His much-hyped tour of North America made news for all the wrong reasons. Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh had to cancel his public programmes at Vancouver and Toronto after the Canadian government read him the rule book on “no campaigning allowed on its soil” following petition by US-based activist group, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which later stalled his visit by filing an alleged torture case during his stint as CM. Later, SFJ ensured all his rallies in the seven US cities faced protests by slogan-shouting radicals. Back home, there were murmurs within senior Congress leaders at the timing of the tour and the “negative” publicity on social media. But in an interview to HT, Amarinder shrugs off the naysayers and dubs his visit as one that has turned the tide of Punjabi diaspora towards the Congress.
You had to cancel the Canada tour and faced protests in the US. Why is your North America visit being seen as a flop show?
I toured seven US cities, addressed seven rallies and held 28 smaller meetings with 200-300 people over lunch, dinner, tea or coffee. Each of my public meetings had over 1,000 people. I spoke to a large number of NRIs in Toronto and Vancouver on Skype. Lakhs of Punjabis spread across seven countries, including the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the UAE, saw my interview on the news channel, Jus Punjabi. Are 80-odd people shouting anti-national slogans more important than thousands who met me and lakhs who heard me on the news channel? These protesters do not wear western but traditional clothes to distinguish themselves from others, live in gurdwaras and are paid by SFJ to fan anti-India sentiments. The common belief among the Punjabi diaspora is that Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the SFJ’s legal adviser, is funded by Pakistan spy agency, ISI. So it is his dal-roti to protest or his funding would stop.
But don’t you think you emboldened SFJ by cancelling your Canada trip?
The judge who was hearing the torture case filed by SFJ did not entertain the plea on the grounds that the petitioner was not on Canadian soil. But had I landed in Canada, I would not have been able to leave if the judge took time for the hearing. I could not have afforded to get stuck there as I had programmes planned in US cities. Pannun is making a killing out of asylum-seekers and uses young boys seeking asylum to shout slogans. In fact, some of these young men who seek asylum after not getting jobs in Punjab, get green cards and jobs in the US and Canada but are not able to return to India. I am going to take this up with the external affairs ministry as they should get Indian visas to come back to their country.
There were also murmurs within your own party on the timing of the visit and publicity on social media. Even poll strategist Prashant Kishor believes NRIs do not impact poll outcome.
You know these people who are calling the visit a flop show . Some of the state Congress leaders even went about showing videos and pictures on social media in Parliament. I am not bothered by what they think. As for Prashant, he understands strategy, not the intricacies of Punjab politics. NRIs are biggest supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party. A majority of Punjabi NRIs are from Doaba, where they have one or less than one acre of land. They help their families and relatives back home by sending money working as truckers and taxi drivers. They play a big role in forming the opinion of their relatives and villages during elections. We lost the 2012 state elections and 2014 Lok Sabha elections as we were not able to reach out to them.
So you were mainly reaching out to AAP supporters?
Elite Punjabi NRIs were never with the AAP. It had support base among strong force of taxi drivers and truckers in the US. In New York alone, out of one lakh taxi drivers, 25,000 are from Punjab. In areas around San Jose, there are nearly 2,500 Punjabi truckers carrying fresh fruits and vegetables over hundreds of miles. I have reached out to them and told them the AAP could not deliver governance. We have been able to convert them into Congress supporters. The general secretary of the taxi union in New York has posted his counter to one of the adverse comments on a picture I have posted on my Facebook account with the New York taxi drivers. He even came to see us off at the airport.
So you agree the AAP had influence among Punjabi NRIs? What were the questions they asked you?
It is like it is in Punjab. The NRIs, too, share the feeling that let’s give someone new a chance. But the performance of the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi has disillusioned many of them. Which is why in my meetings and rallies, I told them Punjab could not afford experimenting with the AAP. The questions they ask are the same as in Punjab. They read newspapers and see news channels from Punjab and wanted to know our agenda on drug menace, unemployment, farmer crisis, state’s poor financial health and the deteriorating law and order.
Will you plan a tour to Canada before elections? You found support against SFJ.
I have hired a good team of lawyers in Toronto and we will ensure that a higher court settles the matter so that I can visit the country before elections. It should be a blanket order that does not allow SFJ to again go to court to stall my visit. I have received a letter from the Canadian High Commission in response to the letter I had written to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau expressing my displeasure at the way my programmes were scuttled while AAP leaders such as HS Phoolka, Bhagwant Mann and Sukhpal Khaira have been holding their public programmes in Canada. I am not interested in doing any diplomatic nicety with them and will speak straight from the shoulder. It is such a disgrace that I was not allowed to meet people and address their concerns despite having a constitutional post as deputy leader of Congress in Lok Sabha. You cannot have a constitution that allows freedom of speech and assembly and a law that contradicts it.