The ‘People’s Captain'

Khushwant Singh

Amarinder Singh Chief Minister, Punjab, India

Amarinder joined the Akali Dalon 24 August 1985 and made a crucial ideological shift in his political career. ‘I had no other option but to join some party if I had to remain politically relevant,’ he clarifies. He had been approached by Harchand Singh Longowal to join the Akali Dal. Unfortunately, Longowal had been shot dead by militants who were opposed to the Punjab Accord, which had earlier been signed as an instrument of peace between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Harchand Singh Longowal on 24 July 1985.

Amarinder quit the Sikh Forum, of which he had been appointed convener, and formally joined the Shiromani Akali Dal in Chandigarh. The events of the past decade had embedded the word panth in his political discourse. As the election date for the Punjab Assembly drew closer, he was appointed a member of Akali Dal Election Committee, which also became his first point of closer contact with party members. Amarinder chose for himself a nomination from the Talwandi Sabo constituency, then in Bathinda district.

On 25 September 1985, the elections were held under the shadow of the gun, but the brave people of Punjab, desperate to see normalcy and democratic processes restored, came out in large numbers to vote. Sikhs and Hindus gave the Punjab Accord a thumbs-up and voted the Akali Dal to power by a majority, a first for the party. On 29 September 1985, Surjit Singh Barnala was sworn in as the chief minister of Punjab. Governor Arjun Singh administered the oath of office and secrecy to him and to five others who would form his cabinet. Amongst the five, was forty-three-year-old Amarinder Singh. From being a mere observer at the ‘secret talks’ three years ago, he had come a long way to the forefront of Punjab politics. Amarinder requested the chief minister to allocate to him the Agriculture and the Rural Panchayat Ministry. Amarinder embarked on his journey as a cabinet minister with responsibility, confidence and a political will to genuinely improve the lives of farmers. By now, he was emerging as a serious and forceful voice on Punjab affairs. His courage and determination were an open secret, displayed yet again when he was sent, in 1986, by Chief Minister Barnala to Punjab’s Kandu Khera, a small village bordering Haryana and Rajasthan. Amarinder’s mission was to ensure that the special language census the Centre was conducting in and around Kandu Khera went in Punjab’s favor.

The tenure, which was looking promising, soon hit a roadblock. The sequence of events in Punjab yet again forced upon Punjab an operation akin to Blue Star where the paramilitary forces reentered the Golden Temple complex to clear the reinforcements of militants. Though, nowhere near the scale of Operation Blue Star, Amarinder resigned from the Barnala ministry protesting against the operation.

For Amarinder Singh, the next few years would be nothing short of a tightrope walk. This phase, till the beginning of the new millennium, can best be described as one devoted to the consolidation of his political career. Some of the significant events till he rejoined the Congress in 1997 are him floating his own party in 1991 the Akali Dal (Panthik) and signing of the Amritsar Declaration on May 1, 1994, from the Akal Takht.The latter brought him scathing remarks as many interpreted it as a separatist document even though Amarinder clarifies his stance. ‘When one is working for a lasting solution, sometimes you need to take a step backward to take two steps forward. My signing the accord was an outcome of this. It is wrong to state that it was a demand for “Khalistan”. Rather it was an attempt to get the ones demanding “Khalistan” into the framework of the [Indian] Constitution as many of the signatories had earlier demanded “Khalistan”.’

In 1997, Amarinder Singh came back into the Congress fold, as he tried to discover political space for himself. Political maneuvering had seen him rejoin the Akali Dal only to quit again in 1997 when he was refused a ticket by the Akali supremo, Parkash Singh Badal from a constituency of his choice. Whether or not to rejoin the Congress was a tough decision to arrive at. How could he go back to a party, which he had opposed so vehemently for the last thirteen years, was a question that constantly cropped up in Amarinder’s mind and tormented him. However, after joining joined the Congress he firmly entrenched himself in the Congress fold and on 4 July 1998, was given the charge to lead the party in Punjab.

The rest, they say is history as Amarinder’s political career reached its pinnacle when in 2002 he became the chief minister of Punjab on 27 February 2002. He was sworn in on the lawns of the Raj Bhawan, Chandigarh by the governor of Punjab, Lt General (retired) J.F.R. Jacob. Amarinder after five elections and some thirty-five years of endless political machinations, maneuvers, and varied stances, had finally turned his privilege into a successful public life, which many of his ilks could not.

Khushwant Singh
About The Writer
Khushwant Singh is the author of 'The People's Maharaja' the authorized biography of Captain Amarinder Singh.