His critics call him the crown prince of a near-broke state. His opponents deride him for talking too big and delivering too little. But, Sukhbir Singh Badal, 51, has one unassailable strong point: his "can-do" bravura, which he derives as much from his enviable record as a serial poll clincher since 2012 as from his grip on all levers of power politics as de facto chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal chief.
With a style and swagger of a corporate czar, he has lately taken to hard-sell Punjab to big-ticket investors - as part of his rather belated "catch-up" strategy. Gung-ho on his grandiose plans to transform the border state in the next three years, Sukhbir was at once candid and combative while fielding a range of tough questions, including the ones that HT asked on behalf of his sworn political rivals Partap Singh Bajwa and Manpreet Singh Badal.
HT: It's been a year-and-a-half since your party's second coming to power. In the previous term, you focused on power and governance reforms. What's your next big idea?
Sukhbir: A power-surplus Punjab will become a reality by December. Initially, nobody believed it. On the reforms front, we have reached an advanced stage. By 2014, citizens of Punjab will not be dealing with government departments directly. The online system will inject transparency and change the way the government functions. Give me three years, and Punjab will have a network of four or six-lane roads. You will see huge investment in infrastructure, IT (information technology), hospitals, electronics and tourism. By 2016, you won't be able to recognise Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mohali, Bathinda and Patiala. And, the speed at which things are moving, Punjab will be far ahead of other states in holistic development.
HT: Apart from Tata, who are the other big-ticket investors you are in touch with?
Sukhbir: All IT companies. You will see a majority of them coming to Mohali. In December, we will showcase Punjab at the global investors' meet. I was in Bengaluru last week and shall be off to Mumbai soon to meet top industrialists.
HT: So, what's your sales pitch?
Sukhbir: We are offering them a complete package. But infrastructure is our main calling card. I have been able to convince investors that now is the time for them to come to Punjab. In fact, Punjab is the only option for the IT sector. In Bengaluru, they cannot expand as the costs of living, power tariff, real state are so high. Ditto for Gurgaon. So, Mohali is the next place in north India.
HT: The Congress calls you a dream merchant.
Sukhbir: Tell me what I have said and not delivered. There may have been delays, but all the big-ticket projects are on track. People may be skeptical, but I am very focused and never do things piecemeal.
HT: But where is the money for development? Your government admitted before the Finance Commission that the state is in a vicious cycle of borrowing to repay the debt?
Sukhbir: There is something called a trade secret… Name one state which is not asking for something from the Centre. Every state is in a debt trap. Growing debt is part of growth. Debt doesn't mean that one is broke. And we are not broke. We have never ever defaulted on statutory liabilities. Today, you don't need money. You need ideas. We have set up power plants without investing a penny of the government. For the road network, I am not going to spend from government coffers. There are various ways to generate funds. Everything doesn't have to be from internal accruals. Just see the level of revenue growth we have achieved. That is helping us in growing rapidly. Within three years, we will cross the Rs 40,000-crore mark in revenue receipts.
HT: You mean development is not dependent on the state's fiscal health?
Sukhbir: Yes. Loan is not used for salary. It is used for infrastructure development. We are conscious of the financial situation and we will not cross the limit.
HT: If all is well with the state finances, what holds you from giving unemployment allowance and laptops that your manifesto had promised?
Sukhbir: We never promised unemployment allowance. What we promised was employability allowance of Rs 1,000 for any youth interested in skill enhancement. We have created a portal and are encouraging the youth to come forward to avail this benefit.
HT: How many people have registered so far?
Sukhbir: I will have to check.
HT: And laptops?
Sukhbir: I am committed to it (poll promise). There is no point in giving laptops until the Wi-Fi network is in place. Hopefully, in one year from now, this will happen. We don't want to make the mistake that Uttar Pradesh made. They gave laptops and people sold them in shops.
HT: Your manifesto also promised a strong, independent and autonomous lokpal to weed out corruption. The institution remains a toothless tiger. Can corruption be eradicated merely by the lokayukta? Has the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) been able to do that?
Sukhbir: The way to weed out the menace is by changing the system. We are doing that through governance reforms. Once the direct government-public interface is minimised, the level of corruption will go down. No trader will have to visit the excise and taxation department as everything will be online. It will ensure transparency.
HT: So, we don't need a lokpal?
Sukhbir: Let it be there. These systems will continue. But my responsibility is to eliminate the scope of corruption.
HT: Why can't reforms and the lokpal's empowerment happen simultaneously?
Sukhbir: We are ready to empower it. But the chief minister handles that area. There are glaring cases of youth Akali leaders riding roughshod over cops. If you fight with someone in the street, your editor cannot be held responsible for your action. Likewise, I am not responsible for the Akali cadre. But we do take action against those taking the law into their hands.
HT: Given the state of finances, why has your government hired so many advisers?
Sukhbir: It has nothing to do with finances. Look at the scale of the government. We need advisers to showcase our state. People ask why we purchased a helicopter. As the head of the state, do you expect me to ride a bicycle? If I do that, investors will flee in two days. Today, to be effective, you need helicopters or Range Rovers. It's not a luxury for us.
HT: How about austerity measures?
Sukhbir: Switching off two light points to save money is not a bright idea. Either you go by Manpreet (Badal)'s negative policy of going hungry to save money, or what I believe in: work hard, raise revenue and stimulate the economy. I have a positive policy.
HT: So, who is more powerful now? You or your father?
Sukhbir: The chief minister. Absolutely.
HT: But there are two parallel power centres in the government.
Sukhbir: No. There is no conflict between him (Parkash Singh Badal) and me. I work completely under his guidance. I am a much better person now. Working under him has given me so much of experience. Had I taken over from Badal saheb five years ago, I would have made so many mistakes and ended up a failure.
HT: So, you are not taking over anytime soon?
Sukhbir: As long as Sardar Badal is fit, he is going to be the CM. No matter whether it is for 10 years or 15 years.
HT: The perception is that you are calling the shots and have reduced key ministers to rubber stamps.
Sukhbir: Not at all. We all sit together and work out a strategy on what we have to achieve. They take all the decisions.
The Haryana chief minister has objected to Punjab renaming Mullanpur as New Chandigarh.
That's our wish. Chandigarh is ours. It's a natural expansion of the city.
Two years ago, you called yourself "the most misunderstood politician in Punjab. Have things changed?
Sukhbir: People then used to say that "I am rash, brash... blah-blah..." You have to tell me how am I now. Actually, over the past three-four years, I have seen a change coming in me.
What's the change?
Sukhbir: I think my thinking, approach to things. Like I am much more cooler… I myself feel it. It happened naturally. I am quite shocked myself.
Whom do your credit for this change?
Sukhbir: In the beginning, I used to get impatient. But working under my father made the difference. It's a learning process. He is like a Harvard University in politics. I have to do PhD under him. I have just reached the master's level.
Partap Singh Bajwa's questions (asked by HT on his behalf)
Your government has been misutilising and siphoning off funds allocated under central schemes. Mr Bajwa should know that the union government survives on our money. We give more money to the Centre and get a pittance in return. We are a loser in terms of central grants.
When are you going to implement promises such as Wi-Fi, laptops etc.?
Sukhbir: If this is all that he (Bajwa) has to say, I think he doesn't deserve to be the president of the party (unit). What is there in my manifesto is my responsibility. He should not bother. I am answerable to the people of Punjab and they will judge me in the next elections.
So, Amarinder was better? (HT question)
Sukhbir: Yes, still better than him (Bajwa). Bajwa's statements don't reflect maturity. Look at the kind of irresponsible statements he made on Tata's trip to Punjab. He should spell out his vision, ideas for the state. I don't think he has any vision or a mission. Amarinder also tried the same thing, but people rejected him. I thought Bajwa would have an agenda. But he has crossed Amarinder too in talking rubbish.
Are you open to taking the Opposition along for wooing investors? (HT question)
Sukhbir: Yes, I am ready. But there is a problem. If I take Bajwa along, his party will dump him. Within the Congress, there is so much fighting that they are even scared to meet me. They meet me secretly.
Manpreet Badal's questions (asked by HT on his behalf)
How much foreign direct investment (FDI) has actually arrived in Punjab in manufacturing projects in the past three years?
Sukhbir: The latest Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report has placed us third in FDI (in the country). Manpreet actually reads more Shakespeare and less economics. That's his problem. Punjab's growth rate continues to be abysmally low.
Can you ask him (Manpreet) what is the growth rate?
Sukhbir: We are much better off than the Centre. In the next three years, we will be ahead of other states.
What explains your government's failure to respond to disclosures on the drug mafia by former DGP (director general of police) Shashi Kant?
Sukhbir: He was the DGP (jails). But did he even once bring it to the notice of the government? There is no report that he officially gave us. I think he wants to get into politics.
As long as Sardar Badal is fit, he is going to be the CM. No matter whether it is for 10 years or 15 years.
On debt burden
Growing debt is part of growth. Debt doesn't mean that one is broke. And we are not broke
Over the past three-four years, I have seen a change coming in me… I am much more cooler