MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: Has the Punjab government been fair in boycotting the visit of the defence minister of Canada, Harjit Singh Sajjan?
I wouldn’t be able to say if it’s fair or not, but the chief minister has taken a principled stand that you cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. As the CM said, (Sajjan) comes from a constituency in Canada which has an overwhelming number of Khalistani supporters, and so he could be pandering to their aspirations. The state government has nothing to do with his visit, it is between the government of Canada and government of India. But I think someone has to be able to speak what is correct. The CM has spoken and we stand behind him. For far too long we have pandered to people who have given us grievous wounds.
MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: As founder of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), you have visited North America, including Canada, several times, and received tremendous response from the NRIs there.
I am not saying that every North American is a Khalistani; it is a minuscule minority. When we were in Canada, we did not meet any Khalistani elements. We did not accept even a single dollar in donation from any of them or even Canadians, simply because we felt that if we were to accept money, then we would dilute our agenda.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: The reason why several people leave Punjab and go abroad is lack of jobs. What is your government planning to do to create jobs?
I think the biggest advertisement for the failure of Punjab is the fact that millions and millions of young people have actually left Punjab. Having said that, I must also add that there is among the Punjabi population something called the wanderlust. Young people are supposed to leave their villages, leave their homes and go out and make a fortune—it’s there even in our folk songs.
As far as job opportunities are concerned, we realise that we have failed to industrialise Punjab, we have failed to create job opportunities for young people. We feel that in the past 60 years, we have totally modelled our economy into a cereal-producing state. In the 1950s when the country was dependent on food aid from the West, India realised that food security is as important as national security and for that, Punjab’s economy was totally transformed; we began producing wheat and rice. We are less than 2% of India’s land mass, but Punjab still produces about 40% of India’s surplus food grains. It was a national duty. But we now feel the green revolution must move eastwards. The real food-bowl of India is Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and we want to relieve ourselves of this national duty after 60 years, and maybe even switch to farming of fruits, vegetables, milk and to, of course, quickly industrialise Punjab.
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We should be able to get more investments because they serve two purposes: they provide jobs and they provide taxes to the state. Our aim now is to get one big-ticket investment in Punjab every month. It’s quite an ambitious target, but if we succeed, in 60 months, we would have transformed this economy.
MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: The Union government has done away with red beacons. You were one of the first leaders to raise the issue.
Sometimes, ideas start from very small people. I started this (campaign against red beacon) before the PPP was formed. I was a part of the Akali Dal then, and I never put up a red beacon on my car. Now, suddenly, this issue has become a part of the national agenda. Anything which has got to do with VIPs obviously is a vestige of colonialism. After 70 years, it is time to shed it.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: But don’t you think such changes are cosmetic?
Mahatma Gandhi was not short of kurtas, but he never wore one in his entire life. Symbolism is important… Mahatma Gandhi realised that 70% of Indians at the time did not own a kurta, so he never wore one. Sometimes leaders have to lead, and this is one way of doing it.
KANCHAN VASDEV: But how will the mindset of those in your own government change? Several ministers have resisted the removal of the red beacon and another one insisted that his name be put on a foundation stone.
For some people change takes time and I am so happy that this controversy happened (Punjab minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot was seen fuming at a school principal in Nabha for putting his name at third place on an inauguration stone in the school), because after it the chief minister actually cast it in stone that there will be no names on foundation stones.
ADIL AKHZER: Before elections you said you will end the drug problem in Punjab in four weeks. That period is now over. What has changed?
The Special Task Force has started its work, I am told that they have registered about 1,200 cases. Yeh jo dushman hai humare, jo humare bachhon ko zehar de rahe hain, inka ghera tang hota jayega (Our enemies, who are poisoning our children, their influence will slowly reduce), and slowly they will either have to go to jail or they will have to leave Punjab and India. We should not take the four-week (deadline) literally.
When I was a little boy, all bravery and sports medals were won by the people of Punjab. Punjab was the star of India. This (drug menace) is very embarrassing for us. Whatever it takes, we will finish this. We have the same Punjab Police; if it can finish terrorism backed by a foreign power, who the hell are these guys selling drugs?
ADIL AKHZER: Does the drug problem need a medical approach?
We need a multi-pronged approach. Apart from the political leadership, parents, NGOs and the religious leadership have to be involved.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: Coming back to Harjit Sajjan’s visit, he said that the 1984 riots were an organised massacre.
He said that? The Sikhs are still awaiting justice. The former PM has sought an apology, the Congress has sought an apology. What else can I say on this? I think access to justice in India is very delayed… you know there is a thumb rule that there will be no peace or progress in societies which do not have access to justice.
MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: But are the ’84 riots such a big issue? In Punjab, the Congress has been in power several times since then. An entire generation has grown up not knowing much about the case.
It is still not a reason for justice to not be delivered. You know it has been almost 80 years since World War II, and Nazi war criminals are still being hunted down. So just the fact that time has gone by is still not a reason for those involved in the massacre to not be brought to justice.
JAGDEEP SINGH DEEP: How do you plan to tackle Punjab’s financial situation?
I think the first thing we need to do is to put things in perspective. For that we have decided to put up a White Paper in the next few weeks, and so all the agencies which fund Punjab—government of India, people of Punjab—they should realise that now it is not going to be business as usual. The first thing which we would want to do is to try and live within our means, and not compound the problem. We want to compress our expenditure and raise our revenues. If we manage to get private investment, we will be able to pull the state out of this. My hope is, within two years, we would have stabilised Punjab. We are not fighting for our economy or our finances, this fight is for the pride of Punjab.
SUKHBIR SIWACH: During the previous government, there was an impression that some politicians were involved in the drug business. What kind of feedback have you received?
See, drug peddlers had backing from certain sections of the police and certain politicians, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible. I am not saying this, the people are.
MAN AMAN SINGH CHHINA: There is a widespread perception that you are going to get very little financial help from the Centre.
The solution to Punjab’s problems lies within, not outside. So far they (the Centre) have met us with a lot of respect and dignity. We are not enemies. It is a federal set-up and what is due to Punjab will come.
KANCHAN VASDEV: What about the promise of waiving farmer loans? UP has already done it.
We want to do things more scientifically. It (loan waiver) needs money, and so it should be part of budgetary proposals; to see where the money is going to come from, how are we going to fund it. It is a commitment made by the Congress, and June is not very far away (when the state’s Budget Session will he held).
We genuinely feel that the farmer is in a very bad shape. Loan waivers alone will not help. We need a multi-pronged approach. His children will have to be weaned away from agriculture and given some skill sets which help them make a living. Agricultural produce has to be marketed well, he should get a fair price. There is nothing wrong with Punjab’s agriculture. It forms about 15 to 16% of our GSDP, but 65% of the people are dependent on agriculture. So many people are dependent on land, and we now need to wean them away from agriculture and urge them to do some other business.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Amarinder Singh has said that this is going to be his last stint in power, and that he is going to retire from politics after that. Who will succeed him in the Punjab Congress? Do you see yourself in that role?
I don’t know… Even I am 55 now and I am aware that there is a younger set of Congress leaders with fresher ideas. I have ideas but that doesn’t mean I am capable. Obviously, at some point the younger lot will be in a better position to take the Congress forward.
KANCHAN VASDEV: How is it working with Captain Amarinder Singh?
I have worked with Badal saheb as finance minister. Captain saheb is a pleasure to work with. He puts in a lot of trust, delegates a lot and expects you to perform. Badal saheb did everything on his own.
KANCHAN VASDEV: Has the Congress accepted you fully?
They have been very good to me. Whatever I wanted in the manifesto, they incorporated it. I was given the seat I wanted to contest from, they gave me the best portfolio in the government. So, in fact, I have got more than what I deserved.
KANCHAN VASDEV: Why did the chief minister shoot down your ‘historical memory law’?
That would be because of priorities. There are some things which you touch upon last. We can do this later. I think it was misunderstood by a lot of people, they thought this was an act to abolish all British names and rewrite history. It was just to put things in perspective.
SUKHBIR SIWACH: With the PPP, you wanted to reform the politics in the state. The Aam Aadmi Party also wanted to provide an alternative to mainstream parties in Punjab. But they lost, and you have joined the Congress. So is there no space for a new brand of politics in Punjab?
The PPP was the most satisfying seven years of my life. We had the idealism but lacked good management. Then, we did not have the money to run a credible campaign. I was naïve to think that our ideas were so good that we do not need money, but we failed. The other thing is that people have been associated with mainstream political parties for generations.
KANCHAN VASDEV: What do you think of Rahul Gandhi as a leader?
I think he is excellent. A party goes through its highs and lows, but see what Rahul Gandhi’s leadership achieved in Punjab.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: But wasn’t the victory in Punjab because of Captain Amrinder Singh?
It is because of Captain saheb, Rahul Gandhi… it is a combined effort. I have met Rahul Gandhi several times, I find him very sincere and he doesn’t want to be in power at any cost. As far as leadership and vision are concerned, he is fantastic.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Don’t you think the Congress also needs to look outside the dynasty for leadership?
I do not see any credible replacement at this moment. Most of the Hindi belt, even the southern belt, is based on caste and community. Most state leaders are identified as Brahmin, Rajput, Yadav… This is the one family (Gandhis) that is above caste, religion, community. They have a track record of serving India.
I think what scares the daylights out of the BJP is that they had no role in the national freedom struggle, and the Gandhis did.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: It has been suggested that the Amarinder Singh government could take the lead in normalising relations with Pakistan.
It would be great if we could. The power rate in Pakistan is `12 a unit (Indian rupees). It is actually 17 or 18 Pakistani rupees. Our most expensive plant is the Bathinda station, which produces electricity at `3.75. We could actually sell 1,000 or 2,000 MW of power to Pakistan. Par mujhe lagta hai hamari power se unhe current lag jayega (I feel they will get electrocuted with our power). They will think iss mein koi jasoos aa gaya (that there is a spy).
Pakistan will not normalise, that is my personal feeling. If it happens there is nothing like it.