Ruling out a pre-poll pact with any political party for the Punjab assembly elections, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi sees the Shiromani Akali Dal, not the Aam Aadmi Party, as his party’s key challenger in the high-stake state electoral battle slated by January.
“The Akalis are a formidable machine. The contest will be between us and them,” Gandhi said in an informal interaction with journalists here on Saturday. He declined to give any weight to the Arvind Kejriwal-led rookie party that’s being increasingly seen as a third player in the Punjab power sweepstakes.
“The AAP is only creating hype about itself in Punjab by lavishly spending out of the Rs 600-crore publicity budget of the Delhi government,” he said.
Gandhi’s latest visit is part of the Congress’s aggressive strategy to galvanise the party rank and file in Punjab. To this end, he met frontline leaders, including state Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh, and addressed workers at Zirakpur.
Drugs to be poll issue
Calling the rampant addiction to narcotics in Punjab a “deep and debilitating” problem, Gandhi said the Congress would make it a poll issue and work according to a plan to rid the state of the menace if voted to power. “The Akalis have destroyed Punjab and they are actually a beneficiary of the drug culture,” he alleged.
Gandhi, who was flanked by Capt Amarinder Singh and party spokesman Randeep Surjewala, said that he was ridiculed by both the opposition and the media when he had first pointed out three years ago that 70% of Punjab youth had taken drugs at some point of time. “Now I have been proved right, but it has taken 10 years for the Akalis to accept this (the drug problem).”
To the Akalis’ charge that the opposition was defaming Punjab and Punjabis by exaggerating the drug issue, Gandhi said, “We are not bashing Punjab; we are rather trying to save it”.
“No,” was Gandhi firm and quick response when asked about the chance of the Congress stitching up a pre-poll alliance in Punjab on the lines of Bihar and West Bengal. The Congress, he said, stands for certain ideas and an ideology and would forge an alliance only in case these premises are strengthened. “That’s not happening here”.
Says Sonia, Manmohan have already regretted ’84 events
He replied in the negative when asked if there was an overhang of tragic events of 1984 on the Congress’s poll prospects in Punjab. “We have been in power here thereafter,” he said.
Asked if he would apologise for Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh violence, Gandhi said both the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) and then prime minister Manmohan Singh had already regretted what had happened in 1984. “We have done that,” he insisted and refused to be drawn into a ‘regret’ versus ‘apology’ debate. “Even I have been to the Golden Temple,” he said, side-stepping a question asked in the context of the Canadian prime minister’s statement last week that he would apologise in Parliament for the Komagata Maru episode in which the Canadian government had violently barred Indian migrants, mostly Sikhs, from anchoring their ship at Vancouver in 1914.
Gandhi declined comment on the contentious Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal issue, terming it “a sub-judice matter”.