“We are going to whip them by God’s grace,” Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh said on Friday as Punjab deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal looked on, setting the tone for the upcoming Punjab assembly elections.
The two leaders shared the dais at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in what could be their only direct encounter in front of a common audience before the crucial state elections.
And both leaders predicted wins for their parties. While Badal said the SAD is set to win more than 70 of the 117 seats that go to the polls, Capt Singh predicted a rout of the ruling party that has been in power for almost 10 years in alliance with the BJP.
The third contender – the Aam Aadmi Party -- will finish behind the Congress, Capt Singh said. “They (SAD) won’t cross 20, AAP will be a little more than you and we’ll form the government.”
Badal was more generous towards his old rival. “Mark my words, AAP will not get more than eight to nine seats. The fight is between the Congress and the SAD,” he said. The deputy chief minister gave the Congress 35 to 40 seats. “We’ll be above 70,” he declared.
Sparring with each other and fielding questions from the audience, both leaders had the audience in splits with their sharp one-liners. “Each time someone talks of putting me in jail, I win the elections after that,” Badal said, responding to a question on AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s declaration that his party would send the Badals to jail if his party came to power.
“Capt put me in jail and made me a leader,” he said. “Even after he sent me to jail, I always touch his feet. It’s in our culture,” Badal added, responding to AAP’s charge that the two are in truck with each other.
Both took on the AAP, which emerged as the third political force in Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections winning four of the 13 seats. Badal dismissed AAP as a force to reckon with anymore.
“The media created Arvind Kejriwal and now you are destroying him,” Badal said.
The Capt was more critical of the opponent. “They have to come up with something serious for Punjab’s future... AAP is not a party, it is the mood of the youngsters. It’s just their frustration. We have to speak to them (the youngsters) and convince them.. AAP is selling tickets in Punjab,” Capt Singh said. Badal charged AAP with fielding candidates with “criminal records”.
Punjab’s drug problem
Punjab’s drug problem is a creation of the media, the SAD leader claimed. “Rahul Gandhi came to Punjab and read from a paper saying 70 per cent of our youth are drug addicts. His problem is he can only read from what is given to him written on a paper,” he said.
Capt Singh said, after wresting power in Punjab from Parkash Singh Badal in 2002, he had a survey conducted that showed half of the girls and 70 per cent of the boys had tried drugs. During the Badal regime police stations were used to stock poppy husk, he alleged.
Badal, however, blamed the Border Security Force for drugs being smuggled into Punjab from Pakistan.
On SAD-BJP performance
Badal said the government had been voted back to power five years ago “because of our performance.” Punjab has gone from a power deficit to a power surplus state, he said.
“Every village has internet and in one year’s time all of Punjab’s cities will be connected by expressways,” Badal said.
Capt Singh expressed doubts, saying the state’s debt is mounting, agriculture production is stagnant and industries moving out. “Punjab is bankrupt. We are down on our knees...this is my last election, I want to set right in Punjab what these chaps have done wrong.”
Badal hit out at the Congress’s high-command culture for imposing former BJP MP Navjot Sidhu on Capt Singh.
“Sidhu said he wants to come to a Congress minus Captain. Maybe the high command has told Sidhu the Captain won’t be there,” he said.
Capt Singh said demonetisation has people in Punjab getting disillusioned by the day.
“Tempers are rising. Punjab has a short fuse,” he warned challenging Union finance minister Arun Jaitley to fight the Lok Sabha byelection from Amritsar and seek approval on the demonetisation issue.
Badal said things were under control but “demonetisation is going to create a problem if the cash crunch persists after a few months.”