The first thing that strikes you when you reach the Moti Bagh Palace, the Captain’s royal abode in Patiala, is the emptiness. The palace saw posses of police when Amarinder Singh was Punjab’s chief minister. Huge barricades made the mansion inaccessible and almost the entire lane leading up to it was cordoned off. All that has changed. It’s easy to reach the palace now and only two policemen were guarding it.

The royal residence is not the only change the Captain’s bastion is witnessing. As roamed through the streets of the city that has a mix of urban and rural voters, it became evident that the former CM was facing tough times. The Qila Road teems with shops selling the Patiala trademark phulkari work and jootis. Wrapping up his wares, Hardeep Singh tells, “For almost four years, Captain did no work for Patiala. Yet we kept voting for him. There are sentimental reasons. But now that he has left the Congress, it makes no sense to vote for him. Of what use can he be to us?”

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Jaspreet Singh agrees. “I think the Captain made a mistake. He should have stayed with the Congress. I don’t think many will vote for him here. Sidhu has an advantage. He is from here and he is raising the right issues and also no one can accuse him of corruption. Have you ever seen AAP, or the Akalis accusing him of corruption?”

It’s clear that the Congress wants to use this anger or opinion to vote Amarinder out. The only apprehension in the party is whether the Captain, riding high on the repeal of the farm laws, would damage it. The Punjab polls are no longer a straight fight. The Akalis are not completely down and out. The Bharatiya Janata Party may not be a big contender but has recovered some ground in urban areas. The Aam Aadmi Party is inching forward and hopes to win. The Congress may be divided but still offers a safer bet for many. Not a lot of people are enamoured by CM Charanjit Singh Channi as they feel he is just a rubber stamp. The presence of four secretaries incharge from Delhi in the state has added to this perception. The feeling in Patiala is that the chief minister has little say. “He is a good man but weak,” says Jaspreet Singh. “We sardars like our leaders to be strong. This is what worked for Captain saab. This is something that could work for Sidhuji. He takes on his own CM and party for his agenda.”

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It’s not been a good opening innings for the Captain in Patiala. First, his wife who’s the MP from here has been served a disciplinary notice by the Congress and chances are she may eventually quit. And Amarinder Singh had to face an embarrassing moment when he was stopped from entering the Nigam Parishad office to express support for his mayor. For some, this seems like a dress rehearsal for the days ahead.

Patiala has given the famous Patiala peg its name. History says the large peg of whiskey was created by the-then Maharaja Bhupinder Singh to ensure a hungover British lost a cricket match. It worked. Since then, Patiala has also become synonymous with shrewd politics of survival. The last time the Captain floated his Akali Panthic party after the Blue Star episode, he lost his deposit. This time the battle could be equally hard. And the Patiala peg may need a refill.

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