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Return of dissent: Partap Bajwa targets Capt Amarinder, asks him to get his act together

In the first public articulation of dissent against the 10-month-old Captain Amarinder Singh government, Congress MP Partap Singh Bajwa called upon the CM to overhaul the ministerial cabinet and administration to restore their morale.

punjab Updated: Jan 21, 2018 21:40 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur and Ramesh Vinayak
Sukhdeep Kaur and Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Bajwa,Amarinder,Amarinder govt
Congress Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa at the HT office in Mohali.(Sanjeev Sharma/HT)

Political rivalries are seldom buried for good.

The festering feud between Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa and chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who had upstaged the Majha chieftain in November 2016 as state Congress chief, erupted again on Saturday as Bajwa went ballistic against his own party’s government in Punjab.

In a 45-minute interview in Chandigarh with Hindustan Times, Bajwa was scathingly critical of Amarinder’s governance and pitched himself as the voice of growing rumblings in the party rank and file. Excerpts:

Q: The Congress government in Punjab will complete its one year in March. How do you look at its performance so far?

Bajwa: The party cadres helped us win elections. But they are feeling completely neglected. It is a top-heavy administration with unbridled powers to bureaucrats. For instance, Suresh Kumar. He may be an upright officer. But an IAS officer becomes chief secretary after 34 years. But, a retired bureaucrat takes over his (chief secretary’s) powers. As the high court ruling said, if he (Suresh) takes a wrong decision, who will be held accountable? He could have been roped in as an adviser. Suresh was sitting over files of all departments. He was running the show. He had unbridled powers. Will Suresh have to contest elections? There were lobbies in the chief minister’s team playing against each other.

Q: What course-correction will you suggest?

Bajwa: The time has come for the chief minister to rejig his ministry and overhaul the administration. I would advise him to induct first-timer MLAs too in his cabinet and groom them as deputy ministers. Even he was a first-time MLA of the Akali Dal when he was made minister in the Barnala government in 1985. Two-time and three-time MLAs can be inducted as ministers of state. The cabinet has no representation for districts such as Ludhiana and Jalandhar. Sardar saab (CM) has 34 departments with himself; bureaucrats are running these. He needs to decentralise completely. Like an appraisal of staff every year, non-performers in the ministry should be weeded out. If he allots the 34 departments to other MLAs, people can meet them. He should dispense with all OSDs and advisers. No OSDs are needed and he can have just a few advisers. On the list released by Sukhpal Khaira (leader of opposition) on the proposed appointments to Punjab Public Service Commission and information commission, why are people like former IGP Lok Nath Angra being given a PPSC post ? Why should a biographer of the CM be made information commissioner? Such posts are for committed workers. It was decided that those whose claims were overlooked in elections will be given chairmanships. That did not happen.

Q: Are party workers not heard?

Bajwa: Not even MLAs! Many have told me how they used to sit outside the office of Suresh Kumar for hours. According to protocol, an MLA is senior to even a chief secretary. Rather, the officers should be going to MLAs.

Q: What about poll promises?

Bajwa: The CM has today appealed to farmers not to go on agitation and (said) there is no money to waive their entire loans. There were many lapses in the scheme. Because there was no political input. Who made the government? The party, not bureaucrats. Now that they realise undeserving farmers have got the relief, they are proposing self-declarations.

Q: Has the debt waiver scheme not had the desired result?

Bajwa: Yes. That is why the CM met MLAs later. Because it has not had desired result. If you let bureaucrats decide everything, you will go for a six. Even on drug issue, Congress promised to hold those behind it accountable. That is why the CM made the special task force (STF). He made ADGP Harpreet Sidhu join him after leaving his job at the Centre. But he has not been given the manpower he needs. There is some kind of tussle between him and DGP Suresh Arora. Now the high court has asked the STF to probe the role of Bikram Singh Majithia (former Akali minister) in the drug trade.

Q: Why is the government going soft on this?

Bajwa: The CM needs to answer. But it is time for overhaul of the entire police, legal and civil set-up. Has the advocate general (Atul Nanda) ever won a single case? Professionals should come, not coteries. Before elections, Captain himself said there were 30,000 false cases of vendetta against Congress workers during the Akali regime. Then, why is the same police set-up in place?

Q: But he has set up Mehtab Singh Gill Commission to probe vendetta cases.

Bajwa: When government changes, the civil and police administration is changed. This message has not gone down the line. It is the public perception. After all, the same police administration was there when false cases were being slapped on Congressmen.

Q: Why did it take so long for the CM to drop Rana Gurjit Singh from his ministry?

Bajwa: (The resignation by Rana) is a clear indication from the Congress central leadership — the party has always acted against allegations of corruption, even if it had to pay a heavy political price. In the 2G ‘scam’ case, A Raja (DMK leader) was asked to resign, and now the court has cleared him. In the Adarsh Society case, the party made its sitting Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan put in his papers. He too has been cleared by the courts. Ask the Akalis and BJP, there are hundreds of corruption charges against them. Have they resigned? It is (Congress president) Rahul Gandhi who has upheld the principles of probity. I am feeling sorry for Rana. He was my good friend at one point of time. Had he resigned earlier, he may have bounced back by now. He has not only damaged his own image, but also of the party.

Do you feel Captain Amarinder should have acted earlier?

Bajwa: Rather, Rana should have acted earlier.It is the party high command that prevailed. The CM’s own statement says Rana had resigned on January 4 and Rahul will decide.

Q:How has the Rana episode affected the government’s image?

Bajwa: It has definitely dented the image. We got near two-thirds majority in Punjab. We came (to power) on the promise to end corrupt practices and give a clean and honest government. Punjab kol ajj den-len nu kuch nai hega. Je asin aapni chhavi hi saaf rakh jande te lokan di sympathy saade naal turi reni si (Punjab today has nothing to give or take. It is in a financial mess. If we had kept our image clean, we could have been getting public sympathy). People still want to stand with Congress. They voted for us in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll and the municipal elections. They have still not forgotten the misrule of the Akali-BJP regime. We need to pull up our socks. If you don’t take action against ministers, how can you stop the MLAs? And how can you then curb the bureaucracy?

Q: Before elections, Captain played an emotional card, saying it will be his last election. Now, he wants to run another innings. Why?

Bajwa: His close advisers seem to have told him that the succession battle has started, and that before the ground slips from under his feet, he should declare that he is firmly in the saddle and can go for re-run; so that there is no question mark. To stop people and bureaucracy from aligning with his successors, he has done it. He felt he was losing to the perception that he is retiring after this term.

Q: In his previous term as CM (2002-07), he was accused of being inaccessible? Have things changed now?

Bajwa: As a Rajya Sabha member, I am mostly at Delhi. I can’t say if he is inaccessible or not. But he has never extended any invite to MPs. He has had no interaction with us in the last 10 months. The state’s MPs can raise many important issues in Parliament. We could have told the Modi government that Punjab, despite its precarious finances, has waived loans of poor farmers. We could have also asked the BJP government at the Centre to help us. But nobody tells us anything.

Q: Is this disconnect only with you, or with other MPs too?

Bajwa: I don’t think he has called any of them. If you organise a meeting, you can galvanise the MPs.

Q:But in the first meeting of MPs convened by the CM, none of the Congress MPs turned up.

Bajwa: Rather, it was he who did not turn up. We were informed by his office that the CM would take the meeting. But later he asked minister Brahm Mohindra to chair it. According to protocol and past precedents too,we said that if the chief minister is not coming, we are not coming either.

Q: There are murmurs of coterie around Amarinder…

Bajwa: This is what I also hear. I have not come to ever meet him. Neither has he tried to meet or called me. So I did not have to go through any coterie. There is a complete disconnect with me.

Q: Why is this disconnect?

Bajwa: He is the CM. If there is a disconnect, it is the CM’s job to call us and talk to us.

Q: Why is nobody else in the Congress speaking about it?

Bajwa: Who wants to lose his job? Nihang Singh kinne ku honde ae partiyaan wich (How many daredevils are there in a party)? Who will speak in fear? Many are first-timers. It will take some time.

Have you told high command?

Bajwa: They are totally briefed; totally aware of everything.

Why is it so important for the Congress government to course-correct in Punjab?

Bajwa: In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress wants to dislodge Narendra Modi under all circumstances. For that, we have to increase the number of seats. Your cadre has to be completely charged. But is there any Congressman on the list of appointments as information commissioners and PPSC members? Tusin saare Patiale-waleyan nu hi banayi jana e (Will you keep appointing only Patiala residents)? Kanwaljit Lalli, a former MLA whose Adampur constituency was reserved, could have been appointed. What reputation does this IG Angra have? All appointments are being done on whims and fancies. ‘Koi mere naal padheya, mere othe vyahaya, mere naal regiment ch reha’ — ehi kari jande ne (‘Someone studied with me, is married in Patiala, or someone from my regiment’ — those seem the criteria now).

Q: It seems the bad blood between Captain and you persists.

Bajwa: Had there been bad blood, would I have got six seats in assembly elections? We won five of the seats and helped him form the government. My younger brother (Fateh Jang Singh Bajwa) is an MLA. Is he not with him? The reciprocation has to come from him. He now has the powers. I came to his oath-taking ceremony too. I just had the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha (segment) to me. They had promised it to me, but gave it to someone else. But

I helped Sunil Jakhar win because I wanted the party to win. Yet, I am not subservient to Captain. Ki main darbar de bahar talliyan kharkanda phiran (Should I go about chiming bells outside his darbar)? That, I will never do; and he knows that. The gaps grow this way and cause damage. Everyone has self-respect. I have never compromised with Badal. Have you ever seen me in the Punjab secretariat or at CM’s residence? If he (CM) held out his hand to us, it would have helped him.

Q: Why is there disconnect between party and govt?

Bajwa: Did a single person who fought false cases against Congress workers make it to the list of legal officers? The workers are disillusioned.

Q: Do other leaders also share your sentiments?

Bajwa: Yes. 110%!

Q: What are implications of the Rana-Suresh episode?

Bajwa: It’s a wake-up call. The CM has to get his act together.

Q: You demanded CBI probe into the Bhola drug case. Do you think Amarinder government is going soft on Akalis?

Bajwa: He talks of ‘no vendetta’. We are talking of justice to the people of Punjab. Those who looted Punjab for 10 years have to be made accountable for acts of omission and commission. Bikram Majithia should have been booked a long time back.

Q: Why has Captain not expanded his cabinet?

Bajwa: We are not running the government... just passing time. It’s like a car that gets some fuel every few kilometres! There is no representation of important areas such as Jalandhar and Ludhiana. It is the mindset. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has kept no portfolio with himself. The CMO should monitor all departments. Giving power to a politician who is answerable to the people and party cadres is a hundred times better than giving power to bureaucrats who are neither answerable to the people nor sensitive to their problems.

First Published: Jan 21, 2018 09:40 IST