One year at helm: Roller-coaster year for AAP govt in Punjab
With mandate for badlav (change), Bhagwant Mann’s government scores on intent to deliver on its populist promises, but misses in action whether it’s reining in radicals or maintaining law and order, while it struggles to fight the drug problem and fiscal troubles.
Chandigarh: When the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept to power in March last year with a historic triumph, the message from Punjab was clear that it was a mandate for badlav (change). Chief minister Bhagwant Mann, mindful of the heady expectations, started fulfilling poll promises straight away, telling people that they had done their bit and it’s his turn.
One year later, the AAP government has made considerable progress in implementing the poll guarantees. Be it the anti-corruption drive, free power to all households, regularisation of contractual employees, or jobs, the government is on course. But that’s just one part of the story. The first year of the Mann government has been a roller-coaster dominated by two competing narratives – one of an “honest” administration that made a break from the past regimes and has “welfare” at the core of its governance model, and the other peddled by a vociferous opposition about an “inexperienced lot” being remote-controlled by the AAP’s Delhi leadership that has failed to handle hot-button issues.
The state government has been grappling with challenges related to law and order, gangsterism, a surge in activities of radical elements, and fiscal constraints. Its accomplishments often got drowned out by the news on high-profile killings, terror attacks, gang violence, and the unending rift between Mann and governor Banwarilal Purohit, whose trips to border districts during which he questioned the easy availability and rampant abuse of drugs and letters on administrative decisions added to the ruling party’s discomfort.
Anti-corruption drive on course
The central theme of the AAP’s election campaign was the promise to eradicate corruption as it tapped into public anger against traditional players Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal, which ruled the state by turns. On coming to power, one of its first steps was to set up an anti-corruption action line. In one year, the vigilance bureau (VB) has arrested three former ministers, including Sunder Sham Arora, Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, and several officials. About a dozen other politicians, most from the previous Congress government, are being investigated for corruption or amassing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income, triggering allegations of political vendetta. Mann also got his health minister Dr Vijay Singla arrested in May last year for allegedly demanding 1% commission for tenders. Last month, party legislator Amit Rattan Kotfatta was arrested for allegedly forcing a sarpanch’s husband to pay a bribe.
“The government is working on the badlav it promised. These arrests (including Singla’s) demonstrate its seriousness, besides answering the opposition’s witch-hunt charge,” claimed an aide of the CM. Horticulture minister Fauja Singh Sarari, who figured in a purported audio clip about an ‘extortion plan’, also exited the cabinet in January. However, no other action was taken against him, which did raise eyebrows.
AAP leaders cite free power, government recruitment, steps taken to curb sand mafia, moong MSP, and Aam Aadmi Clinics as achievements. “There is a strong feeling among people that Mann and his ministers are from among them and have a ‘saaf neeyat’ (clear intent),” said AAP’s chief spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang.
Another key promise made by AAP’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal was that if voted to power, the party would rid the state of its drug problem within six months. Though the government has cracked down hard and made record seizures and arrests, the easy availability of drugs and a well-entrenched supply chain are challenges in the war against drugs.
Rise of radical elements
Growing radicalisation in Punjab is being seen as the most worrying issue for the government. Its handling of the February 23 violence in Ajnala when armed supporters of pro-Khalistan propagator Amritpal Singh laid siege to a police station to demand the release of one of his close associates, an accused in a kidnapping case, from jail raised serious questions about the preparedness of the state police and its intelligence set-up to deal with such situations. Police say they exercised restraint due to the presence of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, carried by protesters. However, the capitulation of the state machinery and the lack of any action against the lawbreakers until now have set alarm bells ringing, besides triggering insecurity.
Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh, said the response of the state government left much to be desired. “Their handling has not sent the message that it is a strong government. The Centre was equally to blame as they totally abdicated their duty. Article 355 of the Constitution clearly states that it is the duty of the Union to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance,” he said.
Kang alleged a conspiracy behind the developments. “Since this government cannot be targeted on governance issues, communal tension is being created. Just see the timing. It happened on the day the investors’ summit was being held. The truth will come out soon,” he said.
The state government has also been on tenterhooks by the ongoing sit-in protest organised by the Qaumi Insaaf Morcha, which includes radical Sikh organisations, on the Chandigarh-Punjab border since January 7 this year for the release from jail of nine ‘Bandi Singhs’ (Sikh prisoners), seven of them convicted for the assassination of former chief minister Beant Singh in 1995.
Grappling with law and order
State agencies were on tenterhooks last year due to targeted killings, terror attacks on police buildings in Mohali and Tarn Taran, deepening terrorist-smuggler-gangsters nexus, gangsters operating crime networks from abroad, and extortion threats.
The first warning shot came just days after Mann and his team assumed charge when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was fired on Punjab Police’s intelligence headquarters in Mohali. Popular Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala’s murder by six shooters in Mansa on May 29 was also a big blow to the state government’s image as it came just a day after the police scaled down his security cover. The singer’s murder led to a media firestorm, putting the government on the back foot and it has been under constant criticism from the opposition over law and order thereafter.
A police officer said that things were under control because of effective action taken by the Anti-Gangster Task Force that had busted 162 gangster/criminal modules, arrested 582 gangsters and criminals, and neutralised five.
A cabinet minister, while dismissing the opposition’s criticism, recently said that Punjab’s crime rate was better than 16 other states.
Populist promises bleeding exchequer
The AAP, which gave several populist pre-poll guarantees, was quick to start free electricity of up to 300 units per month for all households from July 1. As 90% of domestic consumers are now getting zero bills, the state government has allocated ₹7,780 crore for free supply to such consumers in 2023-24. The total power subsidy bill has jumped to a whopping ₹20,243.76 crore and is bleeding the exchequer dry.
There are questions being asked about the sustainability of more freebies and subsidies in the debt-choked state.
The budget highlighted the state’s precarious macroeconomic condition with a high fiscal deficit and rising debt-GSDP ratio. Though the state underperformed its own tax revenue (OTR) and non-OTR estimates, there was healthy increase in collection in 2022-23 over the previous year. The focus, according to a finance department officer, will be on revenue generation, ensuring compliance and restructuring debt to phase out costly loans next year. “Raising resources is the government’s job. New technology and methods are being used to plug tax leakages in addition to cutting wasteful expenditure,” said Kang.