HT interview: Will fight radicalism with good governance, says Punjab CM Mann

By, Chandigarh
Mar 17, 2023 01:46 PM IST

In an exclusive sit-down interview with Hindustan Times, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann says there is no surge of radicalisation in state. “The social bonding in Punjab is very strong. Punjabis’ issues now are employment, industry, higher education and health,” says Mann

For a young chief minister (49 years of age), who hasn’t been in politics all that long, Bhagwant Mann’s first year in charge of Punjab has been nothing short of a baptism by fire in the face of a worrying slide in law and order marked by surge in pro-Khalistan extremism in the border state. In an exclusive sit-down interview with Hindustan Times in Amritsar on Wednesday, his first as CM, Mann exuded confidence , said he is very much in control and hinted at tough action against radicals. Edited excerpts:

BATTLE READY Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann says the state has lately seen a growing nexus of drug smugglers, gangsters and terrorists. Now, the drone-dropped consignments from Pakistan carry drugs, money and arms. To deal with this, he has sought the Centre’s help for police modernisation and anti-drone technology (Sameer Sehgal/HT) PREMIUM
BATTLE READY Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann says the state has lately seen a growing nexus of drug smugglers, gangsters and terrorists. Now, the drone-dropped consignments from Pakistan carry drugs, money and arms. To deal with this, he has sought the Centre’s help for police modernisation and anti-drone technology (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

What has changed in Punjab in the last one year after your party swept to power on the promise of ‘badlav’?

The first ‘badlav (change)’ was by people who, for the first time in the state’s history, voted for a third party with such a big majority. That put a responsibility on us to bring about the change. First of all, we focused on issues that impact people on the ground. A zero-tolerance to corruption is our foremost mission because our party was born out of the anti-corruption movement. Giving and taking graft for even ordinary official work of citizens had become a norm in Punjab. So, we launched an anti-corruption helpline that evoked a huge response and led to crackdown on the corrupt at all levels. So many former ministers and MLAs of previous governments are now in jail or facing probes for disproportionate assets. They were all given clean chits by their chief ministers. But a clean chit doesn’t mean a clean character. We also have been prompt in taking action against three of our own MLAs, including a minister, on corruption.

Another ‘badlav’ is our commitment to creating jobs, as decided in our first cabinet meeting. To date, I have handed out appointment letters for 27,797 government jobs. All this without any corruption or sifarish (recommendation). The services of more than 28,000 contractual employees have been regularised which had been pending due to legal hurdles. Only 6,000 to 7,000 outsourced manpower is left as a high court judgment doesn’t allow their regularisation. We will first convert them on contract and then regularise their services.

From July 1, we implemented one of our biggest pre-poll guarantee on free power up to 300 units per month. Today, 87% of Punjab’s households have a zero electricity bill. That’s a powerful ‘badlav’.

The Anand Marriage Act, long passed by Parliament, was implemented in Delhi, Haryana and even Pakistan, but not in Punjab where Akali supremo Parkash Singh Badal ruled in the name of Panth for decades. We have implemented it now in Punjab.

For farmers, we introduced an incentive of 1,500 per acre for direct seeding of rice to save groundwater, and MSP for ‘moong’ as alternative to paddy.

Our government brought another major ‘badlav’ in the Vidhan Sabha by telecasting its proceedings live for transparency and to enable people to see the performance of their elected representatives in the House.

We introduced one-MLA-one-pension scheme, which was a break with the past practice of legislators getting multiple pensions and perks.

What are your priorities for the second year?

Our focus is on health, education, industry and drugs. We have launched 500 Aam Aadmi Clinics; another 140 will be operational shortly. These have facility for 45 clinical tests. The footfall at these clinics will soon touch 50 lakh. This will give us data on the state’s health profile and area-wise prevalence of diseases for better allocation of medical resources and manpower.

We have started 117 schools of eminence, one for each assembly segment. These institutions will assess the students’ aptitude from Class 8 onwards for better career choices and prime them for national and international competitions. So far, our students are aspiring only for IELTS and assume it a degree to go abroad. Our priority is to improve the level of education to check brain drain.

On the drug problem, we are taking action at three levels. The first antidote is employment. ‘Vehla man, shaitan da ghar (An idle mind is a devil’s workshop)’. For that, government jobs are not enough and we need industry. Tata Steel is setting up its second biggest plant after Jamshedpur in Ludhiana. In the Invest Punjab Summit last month, big business houses such as Godrej, Hindustan Lever and ITC are ready to come here. The thrust of our anti-drug fight is stop the demand in Punjab while we work closely with the Border Security Force to break the supply chain.

How about the deepening agrarian crisis?

Crop diversification can’t wait any longer. We are trying out out-of-the-box ideas. Now even Food Corporation of India doesn’t want to buy our paddy. A beginning has to be made by incentivising farmers to shift half of their paddy area to pulses, barley and maize. It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that he earns as much as paddy, or more, as from alternative crops. The government will have to pay the difference or offer a remunerative MSP. India is importing pulses worth two billion dollars. Why can’t Punjab be entrusted with the responsibility to grow pulses the way it was for wheat production during the Green Revolution in the ’60s? We are in touch with the Centre and its agencies, including NABARD. PUSA variety of paddy takes 153 days. It consumes more power, water and creates more stubble. PR-126 and 128 of basmati ripen in 93 days. We will promote these varieties. Ours is the first government to hold kisan milni (farmer meets) where I interacted with 15,000 farmers to know their problems and find solutions. The cotton growers at the tail-end of southern Malwa are facing a water crisis. Two canals used to dry up after passing through the Badals’ native village as their political supporters harvested more water than the limit. For the first time, they will be getting canal water this season. Punjab’s fields are as fertile as before, but techniques of farming need an upgrade to make it profitable. For this, we are holding the farmers’ hand. Whenever there is a crop damage, only farmers get compensation. We have extended that relief to farm labour, too.

Serious concerns have been expressed over law and order in Punjab, which has in the last one year seen a string of sensational targeted killings, rocket attack on the state’s intelligence headquarters, gang wars in jails and assault on the Ajnala police station by Sikh radicals.

Whenever an old system changes, the beneficiaries of that system hit back. When the Congress, Akalis and BJP were in power, they had normalised crime and criminals. Gangsters had political patrons. ‘Eh kande ehna de hi bije hoye ne (These thorns were sown by them only)’.In whose tenure did the Nabha jailbreak happen? Who was in power when gangster Sukha Kahlwan was killed in police custody? We have not produced gangsters. We have come to power on the promise of education, health and electricity. Law and order now is not what the opposition is crying hoarse about. Had it been so bad, Tata Steel would not have come here, the G-20 meeting would not have taken place in Amritsar and new international flights that are on the anvil would not have happened. These days there are CCTV cameras everywhere. So even ‘sass-nuh da jhagda (spat between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law)’ is on social media and portrayed as a law and order problem.

But there has been a surge in activities of gangsters and radicals in the last one year. How are you tackling that?

We have arrested hundreds of gangsters. We have reviewed gun licences, and most of the illegal or expired licences were of supporters of the Congress and Akalis. Whatever incidents happened, we arrested the accused, presented challans and even killed a few in police encounters. So there is no mafia from our side. For the first time, gangsters are without political patrons in Punjab. Our opponents were quick to blame us for gangster Lawrence Bishnoi’s jail interview to a news channel. But, it was done from Rajasthan where the Congress is in power. Bishnoi mentioned the names of Congress leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Amarinder Singh Raja Warring. You can draw your own conclusion.

Intelligence agencies have raised a red flag on the resurgence of pro-Khalistan elements in Punjab trying to push the state into the morass of the 1980s. How do you respond to such fears?

The anti-national elements you are referring to are just shops. ‘Dukana ne eh’. The owners of some of these shops are sitting outside the country and they have given a franchise here. When their fund collection drops, the owners tell their operators here to do something in Punjab… explode a bomb or raise an anti-national flag somewhere at night so that it gets highlighted in the media and they get funds there (abroad). Punjab doesn’t want to go back into the fires of 1980s, nor will we let it go there. The social bonding in Punjab is very strong, it survived AK-47s and bombs in the past. Go to any village or come along with me. Punjabis’ issues now are employment, industry, higher education and health.

Let them be clear that Bhagwant Mann will not allow shedding of a single drop of innocent’s blood in Punjab. Till I hold this big responsibility (as CM), I will not let any harm come to the social fabric of Punjab. This is my solemn guarantee to my people and the nation. I am one hundred per cent secular and moderate. Punjab is inhabited by Punjabis who are large-hearted and don’t see the name while voting. The parliamentary seat of Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of Khalsa and is one of the five holiest Takhts of Sikhism, has Manish Tewari, a Brahmin, as its MP. Faridkot has a sprinkling Muslim population but has Mohammad Sadiq as its representative in Parliament.

How do you view the rise of pro-Khalistan radicalism spearheaded by Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh?

It’s a franchisee of someone, somewhere. They are collectors and manning the shop here.

Who is behind him?

Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)… some funding is taking place from Pakistan, too. Those behind him threaten us daily. They have settled their sons and daughters but provoke our youngsters here… ‘Chak layo bandookan (Pick up the guns)’. Those wielding swords and spears say ‘Saade naal ohi aayo jihna ne marna (Come and join us if you want to die)’. I tell the youth ‘Mere naal uh aayo jihna ne padna (Join me if you want to be educated)’. ‘Sir vartan da samay hai, sir den da nahin (It is time to use the head, not sacrifice it)’. Our forefathers got us freedom by sacrificing their heads. He (Amritpal) is holding gatherings of five thousand, they are carrying guns licenced by the government, speaking whatever they want, and still call themselves slaves? How is this ‘ghulami (slavery)’? You have the Indian passport and still you say ‘I am not an Indian’. You take licences for guns from the government and call for fight with that very government.

How do you plan to deal with protagonists of Khalistan?

We will respond with good governance. If we give education and employment to our youth, why will anyone join them? There is no surge in radicalism. Their following is limited to a few and is for the time-being. For a politician, two ‘Gs’ matter a lot. I don’t consider myself a politician but ‘lokkan da putt (Son of people)’. For traditional politicians, G means the next government. They plot their politics accordingly even if it means spreading hatred. For me, G means next generation. My goal is to make the next generation of Punjabis highly educated.

You recently met Union home minister Amit Shah.What support do you expect from the Centre?

Punjab has lately seen a growing nexus of drug smugglers, gangsters and terrorists. Until recently, the drones from Pakistan were dropping drugs; now the consignments also have money and arms. To deal with these challenges, we have sought the Centre’s help for the modernisation of the police and an anti-drone technology on the border. Some of the drones recovered were of Indian origin. Since drones are now easily available, we have suggested their registration like vehicles, to check misuse. We have also asked for realignment of the border fence to reduce its depth on cultivable area from 4km to 200 metres. The only way to stop the drug supply from Pakistan is to break the demand here. Rajasthan has more than double of Punjab’s international border, but there is no drug issue because there are no customers.

Your party had promised to eradicate the drug menace in Punjab within six months of coming to power. But the issue is again resonating as the BJP has planned an anti-drug yatra here next month and the home minister is coming to launch it.

When the drug issue had turned serious in Punjab, who was the ruling partner of the Akali Dal? It was the BJP. Why did they not take out such a yatra then? How can the home minister fix the drug problem with a yatra. His job is to do that with action. This is a political yatra.

The state’s finances are precarious as Punjab has missed the targets on revenue and capital expenditure. The debt burden is now at an all-time high of 3.12 lakh crore, while your government continues to borrow to fund its welfare schemes the way previous governments did. What is your action plan to set things right?

This is only for the first year of our government. We have got rid of mafias on sand, excise and transport sectors, which has opened up the scope for higher revenue. The impact is already visible. We have opened 50 mines that are selling sand at 5.50 a ft. The state transport is back in profit. Next year, our excise target is 10,000 crore. We have restarted the captive coal mine shut for five years. That will get us 30 lakh tonne coal. We are now coal surplus and power surplus. Even after all our welfare initiatives, we have paid back 16,000 crore as principal amount and 20,000 crore as interest liability. So, we have made a beginning by first returning high-interest debt. Our national convener, Arvind Kejriwal, is a former Indian Revenue Service officer and knows this game too well.

There was no mention of another major guarantee of 1,000 monthly allowance for all women in Punjab in the first budget. Any time line for its implementation?

That is our next target. Let some more revenue flow in. We are not going go back on our guarantee. It is not like the BJP’s jumla that the Swiss money will be brought back and 15 lakh will be deposited in every Indian’s bank account.

Perception in some quarters is that the AAP’s Delhi leadership is calling the shots in policy decisions and key appointments in Punjab?

What is wrong if Punjab follows the good practices or successful projects of Delhi? We have a knowledge-sharing agreement for exchange of ideas and talent. The AAP is a national party and has its head office in Delhi, the way Congress and BJP have. The Congress is run by the high command. The BJP’s central leadership has changed its CMs overnight.

The Union government has raised questions on your Aam Aadmi Clinic scheme, calling it diversion of funds of national health mission. It has threatened to stop the release of funds.

They are trying to scuttle it because it’s a successful scheme. We have not used any fund from the NHM. We have own budget for this project. They want the PM’s photo on our scheme.

You blame the Narendra Modi government for misusing central agencies against the AAP. But, in Punjab, the Congress is accusing you of unleashing vendetta through the state Vigilance Bureau?

The Modi government is using the central agencies to target successful leaders of opposition parties whom it sees as a threat in 2024. I am going after flop politicians who lost elections. We are only holding people to account for their past misdeeds. It’s not vendetta. Look at the 2015 sacrilege case that was hanging fire for seven years because the Congress and the Akalis were hand in glove. We have filed the chargesheet to bring the guilty to justice.

How do you view the largescale migration of Punjab youth to foreign countries?

If they go for better jobs on the basis of education, there is nothing wrong. If they are migrating out of desperation and after Class 12, it means the system’s failure in Punjab. We will have to educate them here and create job options here.

AAP’s expansion plans didn’t really take off going by its poor performance in the assembly polls in Gujarat, Goa and Himachal Pradesh last year. What is your party’s ambition in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls next year?

In Gujarat, we got 13% vote share and five MLAs. We became a national party in eight years. We reckon this as an achievement. Now, we will be going to MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. Wherever we sense ‘badlav di lehar’, we will go there. I am a soldier of Kejriwal ji and he is our general. Whichever morcha he deploys me on, I will perform my duty there.

Before joining politics, you were a popular comedian. What difference do you find between managing the stage and the state?

Comedy is serious business. Running a stage is not as easy as it looks. You have to entertain an audience, which is expecting value for its ticket money. If you don’t perform, your show will not sell next time. In politics, too, if you don’t deliver, people don’t vote for you again.

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    A journalist of over 35 years standing, Ramesh Vinayak is Executive Editor of Hindustan Times at Chandigarh He specialises in covering the north Indian territory of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, besides the Punjabi diaspora.

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