He Is Your Father's Friend, Sonia Gandhi Chided Rahul

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He Is Your Father's Friend, Sonia Gandhi Chided Rahul

Cover of Khushwant Singh's book, Captain Amarinder Singh: The People's Maharaja

The Congress high command's turning a deaf ear to Amarinder Singh's claims to the PPCC top post pushed the Punjab unit of the party towards factionalism; Amarinder Singh and Partap Singh Bajwa were openly flaying each other in the media. While Amarinder Singh and his loyalists claimed that he was the 'greatest leader' the Congress had in Punjab, Partap Singh Bajwa and his supporters accused Amarinder of not being capable or reliable, as the party had lost two electoral battles in a row, in 2007 and 2012, under his watch. This infighting also triggered a constant movement of Congress legislators and other Congress members to New Delhi, each one pleading his or her respective leader's cause in front of the high command.

Such a state of affairs would also put to test his relations with the top Congress leadership, which was unwilling to consider his claim. Amarinder Singh, who had enjoyed a very cordial relationship with Sonia Gandhi, suddenly felt cold-shouldered by the Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, whom Amarinder Singh would frequently take out for outings whenever he visited Doon School to meet his son Raninder, was adamant that he would not consider the case of his father's friend. Even though Sonia Gandhi was open to bringing back Amarinder Singh at the helm in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi was in no mood to take away the baton from Partap Singh Bajwa's hand.

As 2014 went by, one meeting (between Amarinder Singh and the Congress top brass) followed another with no hope in sight. To everyone's surprise, he suddenly became amenable to lending his charisma (plus experience) to a different political entity. His loyalists and advisers also suggested that he keep his options open, for their own political survival depended on him. During this period of uncertainty, his team also flirted with the idea of him becoming part of the Bharatiya Janata Party, already reviewing its tie-up with its senior partner in Punjab, the Akali Dal. The drubbing by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party in the February 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, however, forced the BJP to reconsider its options. (AAP had won sixty-seven of the seventy seats in Delhi, with the remaining three going to the BJP.)

When news of Amarinder Singh's flirting with the BJP did not make the Congress high command budge, he flexed his muscles further. He subtly questioned the leadership ability of Rahul Gandhi time and again. His first outburst was in November 2014.

In late April 2015, reacting to the much-touted demand for the generational change that the Congress vice-president wanted to make, he said that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should listen to other senior leaders. Spoken with the intention of letting the high command know that veterans like him still mattered, the statement distanced him further from the Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi, who had just returned after a sabbatical from an undisclosed destination and seemed energized, did not take this kindly as he saw it as an act of coercion.

After hitting rock-bottom, the Amarinder Singh-Gandhi family relationship went into deep freeze. With no indication of any thaw, the main topic in the Amarinder Singh drawing room was: what next? Given his charisma, stature, experience and popularity in Punjab, there was no way that he would not be a part of the 2017 assembly elections. The Congress high command seemed to be shutting its eyes, the ground reality notwithstanding.

'Float your own party' was the advice almost everyone offered because this time his pride had been hurt. Pride is something Amarinder Singh has never compromised on. Some hold that when it came to the Gandhis, he always compromised. Others say that there is a difference between sycophancy (chamchagiri in Indian political parlance) and respecting the other person's opinion, the latter being true in the Amarinder Singh-Gandhi family relationship. In fact, it has been his ability to stand up to the Gandhis for supporting crucial Punjab-related issues that has won him numerous hearts.

However, being a thorough gentleman, Amarinder Singh has always held Sonia Gandhi in high esteem. The reverence is just not an outcome of she being an ex-prime minister's wife or his schoolmate's wife but more so for her ability to lead the party. Referring to her as 'Mrs Gandhi', he frequently expresses gratitude to her for allowing him to lead the Congress in Punjab for so many years as well as for making him the chief minister.

The fact that he never was and will never be a flatterer was established yet again. Feeling claustrophobic and humiliated by the manner in which the Congress vice-president was treating him, he started toying with the idea of floating his own party, something which he had done in 1992. The restraint snapped when, in one of the meetings at 10, Janpath, New Delhi, in late September 2015, to try and end the existing stand-off in the Punjab Congress, the Congress vice-president did not bestow the respect a senior leader like Amarinder Singh deserved. It was at this meeting that Sonia Gandhi had to remind Rahul Gandhi that he was talking to his late father's friend, after which he calmed down. Deeply hurt by this behaviour, Amarinder Singh remarked in an interview to the well-known journalist, Sagarika Ghosh, reported in The Times of India (21 September 2015) that Rahul Gandhi needed 'a reality check'. He made it amply clear through the interview that he may be forming his own front soon. To a question that there were some reports that he was leaving the Congress, Amarinder Singh replied: 'People are saying this to me. If this is the way Congress is going to act, just go on your own. However, it's not as easy thing to do, You have to think it over. However, the leadership has to think: do they want to face the challenges in Punjab? If not, I may have to look at [other] options.'

These remarks, expectedly caused a stir in the Congress and led to an enormous political manoeuvering within the party. Sensing dissidence from the erstwhile royal scion, the Congress president immediately dispatched emissaries to Amarinder Singh's residence in Patiala with a reconciliatory note. He, however, refused to meet them. Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi (Amarinder's close aide), one of the few who were against Amarinder's idea of forming his own front (Punjab Vikas Party), was to face his ire when he pleaded that he should meet Sonia Gandhi's representatives. 'It is you who keep planning these things. I am meeting no one,' declared a livid Amarinder. Sodhi, however, has a way with Amarinder Singh and pestered him to meet the delegation. The meeting (end September 2015) lasted for over an hour.

'I have heard Captain Sahab that you are forming your own party?' asked Rahul Gandhi in yet another meeting set up in October 2015 in New Delhi. The Congress high command had finally resolved to end the leadership stalemate and put in place the process of meeting all the senior leaders and MLAs from Punjab for seeking their final verdict. 'What you have heard is absolutely correct,' replied Amarinder Singh not mincing his words. 'If I don't fit in your scheme of things, I will need to find an alternative. I live in Punjab; the Akalis have ruined Punjab and I have to look for my own path if you don't have a plan for me.'

'Both of us will lose if you take this step,' said Rahul, to which Amarinder's response was: 'So be it.'

Amarinder Singh eventually got his way when the Congress top brass saw reason in his argument and announced his name as the Punjab Pradesh Congress president on 27 November 2015. Perhaps the most lionized character in post-independence Punjab, the whole state once again was dappled with posters proclaiming: 'Congratulations Babbar Sher [lion] of Punjab.'

Excerpted from Captain Amarinder Singh: The People's Maharaja by Khushwant Singh. Published and excerpt permission by Hay House India. Available in stores and online.

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