Image makeover and course correction: These words are the centre-piece of Sukhbir Badal’s post-poll strategy to stem a groundswell of public ire dogging the ruling SAD-BJP alliance. With the drug issue becoming hot political fodder and the seven-year-old Badal government battling its worst perception crisis, the SAD chief and deputy chief minister has moved quickly on three fronts: crackdown against drug traffickers, course correction on its unpopular policies, and a renewed push to his sputtering development agenda. In his first interview since a humiliating Lok Sabha poll outing, Sukhbir, 52, spoke to Senior Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak, on Friday, fielding a range of tough questions at his residence in Chandigarh.
What's your take on your party's below-par performance in the recent Lok Sabha polls?
A major factor responsible for that is the emergence of a third force in the form of Aam Aadmi Party. It has hit us more than it hit the Congress as AAP cut a bigger space in rural areas. It was a new phenomenon that happened just six or seven days before polling.
Why did AAP fare so well only in Punjab?
Punjab is a politically conscious state. Here, most people read the papers, watch TV and discuss politics. NRIs also pitched in for AAP in a major way, calling up their relatives in Punjab. Suddenly, an AAP tsunami emerged from nowhere days before the elections. But, let me tell you that AAP is like the bird flu that comes suddenly and disappears once there is an antidote. I see no future for them as they are a bunch of anarchists with a destructive mind.
The BJP says there was a ‘volcano of anti-incumbency’ against the government?
Had it been so, the BJP wouldn’t have got the two seats. I agree four or five issues earned us the public wrath. We were unsuccessful in conveying the actual facts and the cause of those issues. For example, our government got the blame for high prices of sand and gravel while, in reality, a mining ban by the Centre had caused the shortage. Punjab has 500 mines but we could get the central clearance for only 50, and that too after lobbying hard for three years. Then, there was the drug issue. For the past two years, we have been fighting the biggest war against drugs. We caught the kingpins, put 2,000 people in jail and recovered the maximum narcotics. All the drugs came from Pakistan and the border is controlled by the Centre. We kept saying all this but could not get it across to the voter.
This means people didn’t trust your government on drugs?
The media created so much hype that Punjab was knee-deep in drugs. The media has labelled the entire state as drug addicts. But the reality is far from it. The problem is extremely exaggerated and it is unfortunate that we are painting our own state in bad light. I feel drugs in Punjab are there as much as they are in any other state. The only difference is we have been recovering them and taking the issue head on.
Why didn’t the Modi factor work even in urban areas of Punjab?
We were forced to levy the property tax in urban areas as a precondition for the central grants for urban infrastructure. We were losing crores of central funds and realised that we needed them for the state’s development. The property tax translates into only Rs. 200 crore a year but it will help us tap Rs. 5,000 crore from the Centre. So, it was a tough choice between skipping the property tax and foregoing the huge grant and imposing the tax and getting the grant. People want the state government to provide every service without them having to pay even a single penny. I agree that the timing (of imposing the tax) just two months before the elections was wrong, and the formula too complicated. We are simplifying it and making the process uniform. We also faced the urban wrath for our well-intentioned move to regularise illegal colonies so as to provide basic amenities to citizens. Unscrupulous colonisers carved out unauthorised colonies and ran away. People wanted us to regularise them without them having to pay anything.
Your government has been drawing flak for appointing defeated Akalis as extra-constitutional halqa in-charge?
This concept of halqa in-charge is not created by us. It’s been there in the Congress regimes too. A halqa in-charge is no constitutional authority. They are just like regional managers and part of the organisation.
But, they decide on development funds, postings and transfers and even FIRs?
That’s an exaggerated allegation. If we have lost election in a constituency, that doesn’t mean we stop serving people there. A Congress MLA will never come to our government regarding people’s work and would rather let his constituency suffer. So, if an Akali representative is there, people have a political interface with the administration. There may be instances of a halqa in-charge going overboard and exploiting his position. We will have checks and balances, and I will pull up anyone exceeding his brief.
Post-poll, what course correction is your government undertaking?
We are taking immediate decisions. On drugs, we are moving strongly. The nexus is being broken. Drug-traffickers are being put behind bars and police officials in cahoots with narcotic business are being dismissed.
Isn’t that a knee-jerk reaction in the absence of a rehabilitation policy?
It’s a continuation of our war against drugs for the past two years. Earlier, the police used to haul drugs almost daily and make announcements quoting international prices…Rs 5 crore, Rs. 6 crore. The media amplified it, though the ground situation is not so bad. This created the impression that Punjab was too much into drugs. Publicising in that fashion was the biggest mistake our police made.
So, what changes are you making?
We are working on a two-pronged strategy. It’s a learning process. It is not just cracking down on drug peddlers; we need to rehabilitate drug addicts. Having realised that, there are certain black sheep in police; we have identified and dismissed many of them, many more will go. We have also created a state narcotic control bureau under an inspector general of police. This set-up will be over and above the police and de-linked from the normal policing. It has power to go anywhere and check anyone. They will have their own intelligence network. The second piece is rehabilitation for which we will earmark huge funds and are also seeking the Centre’s assistance.
The charge is that your government is not going after the big fish?
There are no political kingpins. It’s mere hype.
Your ally, the BJP, says that drug trade is flourishing due to political patronage?
They are not in the know. It’s more of hype. As home minister, I can tell you that there is no political kingpin. Till now, I haven’t come to know of the political patronage at the level everyone is talking. Nor has any Akali leader or worker come to save anyone caught for drugs.
The opposition Congress is asking for your minister-kin Bikram Singh Majithia’s head ever since the druglord Jagdish Bhola named him?
As home minister, I can tell you that Bikram is not involved. If there is even an iota of truth in the allegations, I would be the first person to arrest him. It’s political conspiracy to malign him. Bikram is very religious, a teetotaller and a vegetarian.
How come your government is synonymous with all sorts of mafias – sand, drug, liquor, cable?
My thrust has been on positive agenda. Earlier, Akalis used to curse the Congress and they would in turn curse us. I realised why I should divert my attention to negativity. In the past seven years, we have only talked about development and the Congress has no counter to that. So, they started making the mafia allegations. If you delve deeper, you would find that 80% of people in the sand trade are Congressmen. The Congress is good in spreading false propaganda. If I stop at a roadside dhaba for lunch, they say, ‘Eh Sukhbir da hai (It belongs to Sukhbir)’. They even attribute the Congress MLA’s five-star hotel in Ludhiana to me.
But, even the Punjab BJP wants the government to come clean on the mafia tag?
They (BJP) are part of the government. Whatever we do – good or bad – they are party to it. The mining department is with the BJP and their minister knows what’s happening on the sand issue. How can they say that the government should come clean? Rather, they should come clean. If they have any information, why don’t they reveal it?
There is a perception that you have reduced BJP ministers to mere rubber stamps and are driving their departments?
Not at all! The BJP is independent and is not in the habit of being driven. The chief minister doesn’t let anybody interfere in others’ ministries. The BJP is solely responsible for the success or failure of their departments.
A section of Akalis attributes the voters’ ire to dilution of Panthic agenda?
Can you tell me what exactly is Panthic agenda? We have celebrated all religious functions and built memorials to Sikh history. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution alone doesn’t mean Panthic agenda. If you ask people in Punjab as to what the resolution is all about, 90% people would draw a blank. It is for more powers to states; we still stand by it and are fighting for it. We will now take it up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As a four-time chief minister, he understands the states’ perspective better.
There are accusations of concentration of power in the Badal family. Four of your members hold 32 of the 55 portfolios in the state?
The Kairons and Majithias are independent families and have their own political legacies. If we are related to them by marriage, that doesn’t mean an elimination of their political space. The question is: are we performing or not? Is our party happy or not? The SAD is not a family party. Before my father, someone else was the president, and after me, it’s not like my son has to take over.
So, it’s not the Badal dynasty in making?
No. If I don’t perform, I am out, and someone else will step in. The dynasty thing cannot work in the Akali Dal. People are hawkish, ever ready to throw out anyone who doesn’t perform.
There are questions over a phenomenal growth of your assets – from Rs. 60 crore in 2009 to Rs. 108 crore in 2014?
There is nothing that I haven’t declared in my I-T returns. If I have paid tax on all my income, what wrong have I done? I was not a pauper when I took over the Akali Dal in 2007. Our transport business has been there since 1947. My grandparents owned thousands of acres in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – the ancestral farms. There is Chak Badal village in Rajasthan that we entirely owned. My every business is legitimate and I have taken no favours from the government. If I have built a hotel in Gurgaon, how is it a conflict of interest? If you look at the balance sheets every year, there have been profits, huge profits. If I do a good job and if I have done a business properly, and if those profits are ploughed back in other businesses, what’s illegal about it?
Your luxury bus transport business gained from a favourable policy?
This charge has been scrutinised by the court and found to be baseless. When we got into the luxury transport, I was not even part of the government. If I don’t have any source of income and am in government, what will be my intention -- to make money by dishonest means! Why should I do that? I am like an open book. ‘Waheguru ne enni bakshish keeti hai, menu thuggi maran di lor nahin (The Almighty has bestowed so much on me, I don’t have to commit fraud). I actually feed my party from my company resources. I am what I am due to the party and that’s my humble payback.
There are allegations that the business interests of Majithia and Kairons have gained from the government’s favour?
I don’t know or I am not involved or I don’t care for what the Kairons or the Majithias do. They are all independent people. I am actually not in the know. I can only answer for myself.
What’s your wishlist for Modi?
Punjab is at a stage where you can take off. We have a clearly defined roadmap for every sector. After power, we are focusing on best road connectivity and basic civic facilities in 180 towns in the next three years. We are not asking for too many funds. We want clearances, mostly environmental, for airports and road projects. We have wasted the past three years as the files kept lying in Delhi under the UPA regime. We want the Centre’s help for diversification of agriculture and upgrade of our irrigation system. Most important, we will ask for an industrial/financial package. My team is working out on what exactly we need from the central government and we hope to manage it, one by one.
It appears the drug issue is overshadowing your development agenda.
Not in the least. We are putting a system in place on the drug issue and it will work on its own. We are very much focused on development. One big agenda that I am pursuing is the administrative reforms to the last dot. Things haven’t been implemented the way I wanted. We will take bold decisions to eliminate the resistance to reforms. As follow-up to investors’ summit, 60 big-ticket projects are lined up and will get fast-tracked soon. Thirty of them are in the food-processing sector. People of Punjab are very impatient. And I know it too well.