Harsimrat Badal knows the art of combining her combatively argumentative streak with a soft, disarming charisma. These qualities are on test as being a minister in the Modi-led cabinet, she has taken it upon herself to lobby with the Centre on issues of Punjab and Sikhs. With the Union government seemingly playing hardball on the Badal government’s desperate plea for a special financial package, she faces an unenviable challenge of extracting a bailout while keeping the SAD-BJP ties, increasingly strained, on an even keel. In a free-wheeling interview with Senior Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak, the 48-year-old Bathinda MP defended her party’s contentious populist schemes, while pragmatically arguing for a new model for free power to farmers.
HT: What can Punjab expect from you as the food processing minister?
Harsimrat: I have the advantage of knowing what is needed in Punjab. My ministry basically gives subsidies for centrally-sponsored schemes. The mega food park is the only central scheme which we allot. Earlier, it was only for private players. I changed the criteria so that state governments can also apply for it. We give subsidy of `50 crore. Punjab is one of the 11 states and 80-odd private players in the race for 17 mega food parks that would be allotted.
You have been going beyond your ministry to raise issues of Punjab and Sikhs?
I am not just a food processing minister sitting there in Delhi. I call myself ‘Punjab ka sewadar-cum-chowkidar’. Any issue connected with Punjab matters to me as a Punjabi and a Sikh. Since our government was formed at the Centre, I have focused on three issues. One, the blacklisted Sikhs who fled the country post-1984 to save their lives. They have since been denied passport and visa to visit India. The ministry of external affairs is relooking at the blacklist. I am also pursuing the case for grant of Indian citizenship to Afghan Sikh refugees living in Delhi for the past so many years. The home ministry shall sort it soon. My third priority is the 1984 massacre cases. I am pushing for day-to-day hearing of ongoing cases. Also, like in Gujarat, we want a Supreme Court-monitored special investigation team (SIT) to bring to justice those who went scot-free. The government is working on it. Only justice will bring closure.
The impression is that the Modi government has cold-shouldered Punjab’s demand for a special package.
You are talking about (finance minister) Mr Jaitley’s letter. That was written in routine to almost all states. It was blown out of proportion. Mr Jaitley hasn’t said no to a package. Nor has he snubbed us. Punjab was revenue-surplus until 1984 and became debt-ridden thereafter only because all the expenses of fighting the nation’s battle (against militancy) in the 1980s were dumped on us. Today, forget about paying up the principal amount, we have to borrow to meet the interest liability. It’s like a fanda (noose). You are in the process of hanging yourself. One fine day, the rope will go off.
So, is there still hope that the Centre would bail Punjab out?
Of course, it will. A committee was set up during the tenure of the previous government to look at three most debt-stressed states — Punjab, Kerala and West Bengal. That committee will submit its report to the Finance Commission, which would make its recommendation this month. We expect it to be favourable to Punjab. Then, the cabinet would take a call.
What exactly is the Badal government’s wishlist?
All that we are asking for is a five-year moratorium on interest. We want this leeway of not having to pay up interest which is strangling us and is going to finish us off. In five years, we will put our finances in place and even pay off the principal amount. We are not saying we won’t pay up. We aren’t seeking a waiver. Sukhbir has a roadmap. Punjab has acquired power generation capacity. That would attract industry and investment which, in turn, would generate more revenue and jobs.
But, the BJP wants a cut in subsidies such as free power.
They (BJP) only talk about the free bijli-paani we give to farmers. They just look at the fiscal deficit or their own vote bank in the cities. They want the tax concessions to be given in the cities also. But, if we don’t give subsidy to farmers, there would be 200-300 farm suicides every month. Punjab will become another Vidarbha. No government can kill its own people.
Aren’t unproductive subsidies and fiscal mismanagement majorly responsible for Punjab’s fiscal mess?
If that were the case, how are we still doing development and raising our revenue? Even if you cut all these subsidies, Punjab can’t get out of the fiscal crisis. Our interest liability is five times more than our subsidy bill. The debt trajectory has gone out of hand because the Congress-led UPA government didn’t help Punjab. Capt Amarinder Singh could have got it done when he was the chief minister, but he was too lazy to even bother and make a case.
Do you see any merit in the case for rationalising free power?
Right now, the annual free power bill is about R5,000 crore, which comes to be `50,000 per farmer. I have suggested to Sukhbir to run a pilot project wherein we put `30,000 into the farmer’s account and he pays up his power bill out of this. If his power consumption is less than `30,000, he can keep the rest. This way, the farmers will save both power and money. This model can be looked at. We will have to look at new ways of incentivising power subsidy, but can’t do away it altogether.
It seems the Akalis and the BJP are not on the same page.
We are two separate parties that have separate agendas and separate vote banks. Each party pushes its own ideology and policies. So, it’s normal for the coalition partners to have divergent views.
But, the BJP is not supporting your case for a special package for Punjab.
When the BJP at the Centre is supporting us, then where is the question of the BJP in Punjab not supporting us? Had they (state BJP leaders) gone to Jaitley, they would have known the reality. An impression was created that ‘BJP aa gayee aur kal se saara karza maaf’ (as the BJP has come to power, the entire debt would be waived).
But, it’s your party that promised ‘truckloads of funds’ if Amritsar elected Jaitley.
You have to be practical. Even a farmer has to sow and wait for six months before he reaps the crop. The NDA government has inherited an empty treasury. It has to first fill it up, which can’t happen overnight. I am confident that this government is going to address our issues. Punjab is going to get funds. Mr Jaitley is one of the fiercest supporters of Punjab in Delhi despite what Punjab did to him (the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections).
There is an impression that the BJP is getting assertive towards the Akalis.
I can tell you that the coordination between our party and the central BJP leaders is fine. We are as close as it can be. I don’t know about local (state-level) BJP leaders. When there are too many utensils, they will ‘kharko’ (create noise).
What’s your advice for Sukhbir for the second half of his term in Punjab?
My advice to him is limited to the four walls of our bedroom. I think he is more than aware. He has got all the ideas. At the end of the day, it all boils down to money. You need finances to make a difference. But for this finance thing bogging us down, (Parkash Singh) Badal sahib would have changed the face of Punjab by now. Right now, we are doing such tightrope walking. Despite this sword of debt hanging over our head, we have moved on.
How do look at the challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab?
They won in the Lok Sabha polls by default. Look how they were decimated in the assembly bypolls. In the next elections, they will cease to exist and it will be another Manpreet Badal story.
‘Mr Jaitley hasn’t snubbed us’
On special package row
Mr Jaitley’s letter was written in routine to almost all states. He hasn’t said no to a package. Nor has he snubbed us… He is one of the fiercest supporters of Punjab in Delhi
On free power to farmers
If we don’t give subsidy to farmers, there would be 200-300 farm suicides every month… We will have to look at new ways of incentivising power subsidy, but can’t do away it altogether.
On Badal govt’s wishlist
We want this leeway of not having to pay up interest which is strangling us and is going to finish us off. We aren’t seeking a waiver
On Akali-BJP relations
We have separate agendas and separate vote banks. So, it’s normal for the coalition partners to have divergent views