From a Punjab Congress president who was on the defensive as his own party MLAs and leaders led by former Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh openly revolted against him, Partap Singh Bajwa has bounced back with the street-fighting against the ruling Badals. Be it joining ranks with Congress Legislature Party leader Sunil Jakhar for a dharna outside the CM’s house or with Aam Aadmi Party for the protests in Moga against the death of a 13-year-old girl, Bajwa is showing new confidence and political wisdom to contrast Amarinder’s “laidback” approach. The confidence, he says, is as much from the high command backing him as the blunders being committed by the Badals. The excerpts of an interview with HT:
Did the Moga incident reflect the rising anger against the Punjab government?
They came to power on the promise of good governance but people are feeling cheated as they have divided Punjab into fiefdoms. A couple of departments are with the CM, rest with other members of the family. They have betrayed the mandate by outsourcing all illegal businesses to their rogue elements. Every section of the state is feeling the heat. Procurement of foodgrains in Punjab was regimented. Tenders for transportation, labour were all put in place before it. The only difference this time was delayed rains. This is not the first time that untimely rains have hit the crop. The new thing that has happened is that the son-in-law of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal (Adaish Partap Singh Kairon) had tendered it out and took money from each mandi for transport and labour contracts to independent parties. They had to sublet it but people did not agree to it. So much of wheat was piled up in the mandis and it was not moving out owing to the sheer callousness of the food and civil supplies minister. Same is the case with other departments. Revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia has control over sand mining in Punjab. About 1,300 policemen are deployed just to protect the Badal family. If four people of the family -- CM Parkash Singh Badal, deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, their daughter-in-law, union minister Harsimrat Badal, and her brother, revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia -- have to eat together somewhere, at least 1,300 policemen are on duty outside. The CM has 600 policemen on duty, Sukhbir 400 and both Harsimrat and Majithia 150 each. They have made a joint venture with the police to run their illegal businesses. If a robbery takes place in a village, the police reach there an hour late. But if someone takes a truck of sand from a riverbed, black commandos reach there in no time. They have vested interests. A part of the loot goes to the police and state department, a part to MLAs and the rest is divided between Majithia and the Badals. There is a tsunami coming against the Akalis. They will be swept away in the wave of public anger. CM Badal will also not be able to win the election.
If their graph is going down, why are they still winning elections?
We have tried our level best. Who do we go to? From day one, you should see our statements. We are appealing to the courts to take suo motu notice of the Moga incident to give justice to the victim’s family and Punjabis. They have mastered the art of winning byelections. You just can’t compete with them. They have database on each and every villager. If a person is a government employee, the director of his department will come and sit there. Your promotions and transfers will be fast-tracked, so will long-pending tubewell connections and electricity poles and wires. In one month, the whole government and state machinery is sitting over there to corrupt the system. They spent Rs 5 lakh for every 1,000 votes, at every booth, which comes to Rs 5,000 per vote.
You have 40 plus MLAs, which is a formidable number. Yet your party has not been able to put them on the defensive and get support of people.
Most of the people are petrified of them. They have turned the state into a police state. You have seen how they have edged out the cable operators and transporters out of business. Their high-handedness has intimidated Punjabis. They should have come out to the streets after such a horrific incident but are not willing to come out even if they support you sitting at home. The reason is there are no jobs in Punjab. The youth are all vying to go abroad. Their pet way to intimidate them is to slap a false case and withhold their passports at the police stations. The things have come to such a pass that even farmers sitting in mandis for over 15 days were scared to talk to us so that they are not captured on the camera.
The government says Bajwa is politicising the issue.
What do they expect me to do? I am a political leader. Should I take a blanket, switch on the air-conditioner and go to sleep? We are doing what a political party is supposed to do. What has Badal been doing in the past? The lawlessness they have unleashed in the state, had we not protested, would they come around? Look at their audacity. The bus of the ruling family kills the girl and they wanted to pay compensation through the taxpayers’ money. It was the pressure created by us in the media that they decided that Orbit (the bus company of Sukhbir) would pay the money.
Are you trying to show yourself as a street-fighter to contrast with the style of functioning of Amarinder?
Let’s not get into this. The issue now is of poor governance.
But the Congress is still looking divided? If things are going wrong for the Badals, is the Congress putting its best foot forward?
Things are changing since Rahul visited Punjab. We got him to visit Punjab mandis within a day’s time. Things are going to change and everything will soon fall into place. Everybody has started to feel that we will have to work together.
Still a majority of MLAs do not accept you as their leader. They have never rallied behind you. Even Akali leaders take a dig at your “unpopularity” among your own MLAs.
It takes time. Many of these MLAs were given tickets, made ministers and chairmen of boards and corporations when the Congress was in power. I have no such beneficiaries. Who have they been allowed to rally around? Were they allowed to rally around any of the PCC presidents, be it Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Shamsher Singh Dullo, Mohinder Singh Kaypee or Hanspal? As for Akali leaders, does the claim that I do not enjoy the support of my partymen, absolve them of their sins.
When things are hotting up in Punjab, should the high command not clear the air on your leadership?
If some vested interests try to create confusion, what can the high command do? Where is the confusion? But I am firmly in the saddle and am fit enough to lead the Congress in Punjab. People have been writing me off every month. I am the Congress president in Punjab and will lead the campaign against the government. We will give Akalis a run for their money.
The AAP was equally aggressive on the Moga issue. Are they eating into the opposition space?
AAP had the experience of leading a campaign in the Nirbhaya movement in Delhi. They latched on to it to show the victim as Punjab’s Nirbhaya.
But you joined hands with AAP during the agitation? Is it a precursor to a possible alliance in the 2017 elections?
We had joined hands against the goondaraj of the government. We had given a call to all political parties to take on the government united. In future too, we will take all political parties along for a common cause. If we were fragmented, do you think the government would have gone on the backfoot. The government benefits by a disunited opposition. As for AAP, it has no credentials in governance. Kejriwal is now asking for trial of media. The same media helped him win elections. AAP candidates lost their deposits in the bypolls in Talwandi Sabo and Patiala. They sent Bhagwant Mann to Moga. You don’t crack jokes during a solemn situation to gather a crowd. AAP also has no one to project as its leader. It will make no impact in the 2017 elections.
So all the recent agitations have helped you bounce back?
It is the blunders of the Badals which have brought me to the centre-stage. The CM did not dare come out of the Circuit House in Moga. As Dhritrashtra he is blinded by the love for his son. It seems Punjab has become a banana republic. The police win elections. They resolve disputes and cremate people at the point of a gun. Their company’s bus first killed the girl and the cremation was done after 8pm against Hindu and Sikh rites and rituals and against the wishes of the family and the villagers. The police kept the victim’s brother and father almost a hostage. I was present at the cremation. The whole village was resounding with anti-Badal slogans during the cremation. Is this what Badal means by his slogan -- Raj nai, sewa?