Punjab deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal, and his wife, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, were engaged in a freewheeling chat with HT senior resident editor at a special interaction held in Chandigarh on Saturday. Here the are excerpts:
HT: Historically, Punjab polls have been a two-party affair. This time, do you think it’s going to be a three-horse race in Punjab this time?
Sukhbir: Actually it’s still a two-party game with the second party divided into two, three, or four, or five. Akali Dal is still there as one united party and we have our own space which we are retaining.
You are confident of a hat-trick though sporting stars such as Pargat Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu are in the opposite camp. Where does this confidence come from?
S: Pattern of voting has changed. Now people do not vote as per history, Panth, or on the lines of pure political affiliations. Today, the new generation, which is a major part of the electorate, votes keeping in view performance. If you look at our performance and compare it with others, it stands out completely. Keeping this in view, we are sure people will vote for performance.
Why should people give another mandate to the Shiromani Akali Dal?
Harsimrat: Because of the work done. Three key things — development, peace, and communal harmony… It’s a matter of pride that you have Prime Minister and finance minister of the country turn around and tell us that development in Punjab surpasses any other state… And development undertaken during this term surpasses even our own previous five-year tenure. It’s a government how it’s supposed to be — of the people, by the people, for the people. There are people who say 70% of Punjabis are nashedi (drug addicts). It’s actually like throwing muck at yourself. How can you do that for the sake of politics? It’s very sad. There is a new party, which says something in Punjab and after crossing the border says something else.
What is the single most important achievement of your government?
S: Fulfilling all promises that I made. Unprecedented development that even Congress cannot deny. Who could think 10 years back that we will make Punjab power surplus, Mohali international airport, connecting every town with express highways!
Will development really get you votes?
S: My style of politics is different. Winning and losing is in the hands of God. My passion is to create something and set examples, that if government wants it can deliver. It is a passion.
Whom do you consider a formidable challenger in this election? Congress or AAP?
S: Congress! AAP is nowhere.
Why not AAP?
S: AAP was, about a year-and-half back… because it was something new. Punjabis love new things; they buy new things and discard the old ones. AAP was a new party and people discarded the old parties.
H: It’s ‘made in China’!
S: I agree, AAP is ‘made in China’! Reality of Kejriwal has come out in the open.
What is that reality?
S: They want to fight in Punjab. But they do not know the culture of Punjab, the ethos of Punjab, what Punjabis stand for. They do not know what Panth is. They think the formula they used in Delhi will work here. There is a difference of day and night between Delhi and Punjab. By chance, God forbid, if AAP comes to power, they will create chaos here. It believes in agitation, not in governance. Kejriwal wants to become Punjab CM… A state like Punjab need help and support of government of India every minute. We are a border state. We want peace here. You will be surprised that Kejriwal comes to Punjab and starts liaisoning with radicals. The day before yesterday (Thursday) he was having breakfast with Akhand Kirtni Jatha, which is a political front of Babbar Khalsa International, the biggest terrorist organisation… He has dinner with the three ‘jathedars’ appointed by the ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ that declared Khalistan.
H: What is dangerous about this party (AAP) is that it is a party of opportunists. They will dump Punjab at the first opportunity and run away.
Why are youngsters enamoured with AAP?
H: I don’t think they are enamoured with AAP.
Is this due to disenchantment with your government?
S: No, not anymore. Kejriwal has dumped everybody who has helped him. First he dumped Anna Hazare, then Yogendra Yadav, and then he dumped (Sucha Singh) Chhotepur…
H: He will dump Punjab also
S: If your check records, 38 candidates of AAP have criminal records such as murder and cheating.
AAP has put up Sikh faces against CM Badal, and against you.
S & H (together): What have they put up?
S: Is Bhagwant Mann a Sikh? He goes to Darbar Sahib after getting drunk. He goes to Talwandi Sabo Takht sahib after having alcohol.
H: He is the first MP asked by the (Lok Sabha) speaker being asked to stay out because his colleagues could not put up with the stench of alcohol coming from him!
There have been two prominent poll surveys so far — one favours you and the other says Congress will win. Do you believe in these surveys?
S: No, I don’t believe in these surveys because I know the reality behind such surveys. These are all manipulated.
A widespread perception is that you are facing double anti-incumbency. What is going against your government?
S: You will talk about triple incumbency when we will fight for a fourth consecutive term. I go to the field every day. We can judge the public mood from the face expressions of the common man… Elections are won by cadre. If your army is strong, you will win a battle. If the army is demoralised, you can never win. And our army this time is more charged than it was in the 2012 elections.
What prompted you to put General JJ Singh (retd) against Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder from Patiala?
S: He was the first Sikh to be chief of army staff; and is very competent.
H: Three generations in the army!
S: Should I tell you something? He himself came to me.
H: He wants to trump the Captain.
And you didn’t have any candidate from Patiala?
S: Candidate was not an issue. Look at his passion. A chief of army staff wanted to join Akali Dal and wanted to fight. He is the best bet.
H: Captain is from a royal family; and here’s a soldier (JJ Singh) who fought and defended the nation and stands for sacrifice. So the real Captain and the real soldier — it’s going to be a fight between raja (king) and runk (commoner).
The drug issue has been resonating in Punjab. How serious is it?
H: Certain political parties can stoop to any extent, whether it is an attack on Darbar Sahib or the katle-aam (massacre) in 1984, or even coming to Punjab and declaring all Punjabis as drug addicts. They make political statements only to demolish opponents.
So, is there no drug problem in Punjab?
H: There is as much drug (abuse) in Punjab as there is anywhere else in the country.
S: How many people, children do you know who are into drugs? I am shocked at the opposition. You should not insult your homeland.
Why would your rival parties do that?
S: Look, say all that you want against the Badal family, but please don’t say Punjab youth is addicted to drugs. That’s why we were forced to do drug test!
What was the result (of tests conducted on 4 lakh male aspirants in police recruitment last year)?
S: 1.26 % (found hooked to drugs)!
Harsimrat, when your brother’s name cropped up in drug scam, how did you feel, as a sister?
H: Obviously, it hurts. Congress is very good at planning and plotting such things despite the fact that it was our party that went after these so-called druglords and caught them from other states. It was Amarinder Singh who had let him (Jagdish Bhola) off, and we went after him and caught him. Five central agencies came to Punjab, when Congress was in power at the Centre, and interrogated this druglord. Congress gave this bright idea to him: ‘Name ruling families and then you will be safe, nothing will touch you and the case will carry on for good.’ And that’s how the whole thing came about! If my brother was involved, why would we go after the druglord? We would have been the first one to let him flee further away. My brother doesn’t even take alcohol and meat.
S: Ehna (Majithias, Harsimrat’s paternal family) de kutte vee veg ne! (Even their pet dogs are vegetarian)… Frankly speaking, there are thousands of other ways to make money. They have their own sugar mill, they have their own airlines; they have got everything! Do you think they will get into drugs to make money? It is ridiculous.
Both AAP and Congress are promising to banish drugs in four weeks.
S: Captain sahib nu bolo daru chad den (Tell Captain to quit drinking).
In Patna, PM Narendra Modi complimented Bihar CM Nitish Kumar for the prohibition, the liquor ban there. Will you support a liquor ban in Punjab?
H: I am a teetotaller, born teetotaller, born vegetarian, despite coming from a family that produces alcohol. There is no one in my family who has ever tasted alcohol. Yes, I will definitely support prohibition.
What’s your view, Sukhbir?
H (laughs): He would lose his voice!
S: No, no! I don’t drink. The issue is that anything you stop will create an underground mafia. Today, you go to Gujarat. I think there is more alcohol consumed in Gujarat than anywhere else in the world. When they started prohibition in Haryana, it created a parallel mafia… In Bihar also, it’s available... We have to educate people to quit liquor.
H: In a democracy, you cannot stop people’s food and drink habits, and of course it is very good if the government cdoes something to make availability of liquor difficult. It has become a fashion with youth also. They get pushed into drinks just because of pressure. It’s extremely unfortunate.
One of the central allegations of AAP is that you and Capt Amarinder are mixed up.
S: First of all, Akali Dal can never, ever, ever, align with the Congress. We are ready to leave politics than align with Congress. It is the party that attacked the Golden Temple… we can dismantle Akali Dal but cannot align with Congress. This is clear.
Your criticism by opponents underlines your business interests. They say, ‘Give Sukhbir five years in power and he builds a five-star hotel for himself!’
S: The issue is whether or not you want politicians who declare all their assets. There is no newspaper that has not scrutinised my every business. And they could not find a single thing wrong. Amarinder set the state vigilance bureau against me, and they even counted my kids’ dresses.
H: Even the kitchen items!
S: They could not find anything wrong. There is also no conflict of interest. It shows that we are like an open book.
H: Unlike Amarinder, who opened Swiss bank accounts during his government but does not declare them.
Your critics say you have reduced politics to management of polls.
S: You cannot win an election by management alone. Today, you call me a very good manager. If I lose an election, you will question my managerial skills. It is all God’s will.
Badal Senior has been fighting Gandhi dynasty his entire life. Now he is promoting one at home.
H: Sukhbir has delivered, to be where he is today.
S: I will tell you something. The person who has come maximum in the way of my political career is my father. When I got into politics, he told me, ‘Eh toh baad mein nai kuch karna (I will not do anything beyond this).’ Can you imagine that when I used to be on the stage, I used to put my name on the list of those who wanted to speak; and he used to cut my name! I used to call the person (handling the list) and tell him, ‘I will not let you enter my house if you don’t write my name.’ I had to prove to the party that I can do better than others. I was looking after Youth Akali Dal first. I made the YAD crowds bigger than the main Akali Dal crowds at rallies. I had to prove myself again and again and again.
Now we have many sons and sons-in-laws of Akali leaders in the fray.
S: Look, if you go to buy a horse, you look at its pedigree! A family which is looking after a particular constituency — people trust them. They want the next generation to also come and take care of them. It is trust in a family. Not all politicians’ sons are successful... I can give you so many examples.
H: Rahul Gandhi!
You have three kids. Would you like for them to be in politics?
H: I was not inclined myself, what about my kids! It was all destiny.
S: It all depends on circumstances.
H: We got married on the condition that you (Sukhbir) will not enter politics. How could you forget that?
S: You know who got her into politics? Capt Amarinder Singh! Because he sent his son to our home constituency Bathinda and challenged us to field someone against his son. We were left with no choice… When we asked her to contest, she was doing sewa (voluntary service) at some gurdwara… She didn’t know where Bathinda was also!
H: My daughter called up her grandfather (CM Badal) saying, ‘We don’t see our father, now we won’t see our mother also.’ It was a huge turmoil.
S: Politics is the most difficult profession, a thankless job. People forget the 10 favours you did to them but will remember the one you didn’t. Let me give you an example. We changed the look of Bathinda city. We changed the lives of the people. What looked like a gutter… we made it look like a palace. But she lost by 30,000 votes from there (in 2014 Lok Sabha tally as part of larger Bathinda seat).
Does that mean development does not get votes?
S: People have no concept... asi dhakka karan wale log nahi haan (We are not ones who will force people to vote). We are very soft.
Nearly 1.4 crore people are covered under the atta-dal scheme, which is 80% of the state’s population. Is Punjab that poor?
S: It’s as per directions of the Government of India, that urban areas have to be covered 45% and rural areas 55%. The Food Security (Act) was passed by them. If people are getting some benefit, it is fine.
Amarinder has been promising 50 lakh mobile phones, one job per family. Kejriwal is also promising sops. Where can the money come from? Punjab is under heavy debt.
S: Look at the AAP manifesto in Punjab — a photocopy of its Delhi manifesto! Captain sahib is desperate. He has already said that it is his last election. He has no passion to perform. I have to perform to come back a third time. Captain sahib wants to lead an easy, cushioned life. Among the three parties, just see whose commitment level is high. AAP has no commitment level.
What role do you, Harsimrat, play in Sukhbir’s politics and the way he runs the government?
H: My father told me, ‘You follow him, and everything else will follow.’ It was a fantastic quote.
What was the toughest time you had in the government?
S: It was the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. It was such a sad affair. That one month was very tough.
Harsimrat, do you see yourself playing a more active role in state politics, say, as the Akali Dal’s first woman CM?
H: Are you kidding? Not a chance! I am not even fit to be at the position I am in. I have no such aspirations whatsoever. I had a different life and I got pushed into somewhere else. Badal sahib asked me to give my best shot, and I did.
How would you rate Sukhbir’s performance on a scale of 1 to 10?
H: If I had a choice, I will give him 15 out of 10! There is no doubt that our home and his health have been sacrificed, but the man has talent. If you look at the way he has done his business; the way he has transformed Punjab. If his father came with experience and his connect with the people, Sukhbir came with a vision. It was larger than life and way beyond what anybody could even imagine. He has brought Punjab to this level!
It’s election time; do you feel like a student facing exams every time?
H: That is what he was telling our daughter, that ‘my exams are before yours’.
S: I love a fight. I am a fighter. It is like a war room where all your strategies are taking shape. It is very exciting. But it is not an easy game. The best thing for Punjab is my father. He is like an umbrella. If, God willing, we get another five years, you will see a level of development you could not even imagine. We will bring a radical change.
H: We have put the building blocks in place and built on it. If a lazy Captain or an opportunist (like) Kejriwal comes to power, they will take Punjab back, which will be sad.
In UP, we have recently seen a father-son (Mulayam-Akhilesh Yadav) split while the Badals in Punjab are still going strong. What’s the secret?
S: Politics is my father’s life. For the last 10 years, the media has been writing, ‘Sukhbir to be sworn in this Monday’, ‘…on Diwali’, and so on! I have always said that as long as my father is fit, he will continue to be CM. And I am saying this today also. If we win… and he is fit, he will be CM.
H: He (Sukhbir) has changed so much in the last 10 years. He was impulsive. I used to tell him, ‘Why don’t you become like your father?’ There is so much to be imbibed from dad.
S: Working under him is the best experience one can get. It’s like joining Harvard Business School. He has the passion, dedication and commitment for the people that no one else can have. Even I don’t have it.
(Transcribed by Pawan Sharma and Sukhdeep Kaur)