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Thursday, Oct 24, 2019

‘Have not felt it in Punjab’: Amarinder Singh on slowdown of economy

Punjab CM Amarinder Singh is facing a raft of challenges in dealing with sensitive but long-dragging probe on sacrilege cases, his lofty poll promises, many still on paper, and Pakistan’s renewed attempts to destabilise the law and order in the border state.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2019 10:19 IST
Ramesh Vinayak and Navneet  Sharma
Ramesh Vinayak and Navneet Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.(Sanjeev Sharma/HT Photo)
         

Politically, he remains firmly in the saddle. Reasons: no serious internal challenge, a weakened Congress high command and a struggling Opposition. Yet, 77-year-old Amarinder Singh, in politics for half a century, is facing a raft of challenges in dealing with sensitive but long-dragging probe on sacrilege cases, his lofty poll promises, many still on paper, and Pakistan’s renewed attempts to destabilize the law and order in the border state. Completing two-and-a-half years in office, the Captain spoke to Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Associate Editor Navneet Sharma at his residence on Monday on a range of issues. Edited excerpts:

How do you look at the first half of your five-year term?

We’ve done well. Most promises have been implemented. Just 22-23 are left, and they are related to funding. The ones related to good governance were implemented in the first six months. Debt waiver and jobs were taken up on priority. As the government has limited number of jobs, we are getting them adjusted in the private sector. Companies such as Wipro and Infosys are giving good jobs and salaries. The income of farmers has improved by 30% due to reduction in the use of fertilisers and increase in crop production.

How serious is the fiscal crisis?

The only available resource we’ve got left is the goods and services tax (GST) other than excise duty. GST release went from monthly to quarterly. We are facing delays now. At one time, we did not have money for salaries and had to borrow to pay because of this delay. When five Congress CMs met recently, everyone was complaining about this.

There is talk of economic slowdown in the country. And, the Congress is also talking about it at the national level.

I’ve not felt it here. I was talking to the top management of a leading tractor and farm equipment manufacturing company and their sales are going up. The fact that we have got investments worth Rs 50,000 crore, not MoUs but on the ground, in two years shows people are investing here. There is a revival of old industry. Our electricity consumption in industry has gone up. I don’t know about the rest of the country as people are saying that growth has come down. Dr Manmohan Singh’s recent speech also gave facts and figures on the slowdown. I can’t say whether it is a global or national trend. But we have not been affected in Punjab as every third day we have someone or the other meeting me to show interest in investing here. Things are moving quite fast.

What about promises such as free smartphones and unemployment allowance?

We will implement them. A tender has been placed for 1.6 lakh mobile phones for girl students. We want to give unemployment allowance and it is just a question of time and fund availability.

How about the conflict of interest law that the Congress manifesto had promised?

We don’t have a minister having any conflict of interest. I don’t think there is any incident where there is any conflict of interest other than agriculture. Our intention is to bring this law.

What will be your priority in the next two-and-a-half years?

Investment and economic revival of Punjab. Our teams visited Singapore, the UAE, Germany and other countries. It is needed to revive the economy. We inherited a debt of Rs 2 lakh that has grown because we don’t have sufficient revenue to fund projects. The GST support will also end in 2022. If we don’t get all this investment, we won’t have money to pay salaries.

There is a game of one-upmanship on between the state government and the SGPC over the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak.

We have told them (the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) that anything within the gurdwara is your domain. We will be fully supportive and participate. Anything outside is our domain. In the last meeting of the committee in which one of our ministers (jails minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa) went, both sides agreed to attend each other’s functions. The matter was also been discussed in the cabinet meeting and we all agreed to it.

What about the invitation extended by the SGPC and Akalis to President Ram Nath Kovind?

That was completely wrong. They are trying this kind of one-upmanship. Once a team has been formed, the team, comprising two Congress ministers, two Akalis and an independent should go. But this lady (Union minister Harsimrat Kaur) Badal wants to push us everywhere. This is how she functions. It is unfortunate that they say something and do something else.

So whose function will the President and the Prime Minister attend?

I have invited the PM. We don’t know which date the PM will be coming but I’m 100% sure he will come to the state function. Let him come back from America, I will go and meet him.

There is a sense of unease among some of your ministers over the Panthic pitch of your government.

The entire cabinet is supportive of our actions on Bargari. You can’t desecrate Guru Granth Sahib, Gita or Quran. Everyone wants a stop to such incidents. We’re going in the right direction. It is in two parts. One, we set up a special investigation team (SIT) for firing and the guys have already been arrested. Their cases are going on. The other part was the 2015 desecration which was given by them (the previous SAD-BJP government) to the CBI. The assembly, including the Akalis who handed over the probe, unanimously agreed that it should be brought back and given to the SIT formed under (special DG) Prabodh Kumar. We wrote to the CBI, but they did not do it. In June-end, they said they are looking into it and then filed the closure report the next day. That’s why Prabodh had to write to them, listing angles they had not investigated. And, they are now looking into all that. Which means it was a half-hearted effort earlier.

Are the Akalis pulling string with the Centre on this?

Of course, 100%. How can you have a closure report without investigation being completed? That’s what was pointed out by us. Noises were raised on who was Prabodh to write to the CBI. The case is coming up in the court day after tomorrow.

Will you set a timeframe on the sacrilege probe?

We have to penalise those who desecrated Guru Granth Sahib. In investigation matters, there can be no timeframe.

Some of your ministers have been critical of the manner in which this probe has been conducted, accusing you of going soft on the Badals.

There is a feeling sometimes that we should put them in jail. You can’t just arrest someone unless they are thoroughly investigated. Where Parkash Singh Badal can come in, if they have done it, is giving permission for the firing in Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura because he was the chief minister. And his son (Sukhbir Singh Badal) was home minister. If there is police firing, I, as CM and home minister, should know. Otherwise, I am an incompetent home minister. As far as the first part (sacrilege) is concerned, Badal (Parkash Singh) is not involved. It is some individuals who were involved who tore Guru Granth Sahib.

But you blame the Badals for sacrilege, saying it was a result of their hobnobbing with Dera Sacha Sauda?

We all say that. There was hobnobbing. There were meetings. There were also reports of meetings between (SAD president) Sukhbir and the dera chief in Mumbai.

So, it is difficult to establish the criminality part of that.

There is no criminality. This is politics. They wanted the support of the dera. That’s one side of the story, but that there was criminality involved in it is for the investigation to find out. I don’t think that. I believe there were political adjustments they were making for elections. The reaction is because Akal Takht had said you will have nothing to do with the dera. That’s why there is upheaval in the Sikh world and they are not supporting the Akalis.

Your own ministers and party MP Partap Singh Bajwa raised questions on Parbodh Kumar’s letter to the CBI and sought action against him.

Parbodh did the right thing. If he had not written to the CBI and told them you have no business to file the closure report, the case would have been over. He did the correct thing by writing to them. Sometimes, people tend to talk without knowing the facts.

The perception is that you are stepping into the religious domain, which is why the Akalis are striking back with issues such as GST on langar in Golden Temple.

This is not true. We are not getting into Panthic domain. They are just misleading. As for GST, we kept aside Rs 50 crore and sent it to the deputy commissioner. A new disbursement head has to be formed and the money will go to the SGPC. She (Harsimrat) talks more than she knows. She is a compulsive liar. If I was Modi, I would have sacked her long ago. She is totally incompetent.

How do you look at the latest incidents of Pakistan-origin drones dropping consignments of arms and ammunition in Punjab?

This is a new and serious dimension on Pakistan’s sinister designs on Punjab and Kashmir. Our intelligence is that after abrogation of the Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, different Pakistan agencies are trying to push in weapon consignments into the border states. We can’t do much about drones. When I met (Union home minister) Amit Shah recently, I talked to him about it. I don’t know whether Indian Air Force radar can detect them or not. These are Chinese drones.In two-and-a-half years, we have busted 28 terrorist modules and arrested 142 terrorists. Thirty-nine AK-47s and other automatic weapons, 27 hand-grenades, 147 pistols and 3.5-kg RDX have been recovered.

Can terrorism come back to Punjab?

We will never allow terrorism to return to Punjab. It can’t succeed until people are party to it. There are sleeper cells that got active sometimes. Out of the entire population of Punjab, it is not difficult for them to find a few dozen. Punjab wants peace. We can’t do much about drones.

Your detractors say you don’t trust the CBI on Bargari, but your government has no qualms about handing over other cases to the National Investigating Agency (NIA). Why this contradiction?

The Akalis are part of the central government. Naturally, the Centre will protect them. That’s with regard to the CBI. As for cases being sent to the NIA, they are anti-national matters and have nothing to do with the SAD. Also, we don’t have the capacity to investigate beyond our national borders. The NIA and Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) can go beyond borders. On these matters, we work closely with central agencies.

Induction of six Congress MLAs as advisers has been seen as an attempt to placate the disgruntled ones.

This has not been done to placate anyone. They are not in an executive position but in an advisory capacity. They will keep an eye on the ground and look at the implementation of schemes to enable us to take corrective measures.

Some of your MLAs have been critical of the government and say bureaucrats call the shots.

This is a statement people keep making, but the government can’t function without the bureaucracy. How can anyone say babus call the shots? Which decision has been taken without the cabinet approval?

The Congress has gone back to Sonia Gandhi as interim president. Will that help the party reclaim lost political territory?

India needs a young leadership. When Rahul (Gandhi) quit, I said in the working meeting that this was a wrong thing to do and subsequently wrote to him also that he should carry on. Young India was looking up to him. Mrs Gandhi is experienced, but Rahul should have kept going. He should come back at an appropriate time.

What is your take on Union home minister Amit Shah’s intent to extend the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to all states?

I am not for it. The most shocking thing about NRC in Assam is that some junior commissioned officers, who spent their life in Indian Army, have been suddenly told that you are not Indian. There they have Bangladeshi and Rohingya issues, but we don’t have that scenario here. We are not going to introduce it in Punjab. We are a secular democracy and have all lived together. Suddenly, you can’t create a dividing line. If someone has come from outside and is illegally living there, the government has the right to tell them to go.

The Supreme Court has given Punjab and Haryana four months to sort out the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal issue. Last week, Shah asked Punjab to act like the bigger brother and be more accommodating. Is an out-of-court political settlement possible?

The best solution is what the PM has offered. A new tribunal to look into all water issues such as Narmada, Cauvery, Ravi, Beas, and Sharda rivers. Once it comes in, it will have to find out the water availability and the groundwater situation. We are willing to go to the new tribunal and put our case there. You have to start afresh. We are hopeful of a solution.

Punjab has a high road accident fatality rate. What is stopping the state government from implementing the amended Motor Vehicles Act that provides for hefty penalties on traffic violations?

The minister (in-charge of transport Razia Sultana) is not keen on implementing it with such hefty fines. I don’t interfere in my ministers’ functioning and allow them complete freedom. I have not spoken to her on this so far. As for me, anything that cuts down casualties would be a welcome step.

Should the outcome of the byelection to four assembly seats be interpreted as people’s verdict on the first half of your term?

Not really because these are not our seats. Only Mukerian was with us. This is only limited to some areas. The parliamentary election was a verdict because it was held in entire Punjab. But, I’m confident on all four.

CAPTSPEAK

On Harsimrat Kaur Badal

She talks more than she knows. She is a compulsive liar. If I was Modi, I would have sacked her long ago. She is totally incompetent.

On National Register of Citizens

We are not going to introduce it in Punjab. We are a secular democracy and have all lived together. Suddenly, you can’t create a dividing line.

On the conflict of interest law

We don’t have a minister having any conflict of interest. Still, our intention is to bring this law.

On stepping into the Panthic turf

We are not getting into the Panthic domain. They (Akalis) are just misleading.

On economic slowdown

I can’t say whether it is a global or national trend. But we have not been affected in Punjab as every third day we have someone or the other meeting me to show interest in investing here. Things are moving quite fast.

First Published: Sep 23, 2019 22:51 IST

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