He parted ways with not just the government but also his party and family over sops, mainly free power to farmers. But as a Congressman, former finance minister Manpreet Badal, the chief minister’s estranged nephew, is raining freebies.
While releasing the Congress manifesto at Chandigarh here on Monday, Manpreet said it had a “strong imprint” of his People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) — which merged into the Congress last January — but it was a “new wine, in new bottle”.
The Congress had failed to promise sops in the 2012 polls as then union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee wanted the manifesto to be “workable”. But after the “vanilla" manifesto pitched on idealism, both Manpreet and the Congress have got a taste of realpolitik. They did not have to look far for inspiration. The party’s rival, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), had rained sops in the 2012 manifesto and romped home, even though most of what it promised remains unfulfilled. After two back-to-back poll drubbings, the Congress also needs to outwit the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a formidable challenger, which is releasing a series of manifestos to woo all sections of voters.
No wonder, Manpreet justified the poll doles as the “need of the hour”. The manifesto begins by saying: “The Congress is committed to end despair and insecurity among people of Punjab and restore the state’s honour.” It is another matter that not very long ago as the state’s finance minister, Manpreet had invoked state’s honour to give up freebies so that the “state does not have to go with a begging bowl to the government at the Centre, seeking a bailout”.
The manifesto had few surprises. Party’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor was already putting the manifesto in action through the many campaigns that are creating a database of voters, such as Coffee with Captain, Halke Vich Captain, debt waiver, free smartphones and one job per family. The 11-member manifesto committee of the party led by former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Manpreet came up with few more promises by meeting various sections of voters for a wishlist.
“The manifesto is a result of labour of six months. We met every section of society, from traders to industry, women to youth. The youth want jobs and the industry wants lower power tariffs. The choice is between letting industry flee to other states or making it stay by offering incentives. In the long run, it will create more jobs and more taxes,” Manpreet told HT after the manifesto release.
The former FM has done his math to explain the annual outgo of Rs 10,000 crore on the sops. “We will spend big on welfare schemes by reining in government expenditure and mafias that deprive the state of its revenue. One way would be to trim bureaucratic flab and political appointees. There are 100 commissions, boards, improvement and other trusts in Punjab that are a drain on its resources. Each runs an annual bill of about Rs 5 crore. There are also many unnecessary posts such as district transport officers (DTOs) and divisional commissioners. We can simply do away with them,” Manpreet said. Interestingly, Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh has promised to “reward” rebels vying for party tickets in the many boards and corporations.
The party believes it could unlock another few thousand crores by bringing the end to “mafia raj” of the present SAD-BJP government . “The sand mafia collects goonda tax. The liquor mafia, cable mafia, land mafia and transport mafia have all robbed state government departments of their money to ensure the businesses of the ruling family flourished. We will end it all. And Rs 3,000 crore a year revenue will come to the state once this is done,” Manpreet said.
The Congress has also factored in the goods and services tax (GST) to back its profligacy. “I believe Punjab will be a net gainer up to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore annually under the GST regime. So we will ensure a welfare government by mopping up more revenue and reducing government expenditure,” he said. Denying that he had quit the SAD over free power, the former FM said, “The farmers are already in such a bad state. We cannot burden them with power bills.”