Rana Gurjit controversy weakens Amarinder’s position; sandstorm brewing in Congress over others too

Delay and damage: Rumblings among Congress MLAs against other colleagues ‘involved’ in sand mining grow louder; many say the CM waited far too long, others say he even remained in denial until the ED summons to Rana’s son.

punjab Updated: Jan 17, 2018 10:10 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Rana Gurjit,Amarinder,Punjab
The irrigation department, the other portfolio Rana holds, too, oversees mining on riverbeds(Illustration by Daljeet Kaur Sandhu/HT)

A near two-thirds majority of 77 MLAs. That Punjab wanted clean governance from the Congress was writ large on the mandate. It was also writ large on its election manifesto. As the party lost elections in all other states that went to polls last year, Punjab was the only state it could lead by example.

With a “weak” high command, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s authority would have also gone unchallenged, both in Delhi and back home. But the CM could not walk the high talk. The mining department is part of the industries department, which is under the CM.

As involvement of aides of power minister Rana Gurjit Singh in sand mining auctions created a furore, the minister decided to brazen it out.

The progressive bidding process was to help the state make more money. What it did instead was jack up prices of mines to unrealistic figures to nudge out competitors.

Must read | HT Explainer: How Punjab sand mines auctioning got mired in muck?

The irrigation department, the other portfolio Rana holds, too, oversees mining on riverbeds. There was direct conflict of interest in Rana’s friends having mining stakes around these riverbeds. But the CM decided to overlook it. He would not let a minister, one out of nine, that too a confidant, fall to “media trial”.

He formed a one-member judicial commission and Rana got a “clean chit”. It matters little what the commission said in its report now as Rana Gurjit had to finally step down. What matters more is it now raises questions over all other such inquiry commissions set up by the CM.

Sandstorm timeline
  • May 20, 2017: Punjab government auctions 89 sand mines, announces earnings of Rs 1,026 crore
  • May 22-23: Names of Congress leaders, including power minister Rana Gurjit Singh, linked with the contracts; political storm erupts as it comes to light that Rana Gurjit “bagged” mining contracts through his “former” employees, including a cook who paid Rs 10 crore
  • May 31: CM Capt Amarinder Singh orders inquiry, gives task to justice JS Narang (retd)
  • Aug 10: Justice Narang gives the clean chit to Rana Gurjit, saying that no financial loss was caused and auctions were held in transparent manner; CM asked chief secretary to give a report in 15 days
  • Jan 15, 2018: It comes to light that Rana Gurjit has tendered his resignation from the cabinet; CM likely to call after meeting party chief Rahul Gandhi on Jan 18

The controversy has also weakened his position. He just waited far too long. Some would say he was even in denial. Until the summons of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to Rana’s son made his position awkward.

Finally, the party high command prevailed and Rana was told to step down. It saved both the CM and the party more blushes. But in public perception, the damage has been done. It is just the first year of the Congress rule after 10 years of political exile.

In the meeting of Amarinder with Congress MLAs on Monday, there were rumblings against party legislators involved in sand mining. They told the chief minister that the “goonda tax” continues. A Congress MLA said the CM looked “helpless”.

One of his ministers says people tell him they can’t spot the difference between this government and the previous one. And sand mining is not the only trade in which Congressmen have stakes. There is liquor, transport and cable business too.

When rattled by young ministers trying to steal his thunder, Amarinder gave up the idea of grooming a successor and announced to fight another election at the age of 80.

Having a coterie for palace intrigues may help outwit detractors. But Captain would like to hang up his boots, if he fights the next election, as a winner. That would need both goodwill and good work.

First Published: Jan 17, 2018 09:35 IST