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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

Resignation now will amount to admission of charge, says AAP’s Sukhpal Khaira

On drug case, AAP’s leader of opposition Sukhpal Khaira says being targeted by SAD-BJP, Congress for speaking up against corrupt.

punjab Updated: Nov 18, 2017 09:38 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Leader of Opposition in Punjab assembly, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, during the interaction with Hindustan Times at his residence in Chandigarh.
Leader of Opposition in Punjab assembly, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, during the interaction with Hindustan Times at his residence in Chandigarh. (Ravi Kumar/HT)

In the dock for his alleged dealings with a convicted drug smuggler, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the Punjab face of Aam Aadmi Party, will have to fall back on one characteristic that both his admirers and adversaries cite first in describing him – a combative fighter. In a dramatic turn in the state’s unsparingly partisan drug politics, both the ruling Congress and Akalis have found a common cause in roasting Khaira, who has so far built his political career by attacking his rivals and projecting himself as crusader-in-chief against what he perceives as wrong and rotten.

A tempestuous treatment awaits the 52-year-old two-time MLA in his first outing as the Leader of Opposition when the state assembly meets for the winter session on November 27, two days before his date with the Fazilka court. With his political instincts as sharp as his dressing sense, Khaira projected an air of calm as he sat down for an interview with Hindustan Times at his unusually quiet residence in the tony Sector 5 in Chandigarh. Excerpts.

You were born in an Akali family and had your political grooming in the Congress for 20 years before you joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Which of the two influenced you more?

It was not an opportunistic shift; rather it was a natural transformation. I’ve been pro-Punjab, pro-Sikh. I draw my ideology and impulse from the Akali Dal of old times, not the current breed of bogus Akalis who have turned the party into Badals’ family enterprise. The Congress is more secular. You can breathe there but it never impressed me ideologically.

How is AAP different?

The AAP swears by corruption-free politics. Traditional parties thrive on corruption and money power. AAP has given me space and freedom.

Has AAP recovered the lost ground in Punjab since the assembly elections?

No. We haven’t had an in-depth debate to reshape the party. There is a need to resurrect it at the grassroots. ‘Uh muqaam aaya nahin aje (We haven’t reached that milestone yet)”.

The Gurdaspur debacle showed the AAP graph dip?

It was a bad show. We lost our deposit. The result was the fallout of wrong ticketing in the assembly polls. Our support base in Majha has shrunk. It’s a cause for concern.

You blamed AAP’s central leaders for managing Punjab. Has that changed?

Now, they don’t meddle in my domain. Even in terms of organisational build-up, though Aman Arora can tell you better, I don’t think they interfere. They also want to see how we perform.

“Earlier, I was victimised by the Akalis for speaking up against them. The Congress government has adopted the same strategy to gag my voice.” -Sukhpal Khaira

You are in the thick of controversy over links with a drug smuggler. The high court hasn’t let you off the hook.

I’m neither in the FIR nor in the charge-sheet. No investigating officer has deposed against me. Earlier, I was victimised by the Akalis for speaking up against them. The Congress government has adopted the same strategy to gag my voice. Rana Gurjit has played dirty and is behind this frame-up because I targeted him for the mining scandal. This conspiracy is without Capt Amarinder Singh’s knowledge. I hope justice will prevail.

AAP has always taken a high moral ground on the drug issue. Why don’t you resign?

Resignation at this stage will amount to admission of guilt. I don’t believe in double standards. Let Sukhbir Badal and Capt Amarinder Singh, both of whom are on bail, resign. I will follow suit in 15 seconds.

Why don’t you set an example? Even your party leaders want you take a moral call and step down.

They are a small section that has been silenced by AAP volunteers. They had to clarify on social media. They never asked for the resignation of tainted minister Rana Gurjit. Both Aman Arora (co-president of Punjab AAP) and Baljinder Kaur (MLA) have rallied around me.

Will you resign if put on trial?

Not at all. Even Sonia Gandhi and Rahul are facing trials and are on bail.

But they aren’t holding constitutional posts. And you say AAP is different.

I’m being framed. It’s a conspiracy by the Congress, Akalis and BJP. Never before has the leader of opposition been targeted by three parties together. They have ganged up because they are dead scared of me. I’m exposing their corrupt leaders. I’ll resign only if my MLAs or central leadership asks me to do so.

Punjab AAP is a divided house. You’ve been told to sink differences.

Every party has highs and lows. Post-defeat, there is disillusionment. We are passing through that lean patch. To overcome this, all appointments in the state leadership should be on merit, and not on recommendation or any other consideration.

Your colleagues call you overambitious?

(Laughs) If I were that, I would’ve staked claim to be AAP’s CM candidate. I’m aggressive in politics, so people misjudge my intent.

Should AAP have named its CM candidate?

Yes, that would’ve boosted our prospects.

What about your demand for action against AAP leaders, including MLAs, who called for your resignation?

They are few leaders, two of them general secretaries, who acted as agents of the Congress and Akalis. Let me first finish off my case. I’ll pressurise the party to act against them.

“Kejriwal as Delhi CM has his own constituency to look after. I as the leader of opposition in Punjab have my own. Burning stubble was a symbolic protest” -Sukhpal Khaira

Arvind Kejriwal blamed Punjab for stubble fires. But you led farmers in stubble burning. Isn’t this political hypocrisy?

Kejriwal as Delhi CM has his own interests and constituency to look after. I, as the leader of opposition in Punjab, have my own. The Amarinder government, instead of providing subsidy to farmers, was slapping FIRs and penalties. It’s my duty to stand by farmers in debt. It was a token protest. Not that I burnt stubble of the whole Punjab. I stand by what I did. There are many issues on which central and state units of a party differ. I haven’t rebelled against Kejriwal.

Four years after its debut, why does AAP still lack an organisational set-up?

We have a structure but it’s not pan-Punjab. We need a proper and fair restructuring.

What’s stopping that?

I look after only the legislative wing. The onus is on Bhagwant Mann (state AAP president) and Aman Arora. They have tried but somehow… (pause). AAP’s weakness was reflected in Gurdaspur. There are more deserving people who haven’t found a place. Once civic polls are over, we shall put our heads together and offer a better set-up.

Will you contest the civic polls without local units?

We’ll see whether to fight on the party symbol or independently or if we should contest at all. We’ll listen to our grassroots workers. If we don’t contest, we’ll lose our support base. If we fare badly, our graph may go down. Trends show bypolls and local elections go the government way. The real test will be the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

AAP is the official opposition but in perception the Akalis are seen as the opposition.

Because they’ve been around for long. They have tested leaders with names. AAP can establish its credentials if we focus on people’s agenda and take the fight to the streets. We haven’t done that in past seven months. We are weak in Majha and Doaba. Performing pan-Punjab is becoming difficult.

Your frontline leaders are not so active on the ground?

Bhagwant Mann is active on social media. He has 14 lakh followers on Facebook. Being an MP, sometimes he is not in Punjab. Arora happens to be around sometime. Despite paucity of funds, he’s trying his best.

How do you rate the Amarinder government?

Minus zero. He is inaccessible and a coterie runs the government. Even Congress MLAs are frustrated. In six months, this rebellion will reach the high command. Amarinder won’t complete his term.

Initially, you praised him?

That was only at the bhog of his mother where I spoke about his achievements whether it’s the river water termination Act or resignation against Operation Bluestar. The Captain is a good human being and a visionary. Not a run-of-the-mill politician. But I am here to oppose the wrongdoings of his government. Amarinder is not acting against the corrupt. He’s only planning a peaceful retirement.

Drug has become the ultimate abuse in Punjab’s political discourse. Should this blame game stop?

Yes. Unless there is evidence, don’t accuse the other. There are serious issues being sidelined such as education, health, and road accidents. Nobody is concerned. Its time to stop hitting below the belt.

So no politics of vendetta?

Amarinder says no political vendetta. I support that. Framing an innocent is political vendetta, letting the corrupt scot-free is not. That’s where the Captain is going wrong. He’s not acting against the Badals for plundering Punjab in 10 years.

Does AAP have a future in Punjab?

Yes. AAP faltered once but we can get up and rebuild our system. Punjab has space for a third alternative. You can’t write us off.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 08:46 IST

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