The Nation stood up to take notice of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) exceptional performance in elections to three state Assemblies in the North East recently. But when Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a victory speech, its tremors were unexpectedly felt in far away Punjab.
As he spoke of Congress chief ministers becoming rare – even asserting that after May, when elections are expected in Karnataka, the Congress will be wiped out there too – his treatment of Captain Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister of Punjab, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Speaking of Singh, the PM said: “In Punjab, the Congress does not even consider their CM as their own. He marches on like an independent soldier.”
The media just loved it because the PM had spoken aloud what was till now only whispered in corridors of power and in newsrooms. This because in recent months, much to the embarrassment of the Congress, the two have often been seen on the same side, playing together in uncharacteristic harmony.
The most recent jugalbandi between Modi and Amarinder Singh was when the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came calling. Amarinder Singh breathed fire, talked of Trudeau being soft on Khalistanis and refused to meet with him or his ministers who had alleged Khalistani links. As if on cue, Modi and his government at the Centre went a step ahead to deliver a public snub to Trudeau – no hug or tweet and a junior minister at the airport to receive him. Then, when at Amarinder Singh’s apparent push the Canadians made statements about not maintaining links with Khalistanis, a thaw took place and both the Punjab CM and the PM changed tack in tandem and turned on smiles to welcome Trudeau and his family.
In the past, Amarinder Singh echoed the BJP line when he said that he wanted three Pakistani soldiers’ heads for every Indian soldier killed and argued for a free hand for the Army in Kashmir. In 2017, when a young Army major, Nitin Gogoi,strapped a Kashmiri citizen on the bonnet of his jeep as a human shield, the entire Opposition including the Congress raised questions. Amarinder Singh chose to instead write an article applauding the Major and sought a medal for him. The Modi government eventually awarded the officer. It could, of course, be argued that Amarinder Singh rose to the defence of the Army officer because he had himself served in the Army and still maintains close ties with the organisation.
After Modi’s recent statements about him, the CM responded in a tweet:“...let me make it clear that such frivolous statements won't help you create a wedge between me and my party, which has full faith in my leadership & vice versa.” Be that as it may, the Amarinder-BJP relationship continues attract attention.
Is this because the hand of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is all too visible in the new found rapport that Amarinder Singh has begun to share with Modi? Ever since details of the Swiss Bank accounts of his son Raninder Singh and wife Preneet Kaur became public in 2016, and they began to get summons from different law enforcement agencies like the ED and the Income Tax department, the Punjab CM has appeared to be on the back foot. He is facing allegations of creating trusts and transferring funds to banks in the British Virgin Islands and Switzerland. Just before the Assembly elections last year the Income Tax department filed a chargesheet against Amarinder Singh, quite obviously in an attempt by the BJP to gain electoral advantage.
But even though Amarinder Singh won the elections and became the CM, the sword continues to hang over him and his family. It is not without reason that immediately after assuming charge as CM one of Amarinder Singh’s first announcements was that there would be no witch hunt against leaders of the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government. Even his own party colleagues were angered at this and some even wrote to him last year to fulfil his election promise to take action against the top leaders of the SAD-BJP coalition for alleged drug running. Punjab had just about got used to the Captain’s silence whenever he is questioned on why he is soft on the previous government’s leaders. But few, say his critics, had expected him to cosy up to the dispensation in New Delhi with such unabashedness.