Sidhu Amarinder
Punjab: Amarinder Singh faced huge in-party opposition from his arch-rival Navjot Singh Sidhu Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

In Indian politics, there is a huge difference or, as they say in Hindi, zameen aasman ka faraq, between humility and humiliation. The former, whether genuine or put on, is a much-prized virtue. All leaders, proud or arrogant though they may be in private, must show how self-effacing and humble they are.

Especially when they stand before even the most lowly and deprived of their constituency to seek votes. Indeed, those perceived to be conceited or condescending find themselves out of power sooner or later.

Humility is great. But humiliation and disgrace — these will not be tolerated. If unjustly imposed or exacted, retaliation is likely to follow. Because in matters of honour, even if the public memory is short, the aggrieved will not forget or forgive easily.

An insult is remembered generation after generation. Many a political family feud or fracas can be traced back to an offence or affront in the distant past, whose reverberations or recuperations come back to haunt or bite the perpetrators or their descendants.

Therefore, when Capt. Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab for nine and a half years, handed in his resignation to the Governor of the state, it made the headlines.

Humiliated. Not once or twice, but thrice

This happened on Saturday, Sep. 18, at 4:55 PM. But what should cause even more concern to the Indian National Congress top brass is that the senior leader from a sensitive state such as the Punjab showed his resentment on national television channels by saying that he was humiliated. Not once or twice, but thrice.

“I was humiliated three times by the Congress leadership in the past two months ... they called the MLAs to Delhi twice and now convened CLP [MLAs’ meeting] today [Saturday]. Apparently, they (Congress leadership) do not have confidence in me and did not think I could handle my job. But I felt humiliated at the manner in which they handled the whole affair ...”

For a man of Amarinder Singh’s seniority and stature to say so publicly is quite ominous.

If the change of Chief Ministers and central cabinet ministers ahead of crucial elections next year has been the flavour of the season, what makes Amarinder Singh’s exit different? Just last Saturday, on Sep. 11, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) relieved Vijay Rupani, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat, of the Chief Ministership.

In March, Trivendra Singh Rawat, CM of Uttarakhand, was replaced Tirath Singh Rawat, who in turn was substituted by Pushkar Singh Dhami just four months later in July. That month, veteran Karnataka leader B.S. Yediyurappa resigned and B.S. Bommai took over as Chief Minister of the Southern state.

Also in July, in a massive Cabinet rejig, Modi relieved 12 cabinet ministers of their charge and inducted 36 new faces. It was his biggest reshuffle since 2014, when he came to power.

But Amarinder Singh’s stepping down is in an altogether different league from these political rejigs and musical chairs. Rather, it has the makings of a major move on the captain’s part in the game of thrones. For what has happened in Punjab, with the promotion of arch-rival Navjot Singh Sidhu, is certainly no game of cricket.

Sidhu, who began as a cricketer, then turned to politics and prime time TV comedy, has changed parties in the past and is not regarded as a serious political leader. In fact, many would say that he is a liability to the Congress.

A tremendous challenge to govern

Punjab, which shares a 600 kilometre border with Pakistan, is a tremendous challenge to govern for any political party. The wounds of the bloody and internecine Partition of India, whose major brunt was borne by Punjab, have still not healed.

In addition, Khalistani separatism, the rise of the firebrand Bhindaranwale, the army’s takeover of the Golden Temple, the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh bodyguards, and the more recent inflow of drugs and contraband — through Punjab — pose a serious trial and threat to national security.

That the Congress came back to power in Punjab was mostly owing to the Herculean efforts of Amarinder Singh. The last of the regional satraps of the Congress, he has a standing and following of his own. Bucking the pro-BJP, pro-Modi wave in two elections, he succeeded in retaining supremacy in Punjab, the last and only state in North India still in the Congress basket.

Singh, a military historian, author, is also the scion of the Patiala royal family. As such he enjoys widespread support and respect among the Jat Sikhs, the dominant community in the region.

What is more, he was a friend and confidant of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv was not only Indira Gandhi’s son, but current Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s husband and father of siblings, Rahul and Priyanka.

Being so close to the first family of the Congress, the machinations that led to Amarinder Singh’s ouster must feel like a terrible let-down, if not outright perfidy.

Singh’s track record as Punjab CM has also been satisfactory, even stellar, especially given the Covid-19 and the farmers’ stir. By most counts, he has led the state honourably and sincerely, trying to do his best in difficult circumstances.

Given this background, the word “humiliation” hurled by Singh at his party leadership assumes a portentous dimension. Singh wore his regimental turban when he appeared on national TV, indicating that he was in battle gear if not battle ready. His humiliation is bound to become a serious poll issue.

In an earlier column “It’s Congress vs Congress in India’s Western frontier state” (July 19), I had hazarded to predict the dire consequences of the Congress rift in Punjab, wondering if it had scored a self-goal by promoting Navjot Sidhu against Amarinder Singh.

It will not be long before we know how Singh will try to right his humiliation. The Captain is keeping his cards close to his chest for now, but if he goes on to head a BJP-led front, as I had conjectured, it will certainly signify a tectonic shift in Punjab politics.