Often accused of being "laid back" and "inaccessible" as Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh has donned a new avatar ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in the state on May 19 - that of a hands-on leader, an avid campaigner and social media warrior.
To begin with, the Chief Minister surprised everyone when he managed seven tickets for his aides and nominees. Of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, the party has renominated four sitting MPs; seven of the remaining nine candidates came with Singh's recommendation.
Singh managed a ticket for former Union minister Manish Tewari from Anandpur Sahib despite party president Rahul Gandhi reportedly refusing to clear his name in two meetings. He also got tickets for his wife and former Union minister Preneet Kaur from Patiala, former MLA and his aide Kewal Singh Dhillon from Sangrur, former MLA Mohd Sadiq from Faridkot, sitting MLA Raj Kumar Chabbewal from Hoshiarpur, former MLA Jasbir Singh Dimpa from Khadoor Sahib, and Amar Singh from Fatehgarh Sahib.
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Though there were murmurs of dissent within the party as Singh's nominees upset the caste balance in a few constituencies, the CM took charge, held meetings with MLAs and other leaders and asked them to support the party nominees. He also personally met many of the rebels and asked them to work for the party. On Monday, he dropped in at the house of former MP and rebel Mohinder Singh Kaypee and placated him.
Singh, whose not-so-cordial relationship with party president Rahul Gandhi is a frequent talking point in party circles, chose to underline his faith in the national leadership while dismissing talk of him having his way with at least seven party nominees.
"Not seven, all 13 are my men. They are all part of the Congress in Punjab and so am I. All of them have been selected on the criterion of winnability and I am confident - something I told Rahul Gandhi also - that all 13 will win hands down to make our #Mission13 a reality. The party's candidates have been selected collectively by the party leadership in Punjab and in Delhi, keeping in view their performance and their ability to win the Lok Sabha elections. The final decision on the candidates was taken by Rahul Gandhi," the CM said.
As part of his hands-on approach this election, Singh announced that he would accompany the party candidates as they file their nominations. On Monday, he accompanied Jalandhar candidate Chaudhary Santokh Singh. On Tuesday, he was to visit Khadoor Sahib and Amritsar, where G S Aujla and Jasbir Singh Dimpa were to file nominations respectively, but dropped his plan at the last minute.
CM and his Mission 13
From having his way with candidates to rallying round them, Amarinder Singh is leading the Congress's election charge in Punjab. This is unlike in the past, especially the 2007 Assembly elections, when Singh was criticised for taking off to Rajasthan in the middle of the election campaign. Singh will want to prove to the high command that at 77, he can still be a matchwinner for the party.
Singh's campaign managers say he is planning to address a few rallies in the coming days and that his schedule was being chalked out. "He is a charismatic leader of the state. We will make use of him in the entire state for campaigning," said Lal Singh, chairman of the Congress's election management committee in the state.
Singh's presence on social media has been unmissable, with the CM aggressive in taking on his rivals. Recently, he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the alleged 'politicisation' of the Jallianwala Bagh centenary event. And when Union minister Harsimrat Badal asked the Gandhis to apologise for Operation Bluestar, Singh shot back: "Did you, your husband @officeofssbadal or his father, Parkash Singh Badal, ever apologise for your great grandfather, Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia's lavish dinner to Gen Dyer on the day of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? He was later knighted in 1926 for his loyalty and his deeds."
On the day senior Congress leader and former MP Jagmeet Singh Brar joined the Akali Dal, Singh made public Brar's text messages where he is seen imploring for a return to the Congress. The sharing of these SMSes, however, invited criticism, with many raising questions of propriety.
Amarinder also made news as he sat on a cot under a banyan tree in Chahar village in Mohali to interact with people under a Twitter initiative called 'Twitter Chaupal', fielding questions from people.
Saying that it's good to have Singh "in the pilot's seat", Amarinder's aide and Rural Development Minister Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa said, "The Captain is a tall leader. People love him. They want to see him, shake hands with him. He whips up a campaign wherever he goes."
The Opposition, however, maintains that Singh won't be able to save the party's "sinking" fortunes. They point to the tension between Congress state unit chief Sunil Kumar Jakhar and the CM, including over ticket distribution, and the fact that Local Bodies Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu is seen to be constantly snapping at Singh's heels.
Says Shiromani Akali Dal chief and former deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, "The Congress is a sinking ship thanks to sabotage by Jakhar and Sidhu. Even Captain won't not be able to save it… I hope he doesn't jump off the ship before it sinks and leave the other Congressmen to drown."
Taking a jibe at Singh for his Twitter Chaupal, Badal said, "After doing a vanishing act from the scene, he has reappeared to sit under a tree and organise a chaupal. This is not how you connect with the people."