A convoy of Z-plus security, a specially designed seven-seater bus with a hydraulic platform to wave at people and address small gatherings, and a flagoff high on symbolism — by widows of nine farmers who committed suicide. Fashioned on the lines of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s kisan yatra in Uttar Pradesh, the three-day road show of Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh has all that it takes to harvest farmers as a political constituency. It includes visits to mandis, the promise of unconditional debt-waiver, and also of jobs to needy families. In an interview to HT on the first day of the road show on Monday, Amarinder says morale of Congress workers is “very high” and “no one can browbeat them”. Excerpts:
You have launched a road show three months before the elections are due. Isn’t it too early?
When I was CM, it was said that ‘he only uses helicopters’. The only reason I travelled by air was to save time. Now, I am covering all of Punjab by road. The campaign is going to build up from now, but we will peak at the right time, in January. This road show is part of our ‘karza-kurki khatam, fasal ki poori rakam’ (no more debt, and full payment for crops) programme for farmers. During my visit to border areas, I saw paddy selling below the MSP. Farmers have suffered every procurement season under this government. That never happened when I was CM.
You are competing with the Badals and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in populism. What about the state’s financial condition and court rulings?
We are estimating the expense of every promise. It will all be there in the manifesto. The debt of Punjab farmers is Rs 37,000 crore, which we have promised to waive. If the farmer is dying, how will he pay the labour? Thus, a vicious cycle continues. As for the promise of one job per family, not all 55 lakh families of Punjab need jobs. We will ensure jobs on priority to those who need them... (And) I am talking about reservation for the economically weaker sections within the general category. Courts cannot stop us from creating that quota.
In trying to be more aggressive to beat the AAP at its game, are you returning to your ‘khoonda’ politics?
Look at what is happening in Punjab! The youth have no jobs, the farmers are committing suicides, and mafias rule every business. When I am unhappy about everything happening in the state, won’t I be aggressive? I am also aggressive towards the AAP... (towards) the way they are molesting women and befooling people of Punjab. I am not carrying the khoonda (the stick) with me this time, but I am saying the same things.
There is a perception that a victory for the Congress, rather than the AAP, in Punjab suits the SAD-BJP. How will you tackle the propaganda that you and the Badals are together?
I consider Badal (CM Parkash Singh Badal) as my biggest enemy. Look at the way he has treated me and how I have treated him. Just because the vigilance bureau has filed a closure report in the Amritsar Improvement Trust case after eight-and-a-half years, they are calling it a tacit understanding. The Ludhiana City Centre case is on for the last nine-and-a-half years. Saini (former state police chief Sumedh Singh Saini) was the one who tried to frame me as I never made him number one (in the police). I had put the Badals behind bars after investigation. I can’t help it if all the witnesses turned hostile. I will again put the Badals in jail, as every mafia in the state is running with their share and patronage.
With all parties resorting to aggression, do you think the polls are going to be violent?
Punjab polls are going to be violent. Whenever the Akalis are on a downswing, they try to create trouble. They are going to polarise and intimidate people. That’s why they have these 52 gangs! Their own DGP, Suresh Arora, says that’s the number of gangs in Punjab. Why don’t they lock them up? What we want from the Election Commission is deployment of more central forces. Students Organisation of India (SOI) and Youth Akali Dal (YAD) chaps will be let loose at polling booths. What was their business to beat up Congress workers burning a ‘chitta’ Ravan in Ludhiana? The police cannot be fair as every police station in an assembly segment reports to the Akali MLA or halqa in-charge. We will revert to the old system. The morale of the Congress workers is very high. If the Akalis think they can browbeat us, they are highly mistaken.
Aren’t you disappointed that you are working like never before and yet the party is not announcing you as the CM candidate?
What more can I ask for? They have appointed me as the state party chief; the entire campaign is centred around me; and my pictures are on the boards across the state; even across the Ravi in a border village, where the BSF is posted.
Has the delay in announcement not allowed former BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu to put the condition that he will ally with your party only if you are not leading it?
It is the media that has made Sidhu some sort of a demigod. He is just another clown like (Punjab AAP convener) Gurpreet Ghuggi and (AAP MP) Bhagwant Mann. They are non-entities. Will the Congress president and vicepresident not inform the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee if they are talking to Sidhu? Who are Sidhu, the Bains brothers and this hockey player (Pargat Singh) to dictate terms to a party like Congress? There will be no ‘understanding’ with this group of four. They can join the Congress unconditionally... There are two jokers already in the AAP. That Ghuggi has the mind of a ghuggi (bird), and Mann remains sloshed.
If the Awaaz-e-Punjab group joins the Congress, will you set aside the ‘one family, one ticket’ rule for the Bains brothers? What about others?
The rule does not apply to the Bains brothers as they are both sitting MLAs. In case of other MLAs, it is up to them to decide who they want to field. For instance, in Qadian, the Bajwa family has to decide whether they want to field Fateh Jang Bajwa or Charanjit Bajwa. Same is the case for Lal Singh — whether he wants to contest or wants his son to be given the ticket.