Competing interests in Capt Amarinder’s cabinet stymie key reforms
Backseat: Over a year after Congress came to power promising end to mafia raj and conflict of interest, power games in top echelons put a spanner in much-touted reforms.Updated: May 17, 2018 09:36 IST
In Punjab, politics means business. The previous Akali Dal-BJP regime was widely accused of patronising and benefitting from ‘mafia rule’ in sand mining, cable TV, liquor trade and transport business. The Congress promised to end it all in its election manifesto before it returned to power after 10 years. The first cabinet meeting of the Captain Amarinder Singh government held in March last year gave its nod to many of these promises.
But over a year later, the dice of reform continues to be scuttled by vested interests represented by some of the ministers and party leaders.
The most recent example is the new mining policy that aims to end the nexus of politicians, police and the sand mafia. But, the reform-oriented initiative has fallen into a pit of political checkmating among the ministers.
Split verdict on mining policy
A cabinet sub-committee formed by the CM has given a split verdict on the policy. Drafted by local government minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who headed the panel, the policy advocates bringing sand mining and its sale under state control by forming a corporation on the lines of states such as Telangana which has raked in huge revenue by doing so.
But, another minister in the panel, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Captain’s confidante who was entrusted with the key departments of rural as well as urban development after last month’s cabinet expansion, has given statements in media opposing it. He has closed ranks with another CM loyalist, Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, who was made the new mining minister while the policy was in the making.
First, both Bajwa and Sarkaria faulted Sidhu for not waiting to discuss the new policy with other ministers in the panel before handing it over to the CM. Now, they have picked holes in the policy itself.
Bajwa, who had proposed to make sand free during a meeting of the panel, says the policy should have been discussed with other ministers in the panel. Sarkaria has declared that he would frame a new policy. At play also is the Majha politics as all three ministers are from that belt.
Sidhu contends that neither Bajwa nor Sarkaria brought any of their objections on record. “All ministers were given due notice about the panel’s meeting before I submitted the report to the chief minister. Sarkaria was invited as a special invitee. I personally called them up too,” he adds.
Finance minister Manpreet Badal, also a member of the panel, is not opposed to the idea of state corporation. “The new policy has yet to come in the cabinet for discussion. It should be implemented only if it is in the interest of all three stakeholders, the consumers, government revenue and contractors,” he says.
Breaking the liquor cartel
Manpreet’s own proposal to break the “liquor syndicate” by bringing its sale under the control of the state by forming a state corporation on the pattern of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala has also run into an internal wall. The excise department that is with chief minister came up with a policy that had junked the finance minister’s idea.
But Manpreet insists that the reform is still under consideration. “I will be visiting Kolkata in June to study their model. West Bengal has doubled its revenue from liquor from Rs 4,500 crore to Rs 9,000 crore by creating a state corporation for wholesale liquor trade,” he says.
Also, the ‘conflict of interest’ law for ministers and MLAs – another promise in Congress manifesto – has been battling opposition. Soon after taking over, the CM had said only ministers, and not MLAs, would fall under its ambit. It is an open secret that legislators and politicians from both ruling party and opposition have stakes in mining, transport, liquor and other state businesses. But Manpreet says the bill is in the works. “I drafted the manifesto and it is my moral duty to meet all that we promised in it,” he says.
In case of party’s yet another promise mandating its ministers and MLAs to declare their assets every year, the bill remains stuck six months after it was passed by the assembly. Now, the department of parliamentary affairs is amending it after some MLAs objected to January 1 as the last date to do so. Parliamentary affairs minister Brahm Mohindra says his department has still to decide on what should be the new deadline.
The Congress manifesto had also promised to end the “cable mafia” in Punjab. The target was Fastway, a multi-system operator (MSO) which has near monopoly over cable TV business in the state, owing to its alleged proximity to former deputy CM and Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Sidhu’s bid to levy entertainment tax on MSOs and cable TV operators remains caught in the bureaucratic-legal labyrinth. The new entertainment tax bill was passed by the cabinet but has been doing the rounds of the legal remembrancer (LR) office.
According to a department official, who requested anonymity, the proposal has been sent back by the LR office the fourth time with objections that will render it “toothless”.
There is also internal Congress politics behind scuttling the reforms. Party sources say that Amarinder views both Sidhu and Manpreet as potential challengers in power politics. “That’s why Captain is cornering both through his loyalists,” says an insider. Clearly, there is more than that meets the eye on why the Capt government’s reformist agenda is losing steam.