It was not a slip of the tongue. The question was repeated. And Captain Amarinder Singh's answer was the same: "Not Tytler..." And with that the Captain handed the BJP and the Akalis a most potent weapon to fight the election with.
Amarinder, who is the Congress candidate from Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency and is taking on the BJP's Arun Jaitley, was to rue his insistence on sticking out his neck for Jagdish Tytler, one of several Congress leaders charged with leading the riots that killed over 2,500 Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination.
"Remember, I resigned in 1984. I was the first man to reach Delhi after the riots started and I stayed there... I met everyone including Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat... except Jagdish Tytler... When did Tytler's name come up? It came up when he was fighting (the parliamentary elections) against Madan Lal Khurana in Delhi," said Amarinder.
That statement was made on Saturday and within hours he was ducking questions, trying his best to repair the damage. But it was too late. On Sunday, the BJP cancelled a press conference in Amritsar to protest against Amarinder's "clean chit" to Tytler.
In Delhi, Congress spokesman Shashi Tharoor backed the captain, saying there was no case against Tytler. But by Monday morning, Amarinder had brought, figuratively speaking, Tytler once more to the doorsteps of 24 Akbar Road, when hundreds of Akali Dal workers marched to the Congress headquarters and laid siege to it, attempting to break police barricades, and forcing the police to use force to disperse them.
Till that 'Captain statement', the battle for Amritsar was being referred to as a "close" and "hard to predict" contest, one that will go to the wire. Captain Amarinder Singh was generally believed to have an advantage against Jaitley because he was less of an "outsider" than the BJP leader.
Besides, there was the anti-incumbency factor against the SAD-BJP government in the state that was helping the Congress. And if the short-lived AAP government's move to institute a SIT to probe the riots had hit Amarinder's chances, there was no resonance of it among the electorate.
In Amritsar, a gleeful BJP latched on to the statement to go to town against him. The day before (Saturday), within hours of the Captain's statement to a TV channel, Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal expressed "shock" at the statement.
His daughter-in-law and Akali candidate from Bhatinda, Harsimrat Kaur, too, lambasted Amarinder, saying that she was in Delhi in 1984 and that many Sikh victims had told her that Tytler was leading mobs that attacked unarmed innocent Sikhs.
To Jaitley, who has been fighting the "outsider" tag foisted on him by the Maharaja of Patiala, Amarinder's statement has been a godsend. He's hanging on to the lifeline and going hammer and tongs against him, asking, "Why has Captain Amarinder Singh become the "Devil's Advocate" and decided to offer a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler? Is he trying to prejudge the guilt of a person who is perceived to be involved in the riots? Is his personal and political relationship more important to the Captain than the interest of the victims?"
To that, Amrinder Singh said, "Yes, he's the devil, and I am the advocate."
But it's clear that the Captain's on the back-foot. His "self goal" has given Jaitley and the BJP ammunition. If the Captain loses, it would be more because of his defence of Tytler than because of the 'outsider' Jaitley. No wonder Sikhs in Amritsar are calling Amarinder a "suicide bomber".