Turning a murky personal row into a political advantage is a shrewd craft that Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh seems to know only too well. Buffeted by the high-voltage charges over his questionable land deals that have also left his arch Congress rival Capt Amarinder Singh smirking with glee, the Majha chieftan has dubbed the Akali government’s saber-rattling to order an inquiry against him as "political vendetta" — as part of his well-crafted counter tactics to portray himself as a gritty fighter against the ruling Badals. A nattily-dressed Bajwa, 56, was at his scathing and sarcastic best in attacking the SAD-BJP government and lobbed a few loaded barbs at his Congress rivals while fielding a range of questions in a 90-minute interaction with HT staffers. Excerpts:
HT: What was the challenge when you took over as president of the Punjab Congress in March?BAJWA:
The biggest challenge was to galvanise the Congress cadre. They were de-spirited because of the oppressive regime. I was not sure of the response, but there is seething anger against the present rulers, which they cannot foresee. At the moment, Akalis are flying very high. I am 100% sure people are going to teach them a lesson in the next Lok Sabha polls.
There is an impression that your senior colleagues have not lent the kind of support you need.
You are right to an extent that the kind of support I was expecting, I could not get. It is for them to explain why they are not giving me support. The party workers feel we should be working together. (Rajinder Kaur) Bhattal is okay. Jagmeet (Singh Brar) was in competition. As for Amarinder, I do not know what are his problems? I have been made PPCC president by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. She made Amarinder too. We all accepted him. He too should accept her decision.
Are you reaching out to them?
I have been trying to reach out to them. I went to meet Amarinder and Brar. I have been to Bhattal’s house a couple of times. Whenever there is a change, it takes time to adjust and reconcile. After all, Amarinder has been at the helm for 15 years.
Capt Amarinder has launched a parallel tour. Did he consult you? Is it an attempt to sabotage your popularity?
I do not see it as a parallel tour. He told the high command that if somebody wants to call me to a tea party why anyone should object. He is too senior. If he wants to have lunch or tea at somebody’s house, why should he consult me? There is no problem in Bhattal or Brar going anywhere till the time they do not say something contrary to the party line. I do not see it as an attempt to sabotage me.
In your view, why is Amarinder not supporting you? Are the reasons personal or political?
There cannot be any personal reasons. I have been his cabinet minister. He had a great liking for me and I had a great liking for him. If he has some problem, he should come up and explain. I have always considered him as an elder brother. Our thought process is almost the same.
When you were appointed as PCC president, Amarinder went on record to say, if consulted, he would have recommended a better successor. Was that not an expression that you are not on the same page?
It is something I can’t answer. I was myself taken aback when I read that. If he said that from Day One, it is he who has to tell me what is the problem. I always stood by him when he was leading the Pradesh Congress.
You and CLP leader Sunil Jakhar also do not seem to be getting along. Why?
CLP is part and parcel of the Pradesh Congress. The PCC president is very much in his right to call the CLP meeting. It was general secretary in-charge Shakeel Ahmed who told me to convene the meeting. I could have called it independently too and it would not be infringing on CLP’s domain.
Why is the list of the PCC state executive still not out? Is the delay because of opposition from the Amarinder camp?
I have just met Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The list has reached him. It is already in the process of being cleared and will be out in a day or two. The delay is owing to many factors. I also sent it much later as I wanted to first see the working of my colleagues. I also needed time to go across the state. I have completed part one and two of my mass contact programme. Now I am starting with the third phase.
Amarinder has asked you to come clean on your land deals.
I have made everything clear. I did that with 24 MLAs in tow at the Congress Bhawan. If he wants that I should transfer the land title to him, I will do that. What does he mean by coming clean? I am not facing any criminal proceeding. A lot of people are facing criminal proceedings, let them focus on their cases and let me focus on mine.
Are you hinting at court cases against Amarinder?
I am not hinting at him but those facing criminal cases should not give directions to me.
Your party MLAs didn’t defend you in the Assembly?
In the assembly, it was not my colleagues, but I who was at fault. I was not able to inform them in time. Even my wife did not know the details. Had I informed my colleagues, they would have defended me.
You and your wife said you are open to CBI or any other inquiry.
It is already under the scrutiny of the Punjab and Haryana high court. The CBI is not over and above the court. If still it is sent to the CBI, I will welcome it. If it is decided that all shamlat land should be returned back, I will be the first person to return it. I will be willing to give it for any purpose and not even demand stamp duty paid by me back.
Why don’t you surrender the land? The shamlat land exchanged hands within your family. Your younger brother was one of the sellers.
My brother is not the seller of the land. He just had the general power of attorney which was sold to me.
After all, the controversy has taken a toll on your political career.
How has it taken a toll? Have I been indicted by anybody? Let Badal take a stand and withdraw the SLP against the Justice Kuldip Singh panel from the Supreme Court. If Justice Singh does not want to continue, let some HC judge complete the probe. Let there be a decision that land in all 77,000 cases will be given back to the villages, I will be the first one to surrender.
The government may order a probe into your land deal?
It is 100% political vendetta. Parkash Singh Badal has the habit of doing this. He will say it is not him, but Congressmen who want an inquiry. The whole of Badal family is in land deals. The 7-star hotel at Pallanpur is on forest land and roads are being built there, but nobody is catching them. The sand mining mafia is today worth `3000 crore and a part of huge loot that they are doing.
Why don’t you move the court against Pallanpur project?
First, let me get free from the courts I am facing now. This fight is not going to end here. It has just started.
Majithia accuses you of stamp duty evasion. He also produced orders of the ADC court in Mohali.
The funniest thing is that all those four orders have been done in one day. When our lawyer went to the ADC office, we gave a reply that we received no notices. The registered address of the company is my house in Chandigarh, but they are claiming they got a muniyadi (announcement) done thrice at Bhronjian village where nobody stays. It is all one-way, which they are calling ex-parte. We never even knew about the ADC court. How can you say stamp duty has been evaded on a land which is agricultural? They are putting commercial rate. They are trying to sully my image.
Why do Punjab politicians need to buy land in the periphery of Chandigarh?
What is wrong in it? We are farmers. Is it a crime to buy land? Since Badal has joined politics, get complete judicial probe into all properties they hold. Sukhbir is building seven-star hotels every second year. In my political career this is the first land I have bought.
You said the fight has just begun. What do you mean?
They are trying to single me out. We are not going to leave them. They will have to pay a heavy price. We will hound them.
Do you have evidence against them?
The whole of Punjab knows about them. In liquor business, there are 15 distilleries and 13 of them are made to pay up Rs. 3 crore annually to the Badals. Two distilleries are not paying the money. One of them is a politician. The other is an old one and refused to pay. Every single carton they manufacture, Rs. 7 a carton is going to Sukhbir’s business. I have been told this by one of the owners. Then, all L-13 wholesale licences are being run by (Bikram) Majithia’s brothers. Why don’t you investigate against them?
Are you saying the Panthic party is being run on liquor money?
Is there any doubt about it? Where is the Panthic ethos of this party. The Majithias own a distillery in UP under Saraya Distilleries. They are setting up another one in Bathinda.
What about overlapping business interests of Akalis and Congress?
That’s different. Let’s first get on to these guys. In the assembly, Sukhbir Badal said some Congressmen are involved. What stopped him from naming them?
Didn’t they name Jagmohan Kang?
They targeted Kang as he picked up the issue. The whole of sand mining is being run by Noni Mann, son of ex-Akali MP Zora Singh Mann, Rosy Barkandi who was their party candidate from Muktsar and Jalandhar MLA Sarabjit Makkar’s brother.
Majithia has been leading the charge against you, but you are hitting at the Badals.
As PCC president, why should I join issue with him? It is clear tactics of Badals. Like you tie a dog outside your house to bark at people. He has been kept for this purpose. By the end of the day, Majithia’s neck will be in the noose.
Is Majithia there to bark or bite, too?
He also bites. He is doing both the jobs. Finally, they will sacrifice him. Badal has become Santa Claus and claims he cannot hear or see anything. He has let his son’s brother-in-law in the front. When needed, they will behead him.
Your senior colleagues say you are not trustworthy?
If I was not trustworthy how did I enjoy the confidence of four successive Congress CMs with whom I worked as minister? The biggest barometer is my own area. I won against Bollywood superstar Vinod Khanna in Gurdaspur. How is it that relatives of some leaders could not win, while my wife won by the highest margin among women MLAs in Punjab?
Amarinder says you are the best candidate to contest next Lok Sabha poll from Gurdaspur, while you want him to contest from Bathinda.
That shows the amount of love we have for each other. I am so thankful that he has recommended my name for something. Once he makes up his mind to contest from Bathinda, I would love to do so from Gurdaspur.
Why Amarinder for Bathinda?
It is part of his erstwhile princely state. The Badals and Majithias hail from Majha. Amarinder is an original Malwai. Each seat is important for us and Amarinder is the tallest leader for Bathinda.
What about Manpreet Badal from Bathinda? Are you still open for alliance with him?
At one time, I was keen on taking Manpreet, but the cadre in Bathinda is not keen on him. They do not want him. The high command will go by the recommendation made by me. I am personally in favour of an alliance between secular forces. He has still not made up his mind on what he wants to do. Nobody has time to keep waiting. We have to make our plans.
Are you happy about the appointment of Sukhpal Khaira as spokesman? You called him a misguided missile.
I am absolutely delighted by his performance (laughs)
You haven’t spelt out your vision for Punjab.
Punjab today needs a second green revolution. FDI in retail will benefit farmers. Sukhbir backtracked after welcoming it. No matter where Sukhbir Badal goes and what he promises, no industry will come to Punjab as the first thing he demands is a cut for himself. Has he ever thought about small and medium industry in Punjab? Only cycle industry has stayed in Punjab. “Unhu hi chalaiye janade ne pedal mar mar (they are still pedaling on the cycle industry). First, you need to create the right law and order. If he claims to be a brilliant CEO and his hotels can run in profits, then why are Punjab roadways or state tourism projects running into losses?
He has been claiming to make Punjab power surplus.
Jadon sari industry baand ho jani ae, Punjab apne aap power suprlus ho jana (when entire industry will shut shop, Punjab will automatically become power surplus). He is a dream merchant. He had told HT that ‘you don’t need money, you need only ideas’. Jhuth bolan vaaste vi idea hi chahida ae (even for lying you need an idea). He is just taking the state for a ride. Where is Ludhiana metro or the greenfield airport in Machhiwara? Now they are saying one of the power plants will be launched on Badal’s birthday. No one knows Badal’s birthday date. In the last 5-7 years, they have been changing it. They started from February 10 years back and have now reached December. Like Nanakshahi calender, they change dates.
Compiled by Sukhdeep Kaur and Navneet Sharma