“Iss baar to Punjab me kaante ki takkar hai Congress aur Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) me (In Punjab, the contest is neck and neck between Congress and AAP),” said auto driver Devinder Singh, from Patiala. With the results of the election a few hours away, various exit polls of the Punjab assembly elections paint a similar picture; polls show Congress and AAP in a dead heat, with neither winning enough seats to secure a majority. The incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance is projected to finish third.
In Patiala though, the fight is much easier to call. “Patiala me to Captain sahib 100 per cent jeetege (Captain will certainly win in Patiala),” another auto driver, Balwinder Singh, predicted. The Captain he refers to is former chief minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress party, who is contesting the election from Patiala (he is also a candidate from Lambi, current Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s constituency). Singh, the head of Patiala’s royal family, has been elected thrice from Patiala: in 2002, 2007 and 2012. In 2014, when he vacated the seat to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar in which he defeated BJP’s Arun Jaitley, his wife Preneet Kaur won the by-poll, retaining the constituency for Congress.
Expressing his desire to see Singh become the next chief minister of Punjab, Balwinder explained why he was rooting for him. “He is a good man, an educated man and he has done good work when he was in power previously,” he said. A similar sentiment is even echoed by voters who aren’t ardent Congress supporters. While saying that “AAP must be given a chance to prove themselves”, Rajan Singh, owner of a pharmacy near Patiala’s bus stand, admitted “Captain sahib vadiya hai (Captain is a good man)”.
It is this popularity that he enjoys among voters which has brought Congress within striking distance of winning an important state election for the first time after being routed from the Centre in 2014. “He has charisma which the people really like,” a senior journalist from Punjab told Newslaundry. His relationship with the central leadership of the Congress hasn’t always been rosy. He had expressed his displeasure at being removed from the post of Punjab Congress president in 2012. In 2015, he directly attacked Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, saying the latter needed a “reality check”. The discord was later quelled as Singh was named both the state Congress president and the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the assembly elections. Owing to his popularity, the journalist said, the party leadership realised that “Congress was nowhere in Punjab without Captain”.
Singh is squaring off in Patiala against SAD candidate and former army chief General JJ Singh and AAP’s Balbir Singh. While SAD has been able to wrest the Patiala seat from Congress only twice in the last 40 years, the upstart AAP is hoping to spoil Captain’s hope of becoming chief minister. Declaring a big “upset” was on the cards, Balbir Singh told Newslaundry he was confident of a victory. “History will be made this time and Captain sahib will lose. We’ve received extremely positive feedback and response from the people,” he said. He also added that AAP was confident of securing a two-thirds majority in the state.
If AAP indeed manages to stage a spectacular upset in Punjab, it would be the end of Singh’s political career. He has declared that whatever the result, this election will be his last. It may be understandable why Singh wishes to hang his boots, considering his age – he will turn 75 on March 11, the day of the results. However, a journalist with a Chandigarh-based daily agreed that this election being Captain’s last stand was probably an emotive appeal to the voters, intended to bring him into power. Not all voters fell for this, though; cynics like Ranjan Singh termed it nothing but a “political stunt”.
Political stunt or not, Saturday will decide Singh’s fate – he could either be the one who leads the Congress to a major victory or someone under whose leadership the party loses three consecutive elections. For the self-styled ‘Punjab da Captain’, it’s all or nothing.