The ‘People’s Captain'
Amarinder Singh Chief Minister, Punjab, India
In concise, cut-and-dry terms, when Amarinder took over as chief minister, the situation in Punjab was quite serious. He shot into immediate fame when his government launched its first major crackdown on corruption by arresting the high-profile Punjab Public Service Commission (PPSC) chairman, Ravinder Pal Singh Sidhu, on 25 March 2002 at Chandigarh. This was followed up by a series of arrests. The government also launched a massive anti-corruption offensive against the SAD president and his predecessor, Parkash Singh Badal. ‘We had been voted primarily for two reasons, one because of the corruption of Badal and his ministers, and secondly to run a clean and efficient government,’ says Amarinder. The tirade against Badal and his family, as a slew of cases were registered against them, at times became over obsessive, diverting the focus of the government on the critical issues of the state. The Badals were finally arrested on 1 December 2003, after the court denied them bail. They were later granted bail and acquitted of all charges.
The big hallmark, even though controversial, of Amarinder Singh’s tenure as chief minister was the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 whereby the Punjab Assembly terminated the agreement dated 31.12.1981 and other agreements relating to Ravi–Beas waters to discharge the Government of Punjab from obligations thereunder. This was a fall-out of a long-standing dispute with the neighboring state of Haryana over sharing of water via a Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. This step, apart from creating a furor in the Indian Parliament and a constitutional crisis also put his hot seat in jeopardy as both, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India and Sonia Gandhi, president of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) were livid with him. ‘No sacrifice was bigger than protecting and safeguarding the interests of Punjab to ensure that an estimated 9 lakh acres did not go dry or become barren or the livelihoods of 1.5 million families were not snatched away. I knew this was one of the main causes of terrorism in Punjab, and allowing construction of SYL [canal] was bringing back the trigger for terrorism,’ says Amarinder.
Amarinder’s tenure also saw a massive people to people contact with Pakistanis a slew of activities including sports, culture, and business took place. He visited Pakistan on a couple of occasions and the camaraderie gave a great hope of restoring the sour relationship with the neighboring country.
Even amongst his worst critics, Amarinder emerged a clear winner when he took command of a situation, but the moment he delegated responsibilities to his favored bureaucrats or the hangers-on around him, things plummeted. In spite of possessing all the qualities of a statesman, he at times brought himself to a crossroads because of this one characteristic: taking people at face value. However, given the constant highs and lows in the political firmament, there was never a dull moment in Amarinder’s tenure. To him can be ascribed the credit of making one of the most determined attempts to improve Punjab’s fortunes in every field in the twenty-first century.
The Congress lost the 2007 February elections paving way for the Akalis to come back and Parkash Singh Badal was sworn in as chief minister for the fifth time. What was to follow was a tormenting time for Amarinder. A quid pro quo offensive had been launched on him.
Just before the end of his tenure an investigative report (on 12 September 2006 headlined the ‘Ludhiana City Centre Scam’) by the national daily Hindustan Times on the front-page report had alleged that Amarinder Singh had helped a business house, in which members of his extended family had financial interests, through a close associate Paramjit Singh Sibia, then chairman of the Ludhiana Improvement Trust. A slew of cases was registered against Amarinder in the matter. The second scam was called the Amritsar Improvement Trust scam. This was a testing time for him even though after ten years of legal battle, the vigilance has asked for a clean chit for him from the court in both the cases. This period also saw him being removed from the post of president of the Punjab Congress Committee and perhaps the toughest phase of his life were, he feared torture, imprisonment, and humiliation could come his way anytime. Amarinder, however, during this tough phase kept his roar alive. As time ticked by, those Congressmen and women and fair-weather friends, who had deserted Amarinder Singh, began ‘rediscovering’ his relevance in, and importance to, Punjab’s politics. All of them seemed to realize that if the Congress had anyone who could counter the Akalis, it was none other than Amarinder Singh. Amarinder, however, could not hold on to his growing popularity as the 2012 elections, which the Congress fought under his stewardship did not go the Congress way. Suddenly, Amarinder appeared to be the villain, but a chance to revive his political fortunes soon came his way. It was in the 2014 Parliament elections when he was asked by the Congress high command to contest from the holy city of Amritsar against BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley. He was astute enough to understand that in political fortunes could change overnight. He was aware that he was the most popular Congress leader in Punjab, and all he had to do was to keep in the news, a lesson he had learned from none other than the former prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
It was also the most watched election in the country, which he contested with great spirit and zeal. Amritsar welcomed him and on the day of the result, even though BJP had swept the polls across the country, its stalwart Arun Jaitley had fallen to the charisma of Amarinder by a substantial margin of 1,02,770 votes.
However, to keep his sanity alive from the rigmarole and grind of politics Amarinder finds solace in his hobbies that include gardening, cooking, traveling and writing. Writing is a career that has almost assumed the tenor of an alternate career.