The exit of Sarwan Singh Phillaur from Parkash Singh Badal’s cabinet is clearly aimed at sending across a larger, tough message. The easy availability of illicit drugs and the charge that a section of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is a patron of this crime have hit the image of the party hard.
Hence, this crackdown — rather, a damage-control exercise — began on Thursday with Phillaur’s resignation, who held the portfolios of jails, tourism and cultural affairs with cabinet rank.
Behind this decision of showing the door to 66-yearold Phillaur — despite no direct allegation of his involvement in the drug racket — is the SAD leadership’s anxiety, and a bid to repair any political damage.
The party would hope this arrests the fast-dwindling reputation of the SAD-BJP government in Punjab. Observers believe the recent Lok Sabha elections were seen as a referendum on the state regime.
Though the coalition got six of the 13 seats, the AAP won all its four seats in Punjab. It was clear that the SAD-BJP had not been able to encash the ‘Modi wave’ fully, and had been saved further embarrassment as the AAP and Congress divided the anti-incumbency on many seats.
In the run-up to April 30 voting, the blame game between the SAD-BJP regime and the opposition Congress over the drug menace had taken centrestage. The Congress has been accusing the Badal gover nment of patronising the drug mafia, and the ruling dispensation remains on the defensive.
SAD patron, CM Badal admitted that his party paid a heavy price in LS elections. “Congress successfully turned public perception against Akalis on the drug menace, which was the biggest election issue... But it’s also a fact that none of our leaders is involved in such heinous crimes,” Badal said in Jalandhar on May 19.
His contention and the marching orders to Phillaur point towards churning in the SAD. On the political front, Phillaur is the first casualty, and a similar crackdown is on the cards in the Punjab police. An exercise is underway to identify “black sheep”, it is learnt.
Immediately after resuming duty on Tuesday, director general of police (DGP) Sumedh Singh Saini relaunched a drive against drug peddlers with a clear message to his officers in the field to also gather “clinching evidence” against police personnel involved in drug traf ficking.
A nexus involving the police and politicians is stated to be at the root of drug trade. “Any personnel found involved in the drug trade will be summarily dismissed the moment we get evidence,” a top police functionary said.
In the past two days, police across the state arrested 300 drug peddlers, including around 50 in Jalandhar and 40 in Amritsar, sources said.
But the resignation by Phillaur is also set to bring under the spotlight powerful cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, brotherin-law of deputy CM and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, who has been at the centre of attack from Congress on the drug issue.
Punjab’s politics had taken a new turn when the Congress received much-needed ammunition after arrested wrestler-turned-druglord Jagdish Singh Bhola on January 6 dropped a bombshell before the media, naming Majithia as the kingpin of the drug racket.
On Thursday, the Congress also termed Phillaur’s resignation as “a clever attempt to shield Majithia”. Now, the moot question is: Will Majithia, too, quit?