even got him a clean chit from a commission of inquiry.
-- The dirt (sand?), however, would not go away.
-- The position is now utterly indefensible.
-- The minister has finally quit.
-- Now, Rahul Gandhi will decide whether to retain or drop this utterly tainted, disgraced minister who brought so much bad name to the Congress party and to the Amarinder Singh government.
Clearly, you are telling the people that there is a possibility that Rahul Gandhi could have decided against accepting the resignation of Rana Gurjit Singh.
Wow! What this narrative did to Rahul Gandhi's reputation could not have been achieved by even a Sukhpal Singh Khaira.
The narrative was re-set, and word went out: Rahul Gandhi is to decide whether Rana Gurjit is to be dropped as minister or not. Nothing could have been more damaging to Rahul Gandhi than this line propagated by the CMO.
Between May 25, 2017 when The Tribune's Vishav Bharti broke the story, and January 16, 2018 when The Indian Express' Kanchan Vasdev told the world the minister had actually put in his papers, the Congress had suffered enough damage.
The damage that the "Rahul Gandhi now to decide Rana Gurjit's fate" narrative did to the newly anointed Congress president has been solely wreaked by the men around Captain Amarinder Singh.
The Amarinder Singh government had eight months to cut its losses. Instead, it even used the last few days to pile up more losses.
It could have ended with a minister losing his reputation and his job.
It could have ended with the Amarinder Singh ministry losing a minister and some reputation.
Instead, it finally ended with the minister losing his reputation and his job, the Amarinder ministry losing its reputation and a minister, and the Congress President Rahul Gandhi losing his reputation as well.
So far, Rana Gurjit's contribution to Punjab's culture were his liquor brands called Bhangra and Sohni, enough reasonhe should not have been in the Cabinet. Now, you can sell t-shirts proclaiming ‘Pakke Dheeth’ with his picture, but why tempt someone to print Amarinder's and Rahul Gandhi's faces on the back?
Rana Gurjit has claimed he resigned on moral grounds. You don't have to dig deeper to know he is buried in very sandy ground.
So far, Rana Gurjit's contribution to Punjab's culture was two brands of liquor — Bhangra and Sohni — which his distillery in Tarn Taran produced.
Amarinder Singh should have stayed away from the man for merely this much reason. Now, you can sell t-shirts with the oh-so-catchy epithet — Pakke Dheeth — with a picture of Rana Gurjit Singh on the front.
The question is: where was the need to tempt someone to print Amarinder's and Rahul Gandhi's faces on the back of this t-shirt?
Now, you understand why the CM's press release writer did not claim credit for Ravi Sidhu going to jail. Even he does not wear the Mr Clean t-shirt any more.
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