This Singh is not king, as yet

Roopinder Singh and Ajay Banerjee

He loves the good life, yet is equally at home in the rough and tumble of politics. The Akali Dal engineers his expulsion from the House, he makes headlines outside it. The Congress has not made him chief of the state party, people take him to be one anyway. Reams are written about his extra-curricular activities, yet he shrugs them off and they don’t seem to affect his political fortunes.

Capt Amarinder Singh Caricature by Sandeep Joshi

In his crisp white kurta pajama, equally in his blue blazers, he fills the room with his presence, and floors the audience – there is always one – with his span of information and the felicity with which he cites facts and figures, switching between English and Punjabi as the occasion demands.

Whether he is on the political throne of the state or not, he is called “Maharaj”, even by his detractors – a reflection of both his lineage, as well as his personal style. Yet, right now, there is no throne (read official position) for this king, who is seen as the tallest leader that the Congress can field in the political arena of Punjab.

Leadership, and the lack of it, has been preoccupying his mind. He finds it in Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on whom he has just written a book, and the lack of it among the present rulers of Punjab, especially his arch rival Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who he says, “can’t govern” and is only good at “campaigning and distributing largesse”. “Punjab can’t be in a worse state than it is today,” he adds, citing the lack of a dynamic industrial policy, budget deficit, lack of progress and other issues.

When Akalis hit back, they attack his personal lifestyle, not his administration. His “culture of leisure and pleasure,” provides much fuel for the rumour mill, and figured prominently in the election meetings during the last polls, when the Akali refrain was: “He is not a man of the people, he has a raja-like style. By the time he gets up Badal Sahib has already visited half a dozen villages!” Amarinder Singh is also facing various corruption cases in courts, filed after the Akali Dal government came into power.

The 68-year-old scion of the erstwhile royal House of Patiala is a man of many parts. He is proud of the rank Captain that replaces ‘Maharaja’ in politically correct environments, earned as an officer commissioned in 1963. His stint as Chief Minister from 2002-2007, punctuated Badal’s reign, and he is a powerful speaker of the state’s interest at national-level meets.

There is an element of noblesse oblige in Amarinder Singh, the politician. His unflinching stand on riparian rights of Punjab surprised many, especially his seniors in the party who took him to task, but he stuck to his guns. A bureaucrat cites the clarity of his orders and how meetings then were result-oriented. Another who worked with him closely describes him as “decisive” and “forward looking”. And yet he opposed the proposed Patran nuclear plant in an energy-deficient state. “I am not against nuclear power, but I am concerned about the fallout in a densely populated zone,” he asserts.

When Amarinder Singh entered public life 30 years ago and was elected Congress MP from Patiala in 1980, he owed it to his friend Rajiv Gandhi, a fellow Dosco. He, however, parted ways with the Congress in 1984 in protest against Operation Bluestar.

Consistent about the issue, even though he joined the Akali Dal, and was a Minister in the Surjit Singh Barnala government, he quit when, in May 1986, there was an armed action and NSG commandoes stormed the Golden Temple.

Yet, later, along with Badal and Barnala, he signed the 1994 “Amritsar Declaration” that endorsed the controversial 1978 Anandpur Sahib Resolution which demanded greater autonomy for Punjab.

Amarinder Singh wore the Akali Dal blue for 12 years before returning to the Congress white in 1996. His direct access to Sonia Gandhi has helped him weather many a storm, even as his detractors protested his inaccessibility to them.

The Akalis, with whom he had a cosy relationship till he filed corruption cases against the Badals, view him as a major threat even though his party has not yet asked him to spearhead its campaign in Punjab. But many see it as inevitable, given the TINA factor- there is no alternative.

When not otherwise engaged, he is still politically active. He has challenged his September 2008 expulsion from the state Assembly. “We are waiting for the Supreme Court’s judgement on the issue,” he says, sounding positive about its outcome.

He vociferously opposed the withdrawal of the so-called vendetta cases. He presented himself in a court for a hearing on the Ludhiana City Centre case on Saturday. At a press conference later, it was evident that state Congress leaders have begun rallying around him. Yet the polls are due in Punjab in February 2012 and the Captain and his team are waiting for a direction from the Congress chief regarding his role in the party. “… Madam (Sonia Gandhi) will decide,” Amarinder says, playing safe.

Congress rival Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, however, does not miss an opportunity to brief the media on how “Amarinder is promoting an un-Congress like culture and is inaccessible”. The former Chief Minister, however, is quick to defend himself. “How can I be inaccessible, I visit every block in Punjab…. These are stories planted by my detractors.”

Has the time out of power changed the Maharaja who is known as an epicure and an aesthete? In some regards, perhaps. For one, he has stopped taking his evening drink on medical advice. (His grandfather, Maharaja Bhupindra Singh, made Patiala a name saluted by whoever pours a large peg.) “I am an experienced man … things are different today,” he maintains.

How different, only time will tell. Controversies have cropped up around him from time to time, and many are about those with whom he associates himself – his friend of long-standing, IAS officer S. K. Sinha; media adviser B.I.S. Chahal, Patiala’s pilot Manpreet Kaur Sekhon, and Lahore’s journalist Aroosa Alam … all earned him miles of newsprint, yet the Teflon coating stayed intact, since he is “expected to be different from the common man”.

‘Maharani’ Preneet Kaur, his wife, is Minister of State for External Affairs in the UPA government. For decades, she was the person who interacted extensively with common people and nurtured his constituency assiduously. Well, she is said to be “peeved” at her husband, though she has maintained a stoic silence, which has earned her brownie points in the general public for “showing grace”. His son, Raninder Singh, lost the Bathinda seat to the Badal bahu, Harsimrat Kaur.

Proud to have served as ADC to the celebrated Lt-General Harbaksh Singh during the 1965 War, Amarinder Singh has been studying military history and has written well-received books like “Lest We Forget” that speaks about the battles fought in the 1965 War, and “A Ridge Too Far” on the Kargil conflict.

What has he learnt from his study of history? “People respond to leadership. A leader must have the courage to stand against the current if he is convinced that he is right.”

His vision for Punjab includes agricultural diversification and it becoming a commercial hub. Leadership. He wants to provide it, and has studied it in his latest book, “The Last Sunset: Rise and Fall of the Lahore Durbar”, which is already a best-seller and has received positive reviews.

The launch of “Rise and Fall…” was much talked about because of those who attended it, especially a glamorous Pakistani journalist and her entourage. The launch at Chandigarh, a week or so later, was talked about because of who did not attend it – Praneet Kaur, the ‘Maharani’ of Patiala. Sometimes substantial achievements are eclipsed by the flashes of controversy, but that’s an old story for Captain Amarinder Singh.

The article was published in The Tribune on March 30, 2010

  1. Shammi Kaplush says:

    Capt Amrinder Sigh is the mix of the intelect and Politics.His Secular Credentials take him above the other present day leaders.Despite being the heir of Patiala State he has remail attached to the earth Mother.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.