The ‘People’s Captain'
Amarinder Singh Chief Minister, Punjab, India
Amarinder’s Political Debut
Amarinder’s first tryst with politics was at the age of twenty-five when he canvassed for his parents in 1967 for the combined General and state assembly elections (held in February that year) while he was still in the army. His mother, Maharani Mohinder Kaur, already a Rajya Sabha member (since 1964), was contesting from the Patiala Lok Sabha seat on a Congress ticket and the Maharaja had filed his papers as an independent candidate from the Dakala Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) constituency. Both his parents had won their seats, respectively. Amarinder, who had now been entrenched in politics made his politic debut in 1970 after circumstances foisted a by-election upon Dakala constituency. Amarinder contested that election as an independent candidate but couldn’t make an impression on the electorate. The election, nevertheless, proved to be a great learning experience in human management for young Amarinder as he took this debut loss in his stride.
To further his political career he formally joined Congress (Indira)in 1977. It was a step that was largely a consequence of his political instinct, upbringing, old family ties and friendship with Rajiv Gandhi (while at The Doon School). However, during the span of seven years, much had happened, which included two massive setbacks. The first one was in 1971 when the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi passed a bill in parliament that pretty much-abolished privy purses and the official recognition of royal titles. This meant that maharajas would no longer be entitled to use the title as a prefix, having to settle for the common ‘mister. This was a huge fall from an exalted position, no doubt.
For Amarinder, this move would mean that he would never get to succeed to the princely state of his forefathers as a ruling head, except within the confines of his palace, family circle and a coterie of friends and followers where he would continue to be affectionately accorded the status of the Maharaja. It also would deprive the royals of the privy purse, which was rupees seventeen lakhs in the case of Patiala. In all this, however, the big setback for Amarinder was the death of his father, his idol, in 1974. Maharaja Yadvindra Singh died of a massive heart attack on 17 June 1974 at 1 p.m. in The Hague, while executing his ambassadorial duties. He was just sixty-one.
The magnet of politics attracted Amarinder towards itself and after joining the Congress his was the first nomination Indira Gandhi announced in the early March 1977 General Elections from Patiala. Unfortunately, Amarinder could not make a mark on the electorate yet again. But Amarinder wasn’t alone in his loss. The Congress was trounced in the March 1977 Lok Sabha polls and was reduced to a meager 153 out of 545 seats after people rejected Indira Gandhi imposing the draconian Emergency. Three years later, in early 1980, a mid-term poll was necessitated because the Janata Party alliance could not hold on to its slender majority of 295 in the Lok Sabha. Lok Sabha elections were again held in January 1980 and Amarinder was renominated as the Congress party candidate from Patiala. It was a critical election for him; he could not afford another loss. Amarinder’s wife, Preneet Kaur, led the campaign and compensated well for his inability to be everywhere at all times. It was Amarinder’s first win in ten years after two consecutive defeats, when, in January 1980, the Congress swept polls across the country including Punjab.
Circumstances in Punjab, which had their resonance in history and politics, had let to point where it entered into a dark phase. The period from 1980 till about 1994 has been termed as the phase of Sikh militancy or the Khalistan movement. On Indira Gandhi’s intervention in 1981, Amarinder was made part of the secret talks between the government, Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal, the most prominent Sikh political party. In late October 1980, Amarinder Singh was in the Central Hall of Parliament in New Delhi when he got a message from an emissary of Indira Gandhi that she wanted to see him urgently.
‘The moment I met her, the prime minister’s first question was whether I knew Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale,’ recollects Amarinder. Amarinder, who had never met Bhindranwale before, replied in the negative. ‘But he is also a Sidhu. How come you don’t know him or have never met him?’ Indira Gandhi asked, surprised over the fact that two Sidhus could not know each other. ‘Ma’am, I am not supposed to know all the Sidhus, as there are lakhs of them. However, if you say so, I will try to establish contact with him,’ was Amarinder’s response, which led to a very historic first meeting with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in his village native Rode, in Faridkot district.