Fireworks at Punjab Congress meet; ministers, MLAs air grievances
The second meeting of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) held before the last day of the five-day monsoon session of the Punjab assembly saw fireworks with ministers taking up cudgels against their own government and transport minister Razia Sultana coming close to slapping a MLA.
All the action and drama took place outside the Assembly on Monday evening during the "dinner diplomacy" of chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to placate ruffled feathers of party MLAs who had aired their resentment over handling of the sacrilege issue by the government during the CLP meeting held on Friday.
Much to Captain's discomfort, it was ministers who led the charge against their own government. Those privy to the developments said rural development minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa played the opening shot by telling the CM that the Congress was losing public perception on the Bargari sacrilege issue. It was echoed by jails minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa who said the government was being seen as "colluding with the Badals" and running away from drugs and sacrilege issue. Local bodies minister Brahm Mohindra and sports minister Rana Gurmeet Sodhi too seconded their views.
The otherwise reticent finance minister Manpreet Badal too spoke up. He said while he has refused security, a fleet of Land Cruisers and fire brigades can be seen outside the "fort of Badals" at their native Badal village.
The CM intervened to say the Badals had been given security due to the threat perception to which minister Gurpreet Kangar said they had given him (Amarinder) worn-out SUVs when they were in power. Fazilka MLA Devinder Singh Ghubaya is learnt to have said that "300 cops were on VIP duty" when Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Badal recently visited Jalalabad.
Some MLAs, including Gidderbaha MLA Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, who had skipped the last CLP meet as a mark of protest against the regional transport authority (RTA) issuing orders to stop a PRTC bus plying from his constituency Gidderbaha to Chandigarh, were critical of the new transport policy.
"The local authorities still patronise Badal buses. One PRTC bus was taken off the route of Gidderbaha. Later, the RTA issued order to take off the second too. It has been restored after I took up the matter with the higher authorities," Warring earlier told HT.
Jalandhar North MLA Avtar Henry, whose family is into the transport business, had a heated argument with transport minister Razia Sultana over the new transport policy. Those privy to the developments said the MLA alleged the RTAs were doing the bidding of Badals and there was rampant corruption in the department. Razia took an exception to this, saying she had been given the ministry just two months back.
The war of words escalated to the point that Razia was reportedly seen raising her hand to slap Henry. The duo left the meeting without having dinner. The minister could not be contacted for her comments while Henry said she is elder to him and he would not like to speak on the matter.
The Congress MLAs were also perturbed over influence of Narendra Modi government over IAS and IPS officers of the state. "National security adviser Ajit Doval is trying to raise the bogey of Referendum 2020 to take control of Punjab like J&K. I have raised my concerns at the growing interference of Centre in Congress-ruled states in the last CLP meeting. The trend is worrying and we need to beware," MLA Kuljit Nagra said.
The sudden churning in party after former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu was isolated over his "friendly match with Badals" remark jibe at CM leading to his exit from the cabinet has surprised many. According to a minister, Sidhu chose the wrong time and fora. "He has to learn to be a team player. The CM is holding meeting with officers in his drawing room. But we are facing the heat of workers and voters outside," he added.
The chief minister is learnt to heard his cabinet colleagues and MLAs patiently but grew anxious after things came to a boil. Former minister Navjot Singh Sidhu stayed away from the CLP meeting so did Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar, who was sent an invite. Jakhar has refused to attend to party affairs after resigning from his post over losing Gurdaspur seat in Lok Sabha polls.