Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh might have offered his predecessor, Parkash Singh Badal, free government accommodation but the bonhomie between the bitter rivals is likely to not go beyond symbolism.
If decisions of the first cabinet meeting on Saturday are any indication of things to come, the change of guard in Punjab may spell trouble for the flourishing business empire of Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal, the family of his brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia and Sukhbir’s close aides Parbhans Singh ‘Bunty’ Romana, Dimpy Dhillon and Rozy Barkandi.
Any possible crackdown will rebuff charges made by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) during the assembly election campaigning that the Congress had a “quid-pro-quo” arrangement with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). But many Congress leaders are also seen as benefiting from the business empires and monopolies set up under the previous government.
The Badal family had the biggest share of the transport business’ pie in the state, through directly owned companies such as Dabwali Transport and Orbit Aviation that have a fleet of luxury buses. The two companies also have indirect stakes in firms of Sukhbir’s close associates Lakhvir Singh and Jagpal Singh.
The cabinet decision to abolish posts of district transport officers, who did the bidding of the ruling elite, and bring in a new transport policy for granting bus permits in a fair and transparent manner is seen as aiming at hitting the transport business of Sukhbir and Dimpy. Badal’s buses also enjoy preferential treatment in terms of prime routes and timings.
But the ‘Conflict of Interest’ legislation being mooted by the Amarinder government to disqualify ministers and MLAs with business interests in official positions will have to apply without exceptions. Many Congress leaders too have stakes in the transport business such as former MLAs Jasbir Dimpa and Guriqbal Kaur, whose son Angad Saini is now a MLA.
The new excise policy approved by the cabinet also abolished L1-A licence, which the previous government had made the super franchisee for liquor and restricted its number to five. The ones who got the L1-A licence were Bikram’s elder brother, Gurmehar Majithia of Saraya Group of Companies, Bunty Romana who had master franchisee of Kingfisher and former Akali Dal MLA Deep Malhotra.
But in liquor business too, the Congress and Akalis are interlinked. Congress MLA Balbir Sidhu, who too has a wholesale licence (L1), had challenged L1-A licence in the Punjab and Haryana high court and later in the Supreme Court, and it was made open to others. Now the cabinet has abolished it altogether and also cut down the quota of imported and country-made liquor.
Sidhu welcomes the move saying it will not affect his business as the contracts will now be awarded in a fair manner. “The party had promised to cut down free flow of liquor in Punjab in the poll manifesto and it is honouring it,” he said.
Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal said in its five years, the Congress government would bring down liquor quota and vends by 50%. But besides Balbir Sidhu, new power and irrigation minister Rana Gurjit Singh too has stakes in the liquor business.
News, cable business
The cabinet also decided to bring in a new act in the state assembly to regulate cable network by setting up a regulatory authority. It is aimed at ending “monopoly” in both news and cable business. Sukhbir owns PTC Network, which has both news and entertainment channels. It also has exclusive rights to telecast Gurbani from the Golden Temple, granted by Badal-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Fastway, the company owned by Gurdeep Singh of Ludhiana, known to enjoy proximity to Sukhbir, has monopoly in the state’s cable business.
The top Akali leaders were also accused of having “benami” stakes in the state’s illegal sand cartels. The cabinet decided the department of mining would take necessary steps for “decartelising” mining of sand and stone/gravel in the state to achieve the objective of transparency in mining operations. But like in other businesses, some former Congress MLAs too have stakes in illegal mining.
Sukhbir also has a footprint in the hospitality sector — Oberoi-run Orbit Resorts in Gurgaon and Sukhvilas in New Chandigarh, which is owned by Metro Eco Resorts, a subsidiary of Orbit. The construction of a new road to the luxury resort had reached the HC but the petitioner later withdrew the case. The family’s transport and media business too was floated under subsidiaries of Orbit Resorts after the Badals came to power in 2007 .