In an unprecedented move, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government will boycott the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the centrally-funded super-specialty hospital - an extension of Chandigarh's Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) - at Sangrur on Thursday in protest against the Centre's "failure" to extend a formal invite to chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.
Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will attend the function that has now been reduced to a "Congress show". Gandhi is also scheduled to address a political rally on the occasion.
A major political storm erupted in Punjab on Wednesday after a peeved Badal shot off a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday evening, charging the UPA government with "grave political impropriety and protocol violation" by not extending him an official invitation for the function. However, a Union health ministry official claimed to have "duly extended the invitation to the chief minister from ministry as well as through PGIMER".
"What was conveyed to us was just an intimation, and not an invitation. There was no mention of the timing of the function," said Punjab health minister Surjit Kumar Jyani. "Thus, the state government has decided to boycott the function," he added.
Talking to Hindustan Times at Jalandhar, Badal said, "Where is the question of attending a function where you are not invited."
At the heart of the latest political face-off is the credit war between the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress over the biggest hospital project to come up in the Malwa region.
Soon after Badal's office faxed the letter to PM, Azad called up the chief minister. But Badal "politely declined" Azad's personal invite, saying he had voiced his "displeasure and dismay to the prime minister over the unseemly lack of courtesy and decorum" and "can't change the schedule fixed a month in advance at a short notice".
"I have a sangat darshan programme at Gidderbaha on Thursday. Villagers wait for me to hear their problems. I will not be able to change my programme at two days' notice," Badal told Azad.
According to the chief minister's office, Badal also reminded the union health minister about his October 1, 2012 letter informing Azad about the piece of land identified at Sangrur for setting up a second campus of the PGIMER. The chief minister told Azad he had always extended a red-carpet welcome to union ministers and other constitutional dignitaries from the Centre and he would have ensured a warm reception to them as he had personally tried to secure land for the project and pursued it with his ministry.
Badal's unusual outburst came after he learnt on Tuesday that the Sangrur function was not just a political rally by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi along with some union ministers but also the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the hospital project. He reportedly asked officers in the CMO, health and medical education departments to confirm if any official invite had come from the union heath ministry or the PGIMER for him. Told that there was no official invite, Badal took up the matter with prime minister.
Objecting both to the manner and motive behind not keeping the state government in the loop, Badal, in his letter to the prime minister, said that keeping Punjab in the dark about the ceremony was "a grave and avoidable political impropriety". "This needless act of cheap political gimmickry has dealt a severe blow to the spirit of cooperative federalism," he added.
As the government's PR machinery went into an overdrive to air the chief minister's "hurt", the union health ministry and authorities at the PGIMER, Chandigarh, went into damage control claiming that all important persons, including the chief minister, had been invited.
Harcharan Bains, adviser on national affairs and media to the chief minister, claimed the official invites were sent to other dignitaries but not to the chief minister, who heads the state government.
But the opposition Congress went on the offensive. State Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa accused the chief minister of telling a "bundle of lies" and insisted that the function was being organised by the union health ministry for which Badal had got an invite.
With inputs from Pawan Sharma and Vishav Bharti
What messed it up?
A late confirmation on Rahul Gandhi's schedule led to a mess-up on invitation cards for the Sangrur function. According to PGIMER sources, Gandhi's schedule was received as late as Wednesday morning. As a result, the invitation cards could not be printed and Badal didn't receive a printed invite. Earlier, PGIMER had written to the Punjab chief secretary on the date of the function with a note that the timings would be conveyed later.