After putting its all its aces in the poll battle, the Congress has entrusted the task of leading the high-decibel campaign in Punjab to Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, former Punjab CM and leader of opposition. In an interview to HT, Bhattal and campaign committee convener and former state finance minister Surinder Singla said the SAD-BJP regime should read the writing on the wall. “The people of Punjab have decided to wipe them out for indulging in record-breaking corruption, high-handedness and open loot and they are now struggling to win even Bathinda....”
Q: There are talks of a Modi wave in the country. Do you think there is a Modi wave in Punjab?
BHATTAL: I see no Modi wave in Punjab, or for that matter in other parts of the country. Modi was working on creating a wave and has been successful to some extent by managing the media. But he is against minorities and has a communal agenda. He approached the Supreme Court to evict Sikh farmers from Gujarat, ignoring even CM Badal’s repeated appeals. There is documentary evidence that he did not let benefit of central schemes reach the needy Muslims in Gujarat. There are minorities in all states. Many BJP leaders do not want to call Modi to their campaign or use his pictures because of minority votes. The PM’s chair has many contenders in the BJP. Then there is Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP. He has attracted many to his fold. In Punjab, there is no Modi wave but a wave against the Akali misrule as people have understood their double role and false promises.
What are the poll issues in Punjab?
BHATTAL: They made 300 promises in their poll manifesto but kept not even 30. Mame te baan gaye par shagun nai dita (They became uncles but the Shagun scheme did not reach daughters). Forget hiking pensions, even the meagre amount of ` 250 is not being given. Badal taan tinn kilometre te apni bhasha badal lende ne (Badals change their language every three kilometres). In Haryana, they are against the BJP, and in Punjab, with it. It is purely a religious party and is misusing money of the SGPC. They have a narrow thinking and have politicised everything from religion to official machinery. Sukhbir kehnda si Punjab nu California bana dawanga. Eh ve California? (Sukhbir said he would make Punjab California. Is this California?). The state has gone bankrupt, employees do not get salaries, traders and farmers are harassed. Bas apni photoan har thai laga lende ne ..cycla te, bhandya te...( they just put their pictures on everything, be it bicycles or utensils. We openly challenge them to debate development with us, both with the Congress-ruled states and our tenure in Punjab.
But the SAD-BJP blames the Centre for all its woes. Sukhbir says drugs are flowing into Punjab from across the border, and sand prices are shooting because of a ban on mining.
SINGLA: The border is under the BSF. Local Akali leadership is fully involved in the drug and sand mining mafias. Even Akali leaders admit it openly. Three factories were unearthed in Punjab making synthetic drugs. The sand and gravel prices have jumped fivefold during their regime.
BHATTAL: How can they blame the Centre? Drugs are being made in Punjab and it is now the new supplier of drugs to other states. It is their police and their leaders that are protecting the drug mafia.
What about property tax?
SINGLA: The property tax act was passed by the Centre in 2003. Till 2011, Punjab did not implement it. The Punjab BJP kept saying not to implement property tax. But it was brought around. It was same for the FDI in multi-brand retail. Sukhbir on record had welcomed the FDI saying it would be useful for traders and farmers. But they toed the BJP line. It was same for the nuclear deal. This regime is destroying the state.
How are they destroying the state?
SINGLA: Mainly through police raaj. Anyone who even takes name of the Congress is intimidated. Look at Majitha in Amritsar. No one can dare speak in favour of the Congress there. Their government is permanently under overdraft and surviving on loans. They sold government properties to stay afloat. No one is ready to give them loans. The state’s debt at ` 1 lakh crore is one of the highest in the country. One lakh small and medium industries have shut down. VAT refund of ` 400 crore is pending. They have also destroyed agriculture. Employees’ pay arrears have not been given. Thank God, we are part of India, or otherwise Punjab would have disintegrated like Soviet Russia.
Which is more in Punjab — anti-incumbency against the UPA or anti-incumbency against the Badals?
SINGLA: They claim anti-incumbency against the UPA government due to scams. But 2G spectrum or coal allocation have not affected the common man like sand and gravel prices.
BHATTAL: As for corruption, inquiries were ordered against all those accused of corruption in the UPA. Is the BJP not corrupt? They have brought back their Karnataka leader after he was removed on corruption charges. What action have they taken against their corrupt ministers? They ripped off Shagun scheme money by making fake accounts of sarpanches. Be it hotels, sand, liquor or land mafia, their corruption is record-breaking.
Sukhbir claims to make Punjab power-surplus and attractive for investors.
BHATTAL: If Punjab is power surplus, why there are long power cuts even during winter. His claims on progressive investors’ summit are hollow. The existing industry is running away to other states and no new industry is coming here as there is no power, law and order or money in the state coffers. Even when Punjab was under militancy, its fiscal health was better than that of today.
Why could the Congress not exploit these issues and Akalis romped home again?
BHATTAL: It is because of our lapses that they came back to power. I admit there have been shortcomings — be it surveys, assessment, ticket distribution. Even Akalis did not believe they were winning. We should have tied up with Communists and People’s Party of Punjab of Manpreet Badal. We lost 17-18 seats by less than 2,500 votes. Over confidence cost us dear. Sukhbir Badal is a manipulator, not a politician. He plays the money game. They lure poor and needy voters by distributing drugs and cash. We do not indulge in such dirty politics. His manipulation worked. But now no one trusts him and they are struggling to win even Bathinda.
It is believed that the Congress is its own biggest enemy in Punjab?
BHATTAL: The Congress is a big party. There is a difference of opinion among its leaders. But when the high command decides on something, we accept it and are taking on the Akalis unitedly.
But Amarinder did not accept Bajwa. Other than infighting, the morale of the Congress workers has also been hit by a string of desertions?
BHATTAL: The desertions are not happening because of the low morale but intimidation and misuse of power. Those joining the Akalis are arm-twisted to do so. See after the elections. Jiven pakken te ber girde ne, enha Akali dal da elections toh baad eh haal ho jana hai (Like overripe berries fall off trees, people will desert the Akali Dal after the elections). Rahul wants younger leaders in politics. Captain said he was not consulted on appointment of Bajwa but he has also said that he accepts the decision of the high command.
Bajwa demanded a CBI probe into the drug mafia. Amarinder did not support his demand.
BHATTAL: Captain’s view was not different but he did not want to delay the investigation. He also said it was his personal view.
How do you rate the performance of Bajwa so far?
BHATTAL: He is working hard. He only got a little time.
It is believed that he could not take senior leadership along.
BHATTAL: There have been some shortcomings. But it was not intentional. We are united in the larger interest of the party and the country. Sukhbir should read the writing on the wall. This election will lay the foundation stone for their complete rout in the 2017 assembly elections.
How has fielding top guns like Amarinder and Ambika Soni in elections changed the poll scenario?
BHATTAL: Fielding senior leaders has helped to unite like-minded people. The Akali Dal was thinking it would have a cakewalk. They even told BJP leader Arun Jaitley that they would send his victory certificate to Delhi. Our party involved its entire top leaders, either to fight the polls or manage it. Now it is a cakewalk for us.
How important is the AAP factor in Punjab?
BHATTAL: It will damage the Akali-BJP combine by eating into their votes. But people know from the Delhi example that they can’t run a government, so most of the antiincumbency vote will come to us. AAP will benefit us.