Having crafted the Congress strategy to bring stalwarts in poll fray after being cornered into a contest himself, Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa says it was the only way to boost the morale of workers. While pitching himself as the future CM to clinch Gurdaspur, in conversation with HT assistant editor Sukhdeep Kaur, Bajwa extended an olive branch to his arch rival in the party, Capt Amarinder Singh.
You played an important role in Congress fielding stalwarts and aligning with Manpreet Badal. How do you see the poll scene?
Bajwa: My statement from day one has been that secular forces in Punjab should unite to defeat fundamentalists. I wanted all stalwarts to contest, to boost workers’ morale. Had the important state leaders sat out, there would have been many a slip between the cup and the lip. Now they are all helping each other as they realise they will swim, or sink, together.
What if you sink together?
There are no chances of us sinking. There is anger against deputy CM Sukhbir Badal and his brother-in-law Bikram Majithia. People see them as Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. No section is happy with them. There are no jobs… 18,000 industrial units have closed down.
We have found out that no MoU has been signed after the Progressive Punjab investor summit; just expressions of interest have come, nothing on the ground.
Initial reports suggested even you were reluctant to contest from Gurdaspur.
Not reluctance, it was about strategy —— who’s to fight, who is to canvass, etc. The scenario has changed with stalwarts in fray. Now we need no big campaigners at many seats. Voters were telling us, 'For God’s sake, get together!' We will hand the biggest poll drubbing to the SAD-BJP, bucking the national anti-incumbency.
The Narendra Modi juggernaut seems on a roll.
Modi is a media creation. The BJP graph is down; Congress is looking up. In the BJP, they are talking of Club 160 — they don’t want to exceed [that number of seats]. People used to say they may vote for Atal Bihari Vajpayee or LK Advani. Now they say they will not vote for Modi as he is anti-minorities. People of Punjab are secular. Muslims do not want to hear his name, nor do Sikhs and Christians.
Before 2012 assembly polls, you said Congress should align with Manpreet. But Amarinder had opposed it.
Amarinder has now understood that what I was saying was correct. The Sanjha Morcha [led by Manpreet’s PPP] got 6.5% votes. If we had aligned, our share would have been 47%. The Morcha was asking for just seven seats. A cascading effect would have been that the 22 rebels would have withdrawn. This would have taken our share to 52%, meaning a clean sweep.
Is the alliance with Manpreet a one-time affair? Or, would you want him to join the Congress?
Alliances we forge will continue. We’ll try to make new ones too. I’d like Manpreet to join the Congress, but it is up to him. Eventually, he may join Congress.
How do you look at the Captain-versus-Jaitley contest in Amritsar?
Arun Jaitley (BJP leader) was made the sacrificial goat. CM Parkash Singh Badal earlier tried to mend fences with Modi and went to Gujarat to plead that he withdraw the SLP (special leave petition) against Sikh farmers in Kutch. Modi did not give him any assurance. Badal then thought the second best player in BJP was Arun Jaitley, who is desperate for the ‘elected’ tag and is eyeing the PM post. Jaitley had some kind of wild connection with Punjab. The Badal gameplan was, assuring Jaitley a sure win with two targets — getting two ministers in NDA (Jaitley and Harsimrat Badal) and cutting sitting MP Navjot Sidhu to size as he would not have protested against his replacement by his guru Jaitley…. It will boomerang. Once Jaitley loses, Akalis will be persona non-grata for BJP.
There has been a spate of desertions in the Congress. You have been at the helm for over a year; will desertions stop now?
Of course, desertions will stop. They happen as people feel a party is like a railway junction — if they do not get a ticket to Amritsar, they take one to Varanasi... Congressmen distributed sweets when former MLA Malkiat Singh Birmi left the party. It is good riddance to bad rubbish... This was all engineered by Sukhbir Badal. By 2017, you will see the same scene in Punjab as that in Iraq when America attacked. The way people deserted Saddam Hussein, Akali cadres will desert Sukhbir and Majithia.
Amarinder says he will be delighted to campaign for you in Gurdaspur. Will you invite him?
I want to reciprocate his feelings. Amarinder is like an elder brother. There is no animosity between us. We will do whatever we can to make him win, and I am sure Amarinder too will do whatever is in his power to make me win. Our target is 13/0. After achieving that, the rest lies in the domain of the high command. If there is some difference of opinion, it can be sorted out within the party.
Will you canvass for him?
Certainly. The ice has to be broken. And it will be done when we both campaign for each other. People will be delighted to see us share the stage. There is a lot of desperation… people feel there can be nothing worse than Akalis winning again.
Should Operation Bluestar be a poll issue?
Unfortunately, whenever elections are around the corner, Akalis raise the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and Operation Bluestar. It is time the younger generation, which has not witnessed the bloodshed, is not made to hear all this. Even the diaspora start getting anti-India feelings as they are fed wrong stories on the Khalistan movement. The Congress for 10 years had a Sikh PM, who has already apologised in Parliament (for the 1984 riots), so has the Congress president. A White Paper has shown the true colours of Akalis that they were in regular talks with the Centre before Bluestar.
So you support Amarinder’s assertions.
Amarinder is doing the right thing as it was these people (Akalis) who raked up the issue. Either Akalis should not raise it; or if they do, the younger generation and every single Punjabi should know the role Badal played. The BJP forced [Bluestar] on then PM Indira Gandhi, and distributed sweets in Amritsar after the operation.
There is fear of violence in Amritsar because of the shrill poll pitch.
Desperate statements of Majithia show the SAD-BJP is losing ground. A story is being made up that Congress is provoking violence. The EC has to be firm.
Do you think the EC in Punjab has not been fair so far?
The Punjab chief electoral officer has so far not shown any firmness. We expect justice. Our democracy should be going the America way; if it starts going the Pakistan way, only God can save it.