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General Versus Captain: Why Does a Former Army Chief want to be an MLA?

Patiala: As Army Chief, Gen JJ Singh revelled in media glare. While deft at conveying exactly what he wanted, he has also had the unique distinction of breaking into tears with the complete press corps in attendance. There is none of the crying, the soldier’s tone has been tempered and an attempt at effortless camaraderie is in the air as 71-year old retired Army Chief heads out to campaign in Patiala.

It’s a cool afternoon and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) candidate has already pedalled about 20-odd kilometers on Patiala’s roads. It’s a cycle rally that the retired Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is managing with fair ease. A saffron turban, miniature medals pinned up and a pale reminder of the olive greens he once donned. The General is keen to cover as much ground as he can. Behind him are young Akali supporters, family members and former course members. The local Akali leaders have given this rally a miss. After a previous rally a few days ago many of them reached home with sore legs.

The Military Hangover

The soldier’s stamina apart, the military hangover in this campaign is evident. The rally is making its way along the congested TB hospital road on its way to the Shere-e-Punjab market. The General is campaigning hard and “strategically” he adds. This is the constituency of the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala and the Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh. “I have declared him missing. Where is he,” Gen Singh asks. “You too have only recently arrived,” I say posing a question. “I recently arrived because I was serving the Army, taking bullets. I got injured as a Brigadier. What was he doing apart from holidaying in California,” the General adds. It’s a sentiment he uses to the hilt. His glorious past as a soldier compared to Amarinder Singh’s royal reign and departure from the Army after serving as an ADC (aide-de-camp).

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Battle on the Ground

After about two hours on the road, the rally halts at the campaign headquarters. It’s the office of realtor Harpal Juneja, himself an Akali ticket aspirant until JJ came in as the surprise or “parachute candidate”. Akali supporters murmur this phrase often drawing comparisons with Juneja’s father, Bhagwan Das Juneja, a noted environmentalist and social worker who fought the 2014 bypoll on a SAD ticket. By comparison, the junior Juneja is more street smart and clearly disappointed by the decision to field the Army man. But he is playing for the team.

Harpal is in the office. The General goes inside briefly. In front of local cameras, both are cordial. The lack of cyclists at the rally is the General’s pique. The local Akalis believe the General orders around like a “Commander”. “He wants things done, he says that constantly. This isn’t the Army,” an Akali worker tells me. He has been standing outside the Juneja Realtor building with his cycle. He had come in at 7am as had been asked. The plan was suddenly changed. “I was told he was taking stock of yesterday’s work in the morning today and so delayed the cycle rally a few hours.”

The afternoon has been kept for door-to-door campaigning. “We are going to be among the people. Not like the Maharaja who thinks everyone is still his praja and will vote for him”, the General quips, happy at his own remark. He isn’t entirely wrong. “The Palace never came out during elections in the old times, then Preneet Kaurji started coming. Now the Palace comes out. This never used to happen earlier, “RS Bhinder tells me. He is the owner of a clothing shop in the congested by lanes leading up to the Sheran Wala Gate. It gets frequent political visitors these days. “This is the season,” he says. “But AAP and General saab, AAP more than the General, have made these people come out and ask for vote.”

Op Blue Star

I ask the General, why he chose the Shiromani Akali Dal. It’s a response he has repeated many times along the campaign trail but the shock of hearing a former Army Chief criticise Op Blue Star in blatant political talk never fades away. “The Army should not have gone inside the Golden Temple. I was a Captain in 1984 and many of us were asked to resign. We said if so many Sikh officers resign then what will happen to the Force. So I thought of something else,” he remembers adding how flag marches were held by the Army in the towns of Jammu and RS Singh Pura and no lives were lost. “Yes, I held these views even when I was Chief,” stressing that this isn’t his political avatar

General versus Captain

At his Charan Bagh residence in Patiala, the General has his confidantes around him. A relative from Hyderabad, a course mate who resides in Dehradun and few men from his unit, the Maratha Light Infantry have come to help him in his third innings. The General’s son, Vivek Singh an elected municipal council official to the town of Condé-sur-Vire in France has arrived too. The living room has pictures of Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Nanak. Sugary tea is in regular supply as local Akali leaders keep coming.

Patiala and Patiala Rural have a substantial population of ex-servicemen. Not many have been seen with the General. I meet a few who have collected at the residence of Mahavir Chakra awardee Captain (Retd) Reet MP Singh.

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Over another round of tea we discuss how politics hasn’t been the refuge of the average fauji and must remain so, by and large. “He is a soldier and soldier must keep his distance from politics”, Singh says. His views echo around the circle though some are willing to differentiate between other ranks and the exalted position a Chief holds in the Indian Army. “After retirement Gen VK Singh had a rally in Rewari. Mr Modi came there. Ex-servicemen came there thinking that he will do something for us. But nothing happened. They don’t even talk about the Army in Parliament. In fact they tell soldiers to stop this thing at Jantar Mantar etc,” the otherwise mild mannered Col BS Budhrain says referring to the OROP agitation. There is also near unanimity about questioning the rationale of a Chief fighting an MLA battle. Lt Col IS Hira says, “It would be better if we had fought for an MP. This is of little use,”

When he had taken over as Army chief, Singh proudly said he was first an Indian soldier, then a Maratha and then a Sikh. Today, he is the SAD candidate from Patiala. And that’s turning out to be a tough bullet to bite for many.