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Interview with HS Phoolka: ‘AAP in Punjab will not be a compromising opposition’

In a freewheeling chat with Hindustan Times on Monday, suave Phoolka was sharply critical, with his trademark scathing logic, of both the Congress government and Akalis, and fulsome in his optimism about AAP

punjab Updated: Jun 14, 2017 19:47 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
AAP,Punjab,HS Phoolka
“One of major reasons for the Aam Aadmi Party’s below-than-expected performance was the Punjabi psyche.”(HT Photo)

Framing issues and articulation comes naturally to Harvinder Singh Phoolka. But in his new role as the leader of opposition in Punjab, the 62-year-old legal eagle and human rights champion will get his first taste of the challenges ahead on Wednesday when the 15th Vidhan Sabha meets for its first substantive session that will, among other agenda, have the budget presentation.

With the Aam Aadmi Party ensconced as the main opposition, Phoolka’s test is on two fronts: One, 19 of his 20 MLAs, including himself, are first-timers and political green horns bereft of legislative experience. Two, while lending firepower to the attack on treasury benches, the AAP will have to guard against letting the traditional opposition Shiromani Akali Dal steal the thunder. To that end, he has done his homework on issues and primed his young guns for their first floor test.

In a freewheeling chat with Hindustan Times on Monday, suave Phoolka was sharply critical, with his trademark scathing logic, of both the Congress government and Akalis, and fulsome in his optimism about AAP. Excerpts:

How do you look at your role as the leader of opposition?

Besides legal and human rights work, I was a field activist on Punjab issues before I joined politics in 2014. This appointment allows me to play that role effectively through the Vidhan Sabha.

How has the AAP course corrected itself after the Punjab elections?

One of major reasons for the Aam Aadmi Party’s below-than-expected performance was the Punjabi psyche that wants Punjabi dominance in state politics. Our opponents succeeded in their propaganda that if the AAP gets elected, its leaders from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh will rule Punjab.

But, Punjab AAP leaders publicly talked about outsiders calling the shots?

That’s true, there has been an over control. But now we will be conscious on that. I take my own decisions in consultation with my MLAs.

How will AAP recover the lost ground?

We need to keep working in our original style. That’s more of the role of an activist and less of a politician. A politician sees every issue through the prism of votes. But an activist works for relief to society, particularly weaker sections, and takes a stand even if it annoys a section. People still like our activism.

“I am pained to see farmers dying. Sixty-two have committed suicide since the new regime took charge. Till date no Congress leader has been to their homes,” Phoolka said. (Sanjeev Sharma/HT)

How will AAP establish its credentials as the main opposition?

That will depend a lot on our performance in the Vidhan Sabha and on how convincingly we highlight issues where the government has gone wrong. The AAP will not be a compromising opposition.

Neither the ruling Congress nor the Akalis take AAP seriously. Capt Amarinder Singh dismisses you as an “upstart”, while Sukhbir Badal says the AAP bubble has burst?

This is their common wish. It is an open secret that they work in collusion. They are both scared of the AAP. The Akalis are not scared of the Congress and vice-versa. It’s because they are used to doing the same things. In the Badal rule, the Akalis had a bigger chunk of share in all illegal businesses, while the Congress had a smaller share. That’s why the Congress as opposition let the Akalis’ illegal acts go on unchecked. Now when the Congress is in power, it’s a reversal of shares. Even I got an offer: “Tuhanu tuhada share ghar baithe mil jayega (You’ll get your share sitting at home).” But I rejected it with the contempt it deserved.

What’s your take on first three months of the Amarinder government?

Sarkar kithe hai (Where is the government?) I am pained to see farmers dying. Sixty-two have committed suicide since the new regime took charge. Till date no Congress leader has been to their homes. The government has done nothing for them. The education minister hasn’t stepped out of her air-conditioned office despite so many government schools showing zero result. It seems they are not bothered.

So how are they different from the Akali regime?

The Akalis were active. ‘Uh chahe apna khan peen da kam karde see par active rehende san (They looked after their own business interests but were active)’. The Congress is all inertia.

19 of AAP’s 20 MLAs are first-timers and lack legislative experience.

Our first-timers will be better than their four-time MLAs. We have done our homework and held training and strategy sessions on assembly procedures and know who will take up which issue. I am trying out a new strategy. We will put the young MLAs upfront in the House. I want to show what youth faces, fired with zeal, can do.

You have firebrand Sukhpal Khaira.

He is not young (laughs). We will deploy first-time chaps in their 20s. We have Baljinder Kaur, Ruby, and Aman Arora.

What are the key issues AAP will harp on?

We will be picking up the Congress manifesto and grilling them on what they promised and what has been done so far.

Isn’t three months too short a time to judge a government?

It’s enough time to judge their intention. What to talk of achievements, the government is mired in scandals and misrule.

The budget session will see a white paper on finances.

If the document just tells us that ‘khazana khali hai (the treasury is empty)’, it means nothing. We will show the government what could have been done in three months within the means and what Punjab has today. Why did the Congress make tall promises on affidavits and swear by ‘Gutkhas’? Didn’t they know then that the coffers are empty? They first promised the moon and are now setting up committees to figure out how to deliver it. The white paper serves its purpose only if it holds someone accountable and takes action.

Who is the face of the AAP in Punjab?

None, we want to project our ideology as the face.

But AAP lacks an organisational muscle in Punjab.

The party has a base. We shall soon have a structure in place – from village to state level. That will help us in our objective to contest all elections in Punjab.

Has Bhagwant Mann taken care of his drinking problem as reportedly assured by Arvind Kejriwal?

(Laughs) In recent times, I haven’t seen such an incident. Can I have a two-minute break? (Excuses himself to go to the washroom).

What are your views on Capt Amarinder Singh?

He has done nothing to demonstrate that he is the chief minister. I’m surprised, rather shocked, that he hasn’t cared to visit a single family of a debt-ridden farmer who committed suicide. On a personal level, I have good relations with him. We are from the same clan of Phoolkian.

And Sukhbir Badal?

After he took over, the Akali Dal went off track. He thinks money is everything. Paisa banao, paisa sutto te election jitto (Make money, throw money and win elections). That approach has ruined Punjab and sent him to number three today. I hope he has learnt a lesson.

Can AAP in Punjab sustain itself without addressing Panthic issues?

The biggest harm the Akalis have done to Punjab and Sikhism is projecting Punjab’s issues as Panthic issues to please Sikhs. The Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal is not a Panthic issue; it’s related to Punjab’s economy. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots isn’t a Sikh issue. It’s an issue of human rights and law and order.

AAP will have to compete with Akalis in opposition space?

Hun taan asli maja ayooga (The real fun starts now). We face no challenge from them. In their first drama of protests, they had to take help of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Let the people judge who does simple criticism and who plays an effective role. We will show the Akalis what an opposition ought to be like.

First Published: Jun 13, 2017 21:54 IST