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Candid Talk: Will take fight for separate Sikh identity to logical end, says Sukhbir Badal

In a wide-ranging interview with Hindustan Times, the former deputy chief minister of Punjab also reflected a new-found assertion vis-a-vis ally, the BJP.

punjab Updated: Jan 03, 2018 20:57 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Mohali
Sukhbir Badal,Parkash Singh Badal,Akali Dal
Former deputy CM of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, during an interview with Hindustan Times at Mohali on Tuesday.(Anil Dayal/HT)

When out of power, Akalis have a history – and a habit – of resurrecting Sikh identity politics to redeem themselves with the core constituency. That’s precisely the centrepiece of Sukhbir Singh Badal’s game plan to burnish his image, and that of his party, as a combative crusader for an amendment to Article 25 of the Constitution that brackets the Sikhs with the Hindus and establish its status as a separate religion. It’s one of those long-forgotten Panthic causes that his moderate father had once espoused in the ‘80s by publicly tearing off the Constitution.

In a wide-ranging interview with Hindustan Times on Tuesday, Sukhbir, 55, also reflected a new-found assertion vis-a-vis ally, the BJP. Excerpts:

Q: What’s your New Year resolution for the Shiromani Akali Dal?

Our target is the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. We are gearing up and in mission mode.

Post-defeat in the assembly elections, any course correction?

An organisational revamp is on to infuse fresh blood. In the recent re-jig, the general secretaries are younger. The senior leadership has gone to vice-president level. Soon, there will be an overhaul in the youth and women wings. The aim is to rejuvenate the party at the grassroots after assessing what went wrong last year.

How come the SAD came number 3?

The number doesn’t matter, vote shares do. One way to look at it is that the Akali Dal got only 15 seats. Another way is -- that’s how I look at it -- that despite a tsunami of wrong propaganda, the Akalis got 32% vote share, only 8% less than the percentage who voted for us in 2007. The Congress got 38% and the Aam Aadmi Party 21% vote share. It shows our strength at the grassroots and that people still have faith in Akalis. That’s why we survived the electoral earthquake.

“In our tenure from 2007-12, there were more Hindu MLAs on the Akali side than in the Congress.”

In 2020, SAD will be 100 years old. What does it stand for? Does it represent Sikhs or Punjabis?

The Akali Dal is a Punjabi party. But we are also the voice of Sikhs across the world. Before the Moga convention in 1996, only Sikhs were its members. After that, we made it for all Punjabis. In our tenure from 2007-12, there were more Hindu MLAs on the Akali side than in the Congress.

But this didn’t go down well with your ally, the BJP?

We are not answerable to them. Nor have they conveyed this to me. It’s my duty to widen the Akali base. The Hindus have more faith in (former chief minister) Parkash Singh Badal than any other leader of the state. They feel the Akali Dal is for us. In 30 years when he was at the helm, he made all Punjabis feel one. He is a unifier.

After losing, you seem to be in a Panthic mode to redeem yourself with the Sikh constituency?

We are the face and voice of the Sikhs. Whenever there is any issue regarding the community such as the renaming of the Dyal Singh Majithia College in Delhi, we fight for it. There’s nothing to be ashamed or apologetic about it. Rather, we’re proud of it.

One of your MPs demanded an amendment to Article 25(2) of the Constitution for a separate Sikh identity. What’s your view?

Sikhism is an independent religion. So, it needs an independent identity. Why shouldn’t the Constitution reflect that? The separate Sikh identity needs to be clarified. We are strongly for it and we are going to fight for it.

“Amending Article 25 involves altering a comma here and there. It’s not disputable.”

Why fight with a friendly NDA government at the Centre?

We will meet the Prime Minister, take other parties on board and bring a bill in Parliament. This is a major issue. We will take it to the logical conclusion, the way an amendment was brought about in the SGPC Act debarring Sehajdhris from voting. Amending Article 25 involves altering a comma here and there. It’s not disputable.

How true is the perception that the Akalis are not getting a fair deal from the Narendra Modi dispensation?

There should have been more meetings of NDA allies. Maybe the BJP is busy with other states… because of election after election.

Are they taking you for granted?

I don’t think so. Every party has its space. When it comes to Punjab, they refer to us. But the interaction between NDA partners should be regular. Then issues can be sorted out.

The Modi government opted for Sikhs outside the Akali fold for the Union cabinet and the National Minorities Commission. You were not even consulted.

They take their own decisions. Inducting someone to the Union ministry is the PM’s prerogative. On the minorities commission, yes, they should have taken us into confidence because we are the voice of the Sikh minority. We have conveyed our views to the BJP high command.

Even Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s demand for GST waiver on Harmandar Sahib langar didn’t find favour?

That’s one thing that the Centre should have done. It’s ‘sewa’. If they also want to do it for key shrines of other faiths, let it be so. It won’t make a difference of more than Rs 200 crore.

“You hear more about the Captain’s single malt (scotch whiskey) soirees than about the single window system. It’s the most useless regime Punjab has ever had since Independence.”

Your take on the Amarinder government.

It’s not a government. Calling it non-serious will be an understatement. There are more parties than governance. The Congress is just enjoying itself. You hear more about the Captain’s single malt (scotch whiskey) soirees than about the single window system. It’s the most useless regime Punjab has ever had since Independence.

But they are waiving off farm debt that your government couldn’t do?

It’s a fraud on farmers. The Congress first promised to write off farm debts of all banks and arhtiyas (commission agents). That would have meant a Rs 90,000-crore waiver. Then they diluted it to Rs 9,500 crore and are now cherry-picking farmers with small debts. Farmers under heavy debts and prone to suicides have been left out. The rich will benefit. It’s just symbolic.

Is the farm debt waiver a solution?

No, making agriculture viable is. The Akali Dal is the only party that did something for farmers. We gave free power worth Rs 6,000 crore a year. That means Rs 1 lakh benefit to each farmer. We raised the crop damage compensation to Rs 8,000 per acre from Rs 2,000 and gave Rs 1 lakh health insurance cover to farmers. These are tangible things to give a sense of security to farmers. Punjab needs more diversification to fruit processing.

Narendra Modi has promised to double farmers’ income by 2022. Do you buy that?

He will have to do something drastic because the Gujarat election results have shown farmers are in distress. To gain their confidence, the Centre will have to do something in the budget.

Finance minister Manpreet Badal blames the Akali governments for Punjab’s Rs 2 lakh crore debt burden?

If you are an incompetent finance minister, what can I say? In our 10 years, Punjab’s debt growth was among the lowest, according to the Reserve Bank of India data. When Captain Sahib left power in 2007, our debt to GDP ratio was 43%. We brought it down to 31%. How can you say we messed up? If the state is broke now, how are they promising Rs 5 per unit power to industry and debt waiver to farmers? The finance minister has to have knowledge of finance, not just history or Urdu poetry.

“The AAP is finished. It’s a bubble that has burst.”

You are competing with AAP in opposition space?

Not really. The AAP is finished. It’s a bubble that has burst. Their main face, Sukhpal Khaira, has no credibility. He is just a media darling because he talks rubbish. 70% of the AAP in Majha has joined the Akali Dal. Soon, they will be left with only MLAs and no cadre.

How challenging is it for you to measure up to Parkash Singh Badal’s legacy?

Impossible, I’m not even 20% of what he is. It’s hard to match his level of commitment. For him, his whole life is people. For him, there is no family. If Harvard has a department of politics, he should be its dean.

Is dynastic politics good for democracy?

It’s a necessity. It carries forward people’s faith in a successful leader. There are so many leaders whose next generation has not taken off. Badal Sahib is moderate and not communal. So people trust that his son will not be radical and will respect every religion. That way, it’s a continuation of credibility. If you live up to that, you will get a chance. If not, you are gone.

First Published: Jan 03, 2018 20:55 IST