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A CM compelled to assert presence 

Kuljit Bains

There was a bit of good news last week. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh intends to be in contention for another term after this one is over in 2022. This was a positive declaration because now the voters know that the person at the helm of their state does have a stake in doing well. While it is anybody’s guess why he said before the polls that this would be his last election (to get sympathy?), the more pertinent question now is what transpired in the past nine months for him to undergo such a momentous change of heart?

The timing of the announcement may hold a hint. The Chief Minister took all-round flak for the failure of the all-party meeting of MPs his government had called to discuss the state’s agenda, in which not even all of Congress MPs turned up. No matter what reasons are given for the failure, the meeting’s fate was sealed the day it became known Capt Amarinder Singh will not be present. That also triggered speculation about why he chose to give it a miss. The one that would have hurt him the most would be that he was unable to face some of the Congress MPs. His detractors have also upped the ante with the party leadership in Delhi.

Capt Amarinder Singh’s assertion may well have been triggered by a fear that contenders for the CM’s post were trying to move in, four years too early, having sensed a weakening of his hold. The outcome, anyhow, is good for the Congress, as a party with multiple strong contenders is healthier and more alive. It is good for the state too, as leaders remain on their toes.

But this was an episode the Captain may want to take as an early warning — that he cannot let his chief ministership slack. No one for a moment can take seriously his explanation for now wanting to continue beyond five years — that he feels obliged to set the state’s fiscal health right. The fact is he was under attack, and he has hit back. And he has only himself to blame for any signals of weakness that may have gone out.

To begin with, he is not the lone master of the ceremonies in the Chief Minister’s Office. There is a huge retinue of ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors who constitute the big office. Much of the decision-making process is farmed out, often making it look like a government functioning by proxy. Capt Amarinder Singh makes a rare appearance in his formal office. Most days he operates from home, and works around four days a week. All of this has made the power game in the government open to jockeying by brokers. Deciding not to attend the MPs’ meeting was thus a mistake; though later it so happened he was also taken ill. Frequent speculation over his health is also doing no good to his hold.

Devolution of powers is a healthy way of governance, but there is a constitutional structure provided for that — the Cabinet system. In Punjab, that stands weakened. The Chief Minister has retained with himself more than 40 portfolios, leaving only a few of the important ones to ministers. It is no surprise people rarely hear of anyone other than Navjot Singh Sidhu and Brahm Mohindra among members of the Cabinet. It would take a superhuman to do justice to the responsibilities Capt Amarinder Singh has taken upon himself. And at 75, he can be anything but that.

The remedy to his present predicament lies not in contemplating a seat in the 2022 outing, but focusing on the current match, of which it is still Round 1 (of five) going.

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