Linked to the outcome of the electoral battle in this prestigious Lok Sabha constituency is the political future of Manpreet Singh Badal — the rebel from Punjab’s ruling Badal clan. Initially, the upcoming contest looked like a cakewalk for the Akali Dal here. But the entry of the PPP chief on this political turf on the poll symbol of the Congress has turned it into a keenly-watched tussle.
Having triggered a political storm in 2010 when he walked out of the Akali Dal, the former finance minister seems well set for the April 30 challenge. “The culture of Punjab is to support a rebel,” says Manpreet, in response to the pointed questions HT poses. Excerpts:
HT: What’s the significance of this election in your political career?
Manpreet: It is important that Punjab does a course correction. Not personally for me, but for Punjab, it is significant. Punjab is on the path of destruction. Do you still want to go with Akalis who have no economic agenda for the state? Committing one blunder after the other, they have destroyed the state. They have rubbed its nose on the ground.
Personally, how crucial is this election for you?
I don’t think it’s personal. I have been at it for almost three years trying to put forward an agenda for the people of Punjab. I am willing to wait. Manpreet has plenty of time to wait. But Punjab doesn’t have even a minute to lose.
Is this the beginning of the end of your People’s Party of Punjab in view of you contesting on the Congress symbol?
What is the current status and future of the PPP? Are you still its chief?
The PPP will continue to exist as a political entity and I will continue to be part of it. We are in a political alliance with the Congress and hope to carry on with this till the 2017 assembly elections, at least. It’s not a short-term alliance. The fact that I am contesting on its symbol is an election tactic. We have actually turned the tables on them.
Your critics say when the issue is of your own political survival, you don’t hesitate to contest on the symbol of a party whose 10-year regime at the Centre was rocked by one scam after the other. Are you a step short of joining the Congress?
I'm just seeking their electoral support. The PPP will continue to exist and this alliance with the Congress will remain in place till 2017. Aur mein Congress ajhe filhaal join nee kar reya hega (I am not joining the Congress at the moment). I have said this in English, Hindi and Punjabi. I can say this in French also if you want. At ground level, Congress workers wanted this alliance. Manpreet ke naam pe Congress mein consensus ban gaya hai. (There has been a consensus in the Congress on Manpreet’s name and the factionalism in the party on Manpreet’s name has ended).
In whose name are you seeking votes — Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh — or you are banking on your own reputation as a rebel?
I have managed to collaborate with the CPI, Congress and SAD (Longowal). I have been able to put together this unique consortium in the country, where two national parties are actually supporting a regional entity. It just highlights the importance of the PPP. This is a joint campaign to try and get rid of this evil system which (Parkash Singh) Badal and his family are perpetuating in Punjab.
Your party leaders say you have dumped and ditched the PPP for personal political gains.
I have not ditched our ideals. In this fight if you stood alone, it actually would have helped Harsimrat (SAD nominee) to win by a huge margin because that would have divided the opposition vote. If the Congress is supporting Manpreet, what fault can you find with that? If someone is ready to vote for you, will you ask him not to do so? Can you afford that in real politics?
So you have also started practising political opportunism?
I'm a man of principles. We fought the 2012 assembly elections, two bypolls, and panchayat and zila parishad elections on the PPP platform. But, maybe, people of Punjab are not ready to accept that. So in politics one needs thodi si lachak (a bit of flexibility). In the real world, you cannot just stand on one platform and refuse support.
What bearing will the outcome of this election have on you?
I'm standing against the might of the government and the ruling party. A man of principles, guts and courage can take on this juggernaut. For once in your life, you need to support an underdog. Baagi ki kadar hai Punjab mein (In Punjab, people respect rebels). This is the culture of Punjab. People will support somebody who is more concerned about the state rather than his own fortunes. Badal sahab ke to sare masle hal ho gaye, par Punjab ka to ek bhi masla hal nahin hua (All issues concerning Badal have been addressed, but not even a single issue concerning Punjab has been addressed).