PollTalk@HT: Congress will stop BJP bandwagon in Punjab, says Partap Bajwa - Hindustan Times

PollTalk@HT: Congress will stop BJP bandwagon in Punjab, says Partap Bajwa

Apr 18, 2024 06:18 AM IST

As the leader of opposition in the Punjab assembly, Congress stalwart Partap Singh Bajwa, 67, is at the forefront of the party’s Lok Sabha poll campaign in Punjab. In an interaction with HT staffers, moderated by Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak, Bajwa, exuded confidence on Congress prospects, assailed party hoppers and targeted Modi-led BJP and AAP CM Bhagwant Mann with his trademark sharp barbs. Edited excerpts:

With a four-cornered contest in Punjab, how do you assess the current standing of the Congress?

BAJWA GOES BALLISTIC:During an interaction at HT in Mohali on Wednesday, Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa was unsparing in his criticism of BJP and the AAP. (Ravi Kumar/HT)
BAJWA GOES BALLISTIC:During an interaction at HT in Mohali on Wednesday, Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa was unsparing in his criticism of BJP and the AAP. (Ravi Kumar/HT)

In the last two general elections, Punjab voted differently than the rest of the country. After the north-eastern states, Punjab and Kashmir are two states where minorities are in majority. Right now, there is anger against (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi in Punjab as he didn’t give anything to the state that is an agrarian economy. Farmers were deprived of legal guarantee of MSP and the recommendations of the Swaminathan commission were not implemented. By bringing in the Agniveer scheme, he disbanded army recruitment. There is a definite anti-Modi atmosphere here in Punjab.Farmers say if he (Modi) didn’t allow us to enter Delhi, we won’t let BJP candidates enter villages of Punjab. This tension will escalate. The BJP is banking on polarisation. It may get backing in the urban areas, but not in towns and villages. The so-called Modi magic will not work in Punjab.

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How do you evaluate the prospects of SAD and AAP?

Voters have three choices, the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party. The SAD lost credibility because of the flip-flops on the farmer issue and sacrilege cases. It has been rejected and has lost its core vote bank of farmers and Sikhs.

The AAP has accepted the Congress as senior ally in the INDIA bloc. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and TMC leader Mamata Banerjee have already announced that the INDIA bloc prime minister will be from the Congress. So why shouldn’t people of Punjab, who are not voting for Modi, vote for the Congress? This election is on national issues and aimed at ending dictatorship to save the Constitution.

The Congress is contesting more than 300 seats in the INDIA bloc, the rest are being contested by smaller groups. They can’t stop Modi. I had taken the stand against having an alliance with the AAP in Punjab, as here it is the ruling party and the Congress the principal opposition. Had we aligned, the entire anti-government vote would have got shifted to other parties. Our entire leadership would have been poached by the AAP. Wherever the Congress became a junior partner in an alliance, it was decimated.

In this scenario, who do you perceive as the main opponent of the Congress in Punjab?

In a majority of seats, we are in a direct fight with the AAP. In three to four, it’s a contest with the BJP, while in three seats, we are up against the SAD.

At the national level, the Congress and AAP are allies, but rivals in Punjab. How do you look at this contradiction?

In INDIA bloc, the Congress in number one in many states and the AAP is nowhere. The AAP is in power in Delhi and we are at number three. In Punjab, however, the Congress is the principal opposition and we are projecting ourselves as the alternative to AAP in the 2027 assembly elections. We are aligned with AAP at the national level with the aim to stop Modi and save the Constitution.

You’re attacking the AAP on issue of corruption, but your party is supporting Kejriwal after his arrest in the excise scam? Why should people trust the Congress?

The Congress is not supporting Kejriwal on corruption, we are only opposing the misuse of central agencies and the timing of his arrest just before the elections. We never said Kejriwal is honest. The AAP created loopholes to take kickbacks from wholesale vendors by enhancing the commission from 5% to 12% of total sales in Punjab.

I have sought an independent probe into the excise policy of Punjab. They simply replicated the Delhi policy here. I have written to (the Punjab) governor to have it investigated.

What will be the Congress party’s key poll campaign plank?

Our main objective is to stop Modi as this election is going to be contested on national issues.

How would you rate the performance of the AAP government in Punjab?

Zero. Files have been struck in CM (Bhagwant Mann’s) office for the past eight months. Before Kejriwal’s arrest, the AAP government in Punjab was being run by (AAP leaders) Raghav Chadha and Sandeep Pathak. The government was being run by proxy.

The AAP government takes the high moral ground on corruption. It also says it has provided 40,000 jobs and free electricity to 90% of the consumers. Are these are not achievements?

Freebies at what cost ? Within two years, they (the AAP government) have taken a loan of 70,000 crore. They are mismanaging Punjab’s finances and burdening under debt. This is happening even as Kejriwal had given a guarantee that the AAP government will not borrow a single paisa. They are giving free electricity by recklessly borrowing and adding to the debt burden at an unprecedented speed. On their claims on employment, I challenged them to back it with data in the assembly. Illegal mining is rampant in state. The Punjab and Haryana high court has given the AAP government a dressing down on illegal mining. They shouldn’t be talking of corruption.

But several state Congress leaders have been booked on corruption charges?

To which party do Vijay Singla, Amit Rattan Kotfatta and Fauja Singh Sarari belong? Where has ‘Operation Lotus’ complainant Sheetal Anugral gone? Why has the AAP government not acted against IAS officers in the PSIEC scam? Why didn’t it act on the Vigilance Bureau report highlighting corruption by 54 tehsildars? Was it because they threatened to exposed IAS officers who made benami properties near Chandigarh? Why didn’t the AAP act against IAS officers and their wives involved in the guava orchard scam? Their anti-corruption drive is a farce.

Why are so many leaders, including Ravneet Singh Bittu, Preneet Kaur and Raj Kumar Chabbewal, leaving the party?

There are challenges before the Congress as well. What can be said of those who have sold their ‘deen imman (integrity)’? Our first-time former MLA Sushil Kumar Rinku left the party because he wanted to contest the Jalandhar Lok Sabha byelections against claims of a long-time Congress family. When he left the AAP to join the BJP, he posted a picture with 10 commandos. When your priorities are gunmen and government residences, what can any party do to such people? In case of Chabbewal, he won by using bogus government letters, which was why he joined the AAP to save his skin from the vigilance bureau.

Why are most defectors from the Congress?

What attracts defectors? Power. The Congress neither has power nor money. Only we know how we have kept our flock together.

Is it because of the party’s weak central leadership?

That’s not the case. The BJP is using money to promote defections. Preneet defected because of her husband. She should have gone along with him two years ago but kept on taking the salary as Congress MP till the end. Where are the morals? You will see what happens to Bittu. If these parties think that people will vote for rejected and dejected material of the Congress, they are mistaken.

The new BJP looks like the old Congress.

Last time, the BJP won two seats. This time, it won’t win a single seat. I challenge state BJP chief Sunil Jakhar. If he thinks he is so popular, why he doesn’t contest from Ferozepur? Capt Amarinder Singh lost his deposit in the assembly polls.

Why did the Congress induct Dr Dharamvira Gandhi and Jeet Mohinder Singh Sidhu as Lok Sabha candidates from Patiala and Bathinda?

Dr Gandhi is not a defector, he is an ideologue. He joined Rahul Gandhi on the Bharat Jodo Yatra at Kanyakumari along with Yogendra Yadav. Despite health concerns, Dr Gandhi agreed to contest as the Congress believes only Navjot Singh Sidhu or he can defeat Preneet from Patiala. The Congress wants to teach a lesson to all traitors. Jeet Mohinder is four-time MLA and since Amarinder Singh Raja Warring is the state party chief, there was no other leader in Bathinda of his level. In Sangrur, we have fielded Sukhpal Khaira from Bhagwant Mann’s turf to bolster our anti-AAP credentials.

Navjot Singh Sidhu was state Congress chief. Why was he left out is out when he is available for the IPL season?

Navjot’s wife is not well. He has clarified that he won’t contest the parliamentary election and is interested in state politics.

Why are most senior Congress leaders of Punjab shying away from contesting?

The party has decided, in principle, that no one who holds important positions such as state chief or leader of opposition will contest. We have decided that no one from our families will contest either.

Why the delay in declaring candidates?

June 1 is still far. Both the BJP and AAP have deep pockets. No campaign can last for more than 20 days unless you have huge money. Congress accounts have been frozen by the Centre. We are managing from our own pockets.

Will Ram Temple be an issue in Punjab?

Though the Centre has deliberately kept elections here in the last phase, Punjab will stop the BJP’s bandwagon. What will be left with the BJP if its polarisation plan fails? They have taken defectors into the party thinking polarisation will help. But the truth is that only defectors have joined the party but not their followers.

How come that Chief minister Bhagwant Mann seems to have good relations with Congress leaders in Delhi but not in Punjab ?

Because we expose his misgovernance. Mann does not know how to maintain the dignity of the chief minister’s chair. He is a comedian. He is under the misconception that he will rule Punjab for 25 years.

You missed the bus on chief ministership in 2017 when you were tripped by Captain Amarinder Singh. Where do you see yourself in 2027?

Tripping is part of politics. I was only tripped, but not fused. I am back in the game.

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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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