In Punjab, the monsoon has brought with it a cloudburst of political controversies. That, for a change, means a frisson of relief for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which has long been facing intense heat over sacrilege, scandals, law and order, and drug issues. As the Aam Aadmi Party battles the miseries of manifesto and Malerkotla, Sukhbir Singh Badal, 54, evinces an unmistakable relish for throwing a resurgent opponent off balance in the rancour-laced race to assembly elections. Speaking to Senior Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak on Monday, the crown prince of Akali politics pulled no punches and cavalierly dismissed AAP. But, the way he railed and ranted against Kejriwal’s outfit betrayed who he reckons a potent challenger. Excerpts:
How do you look at Punjab’s political landscape today?
It’s a three-way fight. A year ago, many believed the Aam Aadmi Party was on an upswing. It was the media’s darling. People now know that was hype. The AAP will be number three in the assembly contest.
So, you consider the Congress, not AAP, the challenge?
Absolutely, the Congress is enemy number one. Things are going to go down further for the AAP. It’ll be like the Manpreet (Badal) phenomenon before the 2012 polls. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the AAP was a new fad. People know them now. The AAP lost the Delhi corporation polls. If it’s losing on home turf, can it dream of ruling Punjab?
If the AAP doesn’t matter, why do you attack it all the time?
The AAP is no threat. It has no agenda. It is leaderless. It has no organisational set-up or command structure. In that sense, it’s like the ISIS (Islamic terror outfit). Everyone in AAP thinks himself to be a leader. It’s a bunch of self-proclaimed commanders. It’s all chaos.
There is an impression that you are obsessed about AAP.
I’m not obsessed. Look at the mistakes they are making. Comparing the AAP youth manifesto with Guru Granth Sahib shows their knowledge about Punjab and Sikhism. AAP leader Sanjay Singh doesn’t know who Kartar Singh Sarabha is! And, they want to rule Punjab. They are like the East India Company. They are invaders.
But AAP has leaders from Punjab?
They are political rejects or radicals. Sucha Singh Chhotepur was a radical and a Khalistani. Who is their face for Punjab? I challenge them to declare their candidates for chief minister and MLAs, it will implode into 500 AAPs. It’s a ticking bomb.
In public perception, AAP is on a surge.
That’s a wrong assessment. The AAP’s agenda is not Punjab. (AAP convener) Arvind Kejriwal wants to use Punjab as a platform to fight the Narendra Modi government. At present, he is the chief minister of a municipality. He needs a state to elevate himself. He doesn’t care what it means for Punjab. Without the Centre’s support, no state can develop. Today, no Union minister says ‘no’ to Mr Parkash Singh Badal because of his stature. What will Kejriwal do? Sit on dharna against the Centre? You need funds for infrastructure. We got Rs 30,000 crore. Will Kejriwal get a rupee?
AAP has apologised for the manifesto faux pas.
But Kejriwal has not. He is the head of the family and the sin was committed in his presence. Like a ‘raja’, he has set a date to come to Amritsar. It shows his arrogance. For him, going to Darbar Sahib is a political game. He is not doing it from the heart. It’s for the Sikh community to decide whether to pardon him or not.
AAP accuses you of trying to frame and fix its leaders.
Did I instigate them to compare their manifesto with the holy book ? We didn’t even touch (Congress leader) Capt Amarinder Singh who, as chief minister, had slapped false cases against us.
But the Akalis are also known to use religious symbols in politics?
We publish photos of the Golden Temple but never compare Guru Granth Sahib with our manifesto. They (AAP leaders) see it as an ordinary book. For Sikhs, it’s the guru.
AAP MLA Naresh Yadav says he is being implicated in the Maler-kotla Quran desecration case.
Why would we choose him out of 67 AAP MLAs? If we intended to target the AAP, we would fix Kejriwal’s right hand man like Sanjay Singh or Manish Sisodia. I didn’t know Yadav till his name cropped up during the interrogation of the accused.
Didn’t you err in opposing the film, Udta Punjab?
We didn’t oppose the movie. I wasn’t even in India when it was released. The producers created the controversy. But the movie defamed Punjab.
Why are you in a denial about the drug issue?
The drug problem in Punjab is far less than in any other state. I’m hurt the Punjabi youth is branded an addict.
Why would anybody defame Punjab?
For politics. Are 70% of our youngsters into drugs? No one in Punjab believes that. Yet, Captain and Kejriwal are repeating this to get votes. It’s hurting Punjab’s image. Companies are refusing to invest. Mumbai-based pharma companies recently asked if they would get manpower here!
So what’s the extent of the drug problem?
I want the people of Punjab to look within. How many in their family take drugs? That’s the measure. We are putting the drug issue to a final test. We will conduct the drug test on all 6.5 lakh candidates for 12,000 police jobs. It’s a large, representational sample. That will tell us how serious the issue is.
But drugs are easily available.
Punjab is at the mouth of drug supply chain from Afghanistan. Pakistan is pushing in drugs. Those packets of heroin aren’t meant for Punjab but for the rest of India. We catch them and end up being called the drug capital.
Your government cracked down on drug peddlers but went into denial when names of politicians cropped up. How do you explain the flip-flop?
We have been saying that there is no drug problem in Punjab. The Centre has to seal the border. Today, the conviction rate for drugs in Punjab is the highest at 85%. It was 40% when we took over in 2007. Punjab is not Mexico.
Why do you blame the Centre?
It’s the Centre’s job to seal the border. We want the same level surveillance on Punjab’s border as it’s in Jammu and Kashmir.
Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, chief parliamentary secretary in your government, says drugs are ferried in red-beacon vehicles?
Do you believe her? She has another agenda. She also uses a red beacon. For three years, she has been saying what she wants. I don’t care about non-entities.
Drug mafias enjoy political patronage?
Why would politicians get into it?
For anybody in politics, reputation matters. There are thousand other ways to make money. A serious politician will never look at drugs as a source of income. Punjab is a small state and everybody will know about it.
Will drugs be an issue in Punjab polls?
No. People can tell the truth from the propaganda. If Punjabis are on drugs, will they be leading producers of wheat, rice, tractors, milk and sports. Punjab has the second highest representation in the Indian squad for the Rio Olympics. Politicians calling us addicts are enemies of Punjab and Sikhs.
Both Amarinder and Kejriwal have promised to end the drug problem in four weeks, if elected.
In Delhi, drugs are available at every corner. People have died in shelter homes due to overdose. Has Kejriwal arrested a drug dealer in two years? It’s a poll stunt.
Kejriwal says he will shut all your illegal businesses?
I have no illegal business. Amarinder tried but couldn’t find any. Kejriwal should name the illegal businesses I own. I have hotels in Gurgaon and am building one in Punjab, with permission given during the Congress rule. It’s an open secret.
AAP says the Badals and Amarinder are hand in glove?
The AAP formed its first government in Delhi with Congress support. The world can turn upside down but the Akalis will never align with the Congress, which attacked the holiest shrine of the Sikhs and killed thousands.
Do you believe foreign-based Khalistanis are backing the AAP?
Yes. For Khalistanis, Akalis are the biggest foe because we stand for India. When Amarinder was chief minister, he was honoured at Dixie Gurdwara in Toronto, the headquarters of the Khalistanis. Now that he is down, they have dumped him and turned AAP-backers, hoping Kejriwal can finish us.
But the AAP is getting traction from NRIs?
Not NRIs, only radicals.
Where is the evidence of the AAP-Khalistani link?
Kejriwal met radicals in Punjab. Last year, radicals started a website to build a campaign for the ‘sarbat khalsa’ in Amritsar. Soon after the event, it became AAP’s portal. I have proof.