Parkash Singh Badal, India’s oldest CM, is leading Akali Dal from the front as it seeks to retain power for the third time in an electoral field that has suddenly opened up, with many new players, including AAP. While the Badal regime is facing severe anti-incumbency due to charges of corruption and allegations of rampant drug abuse in Punjab, the 88-year-old remains the tallest leader in the state, holding his party and its alliance with the BJP together
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: The Election Commission has expressed fears that there are many proclaimed offenders on the loose and that the election may turn violent because of this. The DGP has said 52 gangs are operational in Punjab. Are we going to see a violent election?
No. Never. You can look up the history of Punjab. Elections here have always been very peaceful and these gangs have nothing to do with elections. They are not associated with any party. There is rivalry between these gangs over some businesses. Also, there aren’t as many gangs as mentioned in the media. I can assure you there will be no violence.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Has the state government instructed the police to rein in, track down and arrest these proclaimed offenders and gang members?
These instructions are not specifically for the elections; we have been on the job throughout. It is the routine duty of the government to check such elements. Compared to other states, Punjab is the most peaceful, with a tradition of communal harmony. Ensuring communal harmony and peace tops my agenda.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: The government is celebrating the golden jubilee of Punjabi Suba—the creation of a separate Punjabi-speaking state after Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were carved out of a unified Punjab in 1966. Your critics say there is little to celebrate given that there are several unresolved issues with Haryana: the capital and Punjabi-speaking-area issues (Badal had pledged that Chandigarh would be the dedicated capital of Punjab and Punjabi-speaking areas of Haryana would be part of the state). Also, there is the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal issue.
This is the 50th anniversary of Punjabi Suba and this celebration is only for Punjab. I have been in politics since Independence and at every point, Punjab has been discriminated against. You spoke of river-water sharing, Punjabi-speaking areas, Chandigarh… Was this not the commitment of the (Congress) government of that time? Nobody can say this is an unjustified demand. In Parliament, they even promised that they would give Chandigarh to Punjab and form a commission on giving us Punjabi-speaking areas. But after that, they forgot everything.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: But your rivals say you only raise these issues during elections. Does the Akali Dal have a roadmap to address these issues?
The Congress is saying such things for political reasons. They are the culprits who committed this crime of denying Punjab its due.
KANCHAN VASDEV: Punjab is headed towards a triangular election contest. For the Shiromani Akali Dal, who is the more formidable opponent: Amarinder Singh or Arvind Kejriwal?
It’s too early to say. People make up their minds closer to the elections, not two months in advance. But even during the previous elections, everyone predicted a Congress victory. Amarinder Singh even distributed sweets in Patiala. When the results came, you know what happened…
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: But whom do you consider your main opponent, the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party?
Both are opponents. But now there are many fronts; I don’t know how many more fronts there will be during the elections.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Are you confident of the Akali Dal winning this election?
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Aren’t the Akalis going into this election with a huge anti-incumbency burden?
The voters only see the progress the state has made in terms of development. Considering the progress we have made in all these years, no Punjabi can say there is a dearth of anything. Look at the roads, the international airport, electricity supply — we had an electricity deficit when we came to power; now, we have a surplus. Besides, there is complete communal harmony. If you watch television, you see reports of crime from every other place. Punjab doesn’t get mentioned in those news bulletins.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Then why are people so angry with the Akali Dal? Why are they so angry with the Badals?
Sometimes the press is angry with us and they write about things that have never happened.
KHUSHBOO SANDHU: You have witnessed many elections. How is this one different?
See, there is no difference — same people, same Punjab, same problems. The Aam Aadmi is a new party… They haven’t kept their promises in Delhi. Even here, they blamed their state unit chief and removed him (In August, this year, Sucha Singh Chhotepur was sacked as the Aam Aadmi Party’s Punjab convener following allegations of seeking bribe for allotting party tickets). Their leaders do not know Punjab. Development and love for the state have to come from the heart, not for political gains. Their heart is not in Punjab.
As for the Congress, everyone knows what they have done for Punjab. If you look at the party’s history, the Congress has not shown any love or affection for Punjabis. They have always worked against Punjab. But what Punjab has done (for the country) is beyond expectations. Look at the role the state played during the fight for Independence, and during the Emergency. The state produces half the foodgrain the country needs. But they make decisions which are all against Punjab.
ADIL AKHZER: What, according to you, has been the biggest achievement of the Akali Dal tenure?
The most important thing is electricity. There was shortage of power and now we have a surplus. We have had to ask our thermal plants to remain closed for some time. This year, agricultural production is 25% more than last year. We are on the top in every field — health, education, everything. Sometimes, there is a propaganda. And excuse me, but press is the main source of propaganda. They can say anything, they are free.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Last year, there were a series of incidents of sacrilege, but the government has not been able to trace any of the perpetrators. The Jora Singh Committee has submitted a report, but no action seems to have been taken on that report.
There were many instances of sacrilege, of which only one case has not been solved. We have taken the case to the CBI, but they too haven’t reached any conclusion. There are some cases which are difficult and which take time to solve.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: Have you taken any action on the recommendations of the Jora Singh Committee report?
We are doing everything. Our officers are working on it.
KANCHAN VASDEV: The AAP has alleged a nexus between the Badals and Amarinder Singh. What do you have to say about that?
If you ask me this question, then you do not know the politics of the country. From the very beginning, we have been against the Congress. The Congress has always been our Number 1 enemy — there is no personal enmity but they are against Punjab and we are for Punjab. Their whole history is anti-Punjab. So, SAD, which is there to look after the interests of Punjab, how can that party have any understanding with the Congress? I was in jail for 15 years during Congress’s time.
KANCHAN VASDEV: This talk began after Amarinder Singh said there was no need for a CBI probe against (Bikram Singh) Majithia (in a drug racket case) and now, the Vigilance Bureau has given a clean chit to Amarinder Singh in the Amritsar Improvement Trust case (Amarinder was booked in 2008 on charges of corruption for allegedly releasing 32 acres of land to the Amritsar Improvement Trust).
The Vigilance Bureau is independent. That shows our greatness — we do not interfere in anything. You cannot imagine the kind of allegations Amarinder levelled against me. I filed a defamation case against him. The day I was acquitted, I withdrew the defamation case against Amarinder (In 2010, Badal, his wife Surinder Kaur and son Sukhbir were acquitted in a disproportionate assets case by a local court in Mohali).
I am not against anyone. I am not vindictive. It was Captain Amarinder Singh who started this vindictive politics. I have no grudge against him. I respect him. I have never spoken against him and I will not do so now.
JAGDEEP SINGH DEEP: Your nephew Manpreet Badal is likely to contest as a Congress candidate.
What can I say? Relationships are one thing; politics is another. He remained with the Shiromani Akali Dal, then he formed his own party, then he went to the Congress. There is one thing that I can say from my experience — I am into my fifth term as chief minister — and that is I have stuck to one party and have always obeyed the orders of the party. If you do not find a good place in one party, it does not mean that you go to another party. That should be banned.
Manpreet became MLA, then he was made the finance minister. What else can we make him? It is the same with (Navjot Singh) Sidhu. One day here, one day there, one day here, one day there. And due to this, whatever position he has, he has destroyed that. Is this good politics?
SWATI MAHAJAN: Why is pollution not an issue in Punjab?
One of the main reasons for pollution is the burning of paddy straw.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Why have you not been able to discourage people from burning paddy stubble?
We are doing that, but everything takes time. In two to three years, there will be no burning (of paddy stubble). It is already less when compared to last year.
SRISHTI CHOUDHARY: Amarinder Singh has said that he is going to retire after this election. You are the seniormost politician, do you think you should make way for younger people to take over the party and as the chief ministerial face?
You won’t believe me, but I have never aspired to be chief minister. My forefathers were in the party because they stood for certain principles; not out of greed. Now politics is about greed. Amarinder Singh, he was with us. He was a minister in the Akali government. Then he shifted and formed his own party, then he went to the Congress. He joined the Congress because I did not give him a ticket. When Akali Dal people were in jail, you were enjoying, why should I give you a ticket? So we must discourage this type of person who shifts from one party to another. They are greedy.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: There is a section of leaders in the Akali Dal who want Sukhbir Badal to be projected as the chief ministerial face.
The party has asked me (to become chief minister). I have seen so much in my life. I have been in the Central government too. It is the party that decides. The last time too, I didn’t decide; the party and even Sukhbir said you have to be the chief minister. The party has given me so much. I am so indebted to the party and I will do whatever the party says.
KANCHAN VASDEV: There were reports that you are planning to contest from Talwandi Sabo instead of Lambi (Badal’s home constituency).
You do not have the right information. Why would I contest from Talwandi Sabo?
SANJEEV VERMA: Despite having your ally, the BJP, at the Centre, you have not been able to get a special financial package for Punjab.
It is up to them. We cannot force anybody. We cannot catch hold of their hands and get them to write us
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: How is your relationship with the BJP? Many say the Centre’s indifference to your demand for a special package is a sign that all is not well.
We have excellent relations with the BJP. Our relations with the BJP are due to certain reasons; this is not political adjustment. In my view, ours is the best combination.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Is there any truth to the speculations that the BJP does not want the Akali Dal to win in this election?
You should ask the BJP this question. But, I think that for the sake of peace and communal harmony, the BJP-Akali Dal combination is the best.
VINOD KUMAR: Do you think Sukhbir Badal has matured enough as a politician to replace you as the CM face of Akali Dal?
Yes, yes. Very well. There is no question about that.
VINOD KUMAR: If the Akali Dal wins, can he become the chief minister?
It is the decision of the party, not Sukhbir’s, not mine. I have always gone with the decision of the party. The party has always been supreme for me.
SANJEEV VERMA: Your promise of five -marla plots for landless labourers is still on paper. Your comments.
It is the declared policy of the Punjab government because land is either with the municipal committees or with the panchayats. Earlier, such decisions were taken at the government head office. Now, I have said that any panchayat that wants to give away plots (to landless farmers) can do so.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: What do you think of the AAP as a political party, and its leader Arvind Kejriwal?
They have no history, no background. They have grown like wild mushrooms (khumbe) you see in villages.
KANCHAN VASDEV: The Badal family is in government and yet it owns several business ventures.
How do you explain the conflict of interest?
I am sitting right here. Tell me if there is anything you can find against me. From the beginning, the Congress set up many tribunals against me, harrassed me, threw me in jail. But my life is an open book.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: There are allegations that Sukhbir Badal owns or partly owns many companies, which are supported by the government in one way or the other.
Amarinder got a case registered against us where these very allegations were levelled. None of that could be proved and the court acquitted us. If someone has committed a crime, he will pay for it. We were targeted because we have made so much progress. Till date, there have been many cases against me. Not even a single wrongdoing was found.
ADIL AKHZER: The Punjab government has been saying that there is no drug problem in the state, but the number of drug addicts from Punjab coming to the de-addiction centre has seen a huge rise.
Drug patients do come to hospitals. We have also opened de-addiction and rehabilitation centres. The moot point is that no drug is produced in Punjab. The drugs come from outside — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Punjab. The BSF is in control (at the border). No drug is produced here. It is all propaganda.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Even the Election Commission has said that they fear the influence of drugs in this election.
We respect the EC. They were only reacting to what would have appeared in a newspaper or to what someone may have said. The drug problem is very less in Punjab. Go to Goa, it is all open. In Himachal Pradesh, there is charas and bhang. It is there for everyone to see. Have you seen this in Punjab?
JAGMEETA THIND JOY: What are some of the issues you could not address this time and plan to take up in your next term, if elected?
The most important issue is of poverty and unemployment. Poverty can be addressed if quality education is imparted. Punjab is the first state in India that has opened schools for children of poor labourers. There should be such schools on a mass scale for the children of the poor.
KANCHAN VASDEV: Do you feel let down that the Akali Dal got discredited due to allegations against your son’s brother-in-law, Bikram Singh Majithia (In December 2014, Majithia was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with a drug racket case)?
What can I say? Ask Sukhbir and Majithia.