Sukhbir Singh Badal, Punjab deputy chief minister, foresees the Congress, not Aam Aadmi Party, as the key challenger to the ruling SAD -BJP combine in the 2017 assembly polls.
AAP is gaining in Punjab at the expense of opposition space where the Congress used to be very strong,” Sukhbir told HT in an exclusive interview on Monday. “The Kejriwal outfit has taken advantage of the Congress’ weakness. the way it did in Delhi”. He, however, argued that the principal contest in the assembly sweepstakes would be between the Akali-BJP alliance and the Congress as both have a traditional vote base in the state.
Dismissing the AAP leaders as a “bunch of misguided missiles”, Sukhbir said it would a biggest disaster if by any chance or miracle the rookie party comes to power in Punjab. “They (AAP) don’t have any person to lead the state. Nor it has any vision to take the state forward. Punjab is now in a rising trajectory. I don’t want a crash” he added.
Sukhbir made the light of Capt Amarinder Singh taking over the reins of the state Congress, saying “he is not a full-time politician”.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How do you reflect on the year 2015 that had a few ups and many downs for you?
A .Actually, downs came only in the last quarter of the year because of the unfortunate sacrilege and firing incidents and the situation which emerged after that. It was such a small emotional burst, but certain elements wanted to use the religious sentiments and take it in the direction of radicals.
People were with them till it was religious. The minute it went towards radicalism, the whole thing fizzled out. It’s a very strong message to radicals. It’s good that people of the state stopped it there only. Otherwise, it could have gone in a very dangerous direction. The way things suddenly flared up and then came down fast shows that people want peace and harmony in Punjab. We have been able to put things back on the normal track.
Q. Perception is that the politically-orchestrated apology to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief was a trigger.
A. First, it was not a politically-managed apology. When it happened, there was no reaction in the first month. There was even a bandh call which nobody heeded to. But, Guru Granth Sahib is the God for the Sikhs. When miscreants attacked the holy book, protests were a natural reaction from the Sikhs. Unfortunately, the dera apology and the sacrilege happened in a sequence. However, there is no link here.
Q. Given that you were perpetually firefighting, hasn’t the crisis hit the image of the government and the party?
A. The major firefighting was after the dera verdict. As far as our image is concerned, it was all a media-created perception. Like the media said after the so-called Sarbat Khalsa that “Akali Dal is finished and its leaders cannot enter villages…” We countered that by mobilising our workers and holding big rallies.
But, the Sikhs were very angry with you…
A. Then, how come in 15 days it was all okay? Those 30,000 people who turned up at the radicals’ show were gathered by Simranjit Singh Mann and the Congress. They talked anti-national. Those people are anyway against the Akalis and will remain so. That’s politics. They didn’t represent the Sikh community.
Q. You had promised 2015 as the year of development, but it’s ending with you playing the Panthic card.
A. That’s not true. My forte and whole thinking since the first year of this government has been development, and we have done it very systematically. Whatever we promised, I have tried to deliver. We made the state power-surplus in nine years. And, the road network across the state is getting a major upgrade worth Rs 30,000 crore. Some projects are works in progress while others will be taken up in the next three months.
All this has happened in the past year-and-a-half as the Modi government has been very supportive, unlike the Congress-led UPA regime that didn’t give us a penny and put roadblocks on Punjab’s projects.
We are now focusing on urban infrastructure holistically. I don’t look at one mohalla or one town. In the next year-and-a-half, we will provide 100% sewerage, water, roads and streetlights to all towns, big or small. We are spending Rs 6,000 crore on villages. Mind you, it’s not a political statement but a statement of intent.
Q. But where is the money coming from? Your dispensation is said to be bankrupt and is reportedly mortgaging government land to meet day-to-day expenses.
A. It has become fashionable for a section of the Punjab media to label us bankrupt. Will any bank give money to a defaulter state? They look at your credentials and give you the money.
We don’t mortgage buildings for the sake of paying up our regular expenses or salaries. If you look at our revenue models, Punjab has recorded the highest growth in the country. When we took over, the VAT (value-added tax) revenue was Rs 5,000 crore; now it’s Rs 33,000 crore. The excise collections are up from Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 5,000 crore. We have increased our revenue stream and haven’t defaulted on a single payback to the banks. Money is not the issue at all.
Q. Punjab’s debt burden has ballooned to Rs 1.2 lakh crore.
A. Not a big deal. A country or a state can grow without productive debt. So, we created a productive debt. In the debt growth of all states and the central government, we are ninth or 10th. Haryana is number one. Has the Chandigarh media even once given the headline that Haryana is more debt-ridden than Punjab? Our debt-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio has come down from 48% to 32%, which is a positive sign. By taking loans, we are creating infrastructure and jobs to stimulate the economy.
Q. This year saw intense allegations against you and your father of misusing Sikh religious institutions for political ends.
A. I can tell you that my father and me never interfere in the functioning of the SGPC. I am scared of committing any sin of a wrong decision in religious affairs. As the SAD president, I don’t question the authority of the Akal Takht, which is like a Supreme Court for Sikhs the world over.
Q. How do you look at the AAP challenge in Punjab?
A. There is space for opposition. The Congress has gone very weak in Punjab. So, AAP is cutting into the opposition space where the Congress used to be very strong. Whoever takes that space can emerge as an alternative party. AAP is taking advantage of the Congress’s weakness, the way it did in Delhi.
Q. But, AAP is drawing crowd at its rallies…
A. That again is media hype. The media likes an underdog and even props it up. If some discredited people whom we don’t even take seriously join AAP, it makes headlines. And, when hundreds join us, it makes no news. Even Balwant Singh Ramoowalia used to draw big crowds which never turned into votes. People turn up at comedian Bhagwant Mann’s gathering for the sake of entertainment.
Q. Whom do you see as your key challenger in 2017 Congress or AAP?
A. I think, the Congress. Both Akalis and the Congress have their traditional vote banks in Punjab. AAP will be the biggest disaster for the state if by chance or in a miracle it comes to power here They are all misguided missiles in one place. Look at what Arvind Kejriwal had promised before the Delhi elections. And, now they are doing exactly opposite.
Q. So, you don’t reckon AAP as a serious player?
A. Not at the moment. It’s too early… AAP doesn’t have any person to lead the state. Do they have any vision or plan to take the state forward? It’s basically the man who leads who can make or break a business, company or a government. Punjab is now in a rising trajectory. I don’t want a crash.
Q. What’s your take on Capt Amarinder Singh’s appointment as the head of the Punjab Congress?
A. The Congress high command has become so weak that he has browbeaten his way up. He is not a full-time politician. Mr Badal is full-time into politics; and so am I. In the past month, where have you seen the Captain; look at his itinerary.
Q. What will be your theme song ahead of the assembly polls performance or Panthic card?
A. My agenda has been economics and will remain so. People shouldn’t go by slogans but look at the way we have grown. AAP and Congress can’t deliver because it’s very important to have a friendly government at the Centre. Amarinder did nothing during his five years as chief minister except ‘kaagaz phaare’ (termination of inter-state river water treaties), which didn’t bring any benefit to Punjab.
Q. What will be your agenda for 2016?
A. Our focus will be on developing high-class infrastructure, creating jobs and bringing in big investors. As part of governance reforms, sewa kendras will be rolled out in the next six months. It will be a revolution of its own kind. Next year, our complete focus will be on implementing what I have committed. We have a ‘kitchen cabinet’ of officers for the missions’ implementation. People never believed that I would achieve these things, but slowly I am getting closer to milestones.
Q. Last year’s events turned a negative spotlight on your businesses and conflict of interest.
A. Whatever I control is in my name. I am not the person to have ‘benami’ things. I have gone though the scrutiny of the Punjab Vigilance and the judiciary. They found nothing illegal. I am into three businesses. My hotel business in Gurgaon started long back. I have a resort coming up on family land near Mullanpur. And, the transport business dates back to 1947.
I haven’t taken a single permit from the government. My buses are not even half per cent of the total number of buses plying in the state. How can this minuscule number impact the state’s transport sector? Whatever is there in my IT returns is what I own. I don’t own the cable network. I have got nothing to do with it.
Q. How about conflict of interest?
A. How can there be a conflict of interest? Has anybody found any scam or scandal in our names? The other day I stopped at a dhaba in Barnala for tea, and the next day my opponents said I had taken over the dhaba. It’s a ridiculous propaganda.
Q. Do you still swear by your statement to rule Punjab for next 25 years?
A. I am not saying it out of arrogance. It is in the interests of Punjab. The vision and systems we brought in needs to be built on. Continuity is an essence.
Q. What lesson have you learnt from 2015?
A. That you can’t take everything for granted. A small thing can trigger a bigger crisis. We have to be sensitive and very strongly responsive to every situation that comes by.