For the Congress, Capt Amarinder Singh is the man of the moment. Entrusted with the onerous task of spearheading the party’s campaign to wrest power in Punjab even after he presided over two successive defeats in the 2007 and 2012 assembly polls, will he be third-time lucky in the state polls due in early 2017? A lot is riding on the scion of the erstwhile Patiala royalty in the high command’s scheme of things as Punjab offers the first plausible window to bounce back in state power sweepstakes.
A day before formally taking up the reins of the Punjab Congress at Bathinda on Tuesday, Amarinder, 73, sat down for an exclusive hour-long interview with Senior Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak at his Motibagh Palace in Patiala. Exuding his trademark confidence, he talked about everything, from his plans to stitch up a broad alliance to his agenda for a new Punjab, and from his campaign strategy to the challenge of replicating his resounding victory from Amritsar in the Lok Sabha polls last year. Excerpts:
Q: What’s on the top of your mind ahead of taking over as the Punjab Congress chief?
A: We don’t have time in Punjab. We have wasted 10 years, and now time has come that either we are able to recover the state, or it goes under. The problems are too immense. Education, health, industry and agriculture, every sector is down. Jobs are not being created. In every village and town, there are dozens and dozens of youths sitting idle and waiting for jobs. Frustration is pushing them to drugs. So, the whole thing is in a vicious circle and that has to be broken.
Q. So, what’s your vision for Punjab?
A. Right now, finances are in a terrible shape and the primary sector is languishing. So, we will have tighten our belts and concentrate on priority areas, which are education and job creation. For that, we need to attract industry. The only way to get investors is to create a land pool. The other day, I was passing by Mandi Gobindgarh and found only one-odd chimney belching out smoke. All other units have shut down. Sukhbir Badal’s annual ‘tamasha’ of the Progressive Punjab summit is not solving any problem. This is just a PR exercise. This has to be hard economics.
Q. Why are the 2017 assembly elections so critical for you and the Congress?
A. Well, for me, it’s going to my last election. I am not going to fight after this. I think I have done enough. By 2022, if we form the next government, I will be 80 and I don’t want to work after that. I want to go and see the world. For Congress workers, it will be a respite from the Badal regime’s repression. And, from the national perspective, a Congress victory in Punjab is going to block the BJP.
Q. The 2017 polls may mark a break from the bipolar fight as the Aam Aadmi Party is emerging as a third player.
A. You can leave out the Akalis. They don’t remain much of a challenge for us. People are so fed up with them and their mishandling of Punjab. What has put the final nail in their coffin is the Behbal Kalan firing incident. Everybody in Punjab believes that Parkash Singh Badal orchestrated the sacrilege incidents and the Bargari episode to divert the public attention from the farmers’ agitation. It just got out of control. Otherwise, why has the government kept the firing incident out of the purview of the CBI probe? As far as AAP is concerned, it has lost much of the sheen because its hero, or whatever you call him, Arvind Kejriwal, hasn’t performed well in Delhi. Every time he can’t deliver on his promises, he throws the blame on the Lt Governor or the Centre. Here, in Punjab, you have three AAP factions - two groups of two MPs each, and Mr Phoolka cycling around on his own. AAP is not going to work in Punjab.
Q. So, whom do you consider your challenger?
A. I don’t think we have much of a challenge from the Akali-BJP alliance or AAP. But, having said that, we are going to fight both. You can’t go to a battle thinking that you are going to be victorious. You have to be really prepared. It will be really a well-planned and well-executed battle.
Q. The Punjab campaign tends to be negative, acrimonious and personalised.
A. We are going to keep a positive approach on this. People are fed up with name-calling. They want to know what we are going to do for them and for Punjab. That’s going to be our focus.
Q. So, no Badal-bashing?
A. But something will have to be said. For instance, at Tuesday’s rally, how can I not talk about things like corruption, drugs, FIRs against Congress workers? All this is linked to the Badal government. ‘Thoda bahut taan kehna pau.’ But the rest will be all positive.
Q. Are you taking a leaf out of the Bihar polls, where the index of opposition unity swung the verdict?
A. It will be welcome if all secular forces come together. Last time, we lost by just 0.8% vote and in 2007 by 1% vote. I have already talked to Manpreet Singh Badal of the People’s Party of Punjab. He is very keen on this (alliance). I hope we will have to work out something. Avtar Singh Karimpuri of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is also open (to an alliance). On communist parties, I have spoken to (Sitaram) Yechuryji. We had worked together during the days of Punjab terrorism. He knows this situation is developing in Punjab and says ‘we will help you’. We will see how best we can have an understanding. But it depends on what they ask for. We have to look at our own party’s interests as well. If the BSP asks 20 or even 10 of the 32 Dalit seats, we can’t agree to that.
Q. Will you work on forging a broad coalition?
A. A broad coalition is very my much possible It will be a good thing to have it. We all think alike. I will certainly make pro-active efforts to stitch up a coalition. The final decision, of course, will be of the Congress president and vice-president. Once we come down to ground realities as to how many seats and which seats, only then can I take this matter up in Delhi.
Q. Will the Bathinda rally be a show of strength?
A. Instead of the conventional way of taking charge by calling 500 party workers and serving them ‘ aloo-poori’ lunch, we decided to be in battle from Day One. We are into the battle now. And therefore why not start it in the field? The rally will represent the voice of Punjab.
Q. What will be your campaign strategy?
A. No more rallies. That’s it. Yes, rallies will come back in the last days of electioneering. I will go for the grassroots approach. We may call it ‘panj panchayats’. That’s meeting five villages together and talking to them directly. I want to hear and clear their minds. It’s going to be hard work. We have 12,700 villages. We will have to divide it up. Mrs Rajinder Kaur Bhattal will to take up some of it. Ditto for other senior leaders. That will mean four meetings of 25 villages every day.
Q. Isn’t sustaining the momentum in a marathon campaign a challenge?
A. Definitely, it is. How do I contact everyone in Punjab of 29 million people? The idea is to spread ‘charcha’ (buzz) about our battle.
Q. Any specifics of your agenda for Punjab?
A. Agriculture has to go for diversification. There is no other way about it. Land holdings have fallen in the past 10 years and are down to ‘marlas’ in southern Punjab. I am going to request Mukesh Ambani to come back with his ‘field to fork’ project to help us break the wheat-paddy cycle. Once in power, we shall break the monopoly and stranglehold of the Badal family on transport and cable network businesses. We shall distribute the route permits, now illegally operated by Sukhbir’s transport, to unemployed youth and also throw open Punjab to private cable networks and channels.
Q. Any lessons from the past two defeats in Punjab assembly polls”
A. We will have to go for winnability. Akalis have already announced many of their candidates. We are left till the very end. So, I am going to push for ticket allocation six months before the elections. That will give candidates more time to campaign and also allow us to pacify the left-out aspirants. Most importantly, no tickets on ‘bhai-bandi basis, relationship, friendships... nothing of that sort. In 2012, 39 seats were given on ‘bhai-bandi’, and we won only six. Eight were given in the name of the Youth Congress, and only two of them won. Of the 78 given on merit, we won 42.
Q. But, will you have a free hand on tickets this time?
A. Let me tell you that this time, with my experience and whatever it is, Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi and Rahul are very receptive to my ideas, and I think I will be able to convince them.
Q. Whom do you consider your key challenger - Parkash Singh Badal or Sukhbir?
A. The senior Badal still has some respect in Punjab. I don’t think Sukhbir has any stature at all. He may be running around and making statements and all, but nobody takes him seriously.
Q. Badal has again raised the issue of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 riots.
A. It won’t work. I am in the Congress and believe that no Sikh will forget these events from the historical point of view. But at the same time, the community has to move on. Badal is small-minded and has raised this umpteen times just for votes. Will Op Bluestar and the riots get people jobs? This is very irresponsible on the part of Badal. He should not put his politics ahead of the future of Punjab and Punjabis.
Q. You have become the PPCC chief by upstaging Partap Singh Bajwa. Will the truce hold on?
A. All that is behind us now. We have to look forward. Every Congress leader’s future is at stake and each has to put in his best. After all, Mr Bajwa wants to win his assembly seat and that of his wife which they had lost in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. So, unity is the first priority.
Q. How do you look at speculation on Navjot Singh Sidhu joining AAP?
A. I don’t think he will do that. I know him since he was a little boy in Patiala. His father was my district president and I was very fond of him. Sidhu was the Amritsar MP before me. And he and his wife are quite liked in Amritsar. Unfortunately, he has some health issue. Whether or not he can take the strain of the elections, I really don’t know. If he comes to AAP, we will have to fight. There is no alternative. But I think he should look at his health first.
Q. How are going to engage with the young voters?
A. The youth are coming around me. On social media, they are making the usual ‘phatte chak diyange’ talk. They have confidence in me and know that what I say, I will do.