Idea Exchange| Punjab believes in Punjabiyat, it’s a liberal society. We are a regional party… I am looking at what we can do for state: Former chief minister Amarinder Singh

“I don’t know whether the Congress is going to be in a position to do anything the way they are right now; everyone is pulling everyone to bits,” Amarinder Singh says.

Amarinder Singh, Former Punjab Chief Minister
Amarinder Singh, Former Punjab Chief Minister

Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh talks about his “legacy” of fulfilling his 2017 manifesto promises, lays out plans for his new party, says he believes Rahul, Priyanka Gandhi have grown into their Cong role, and repeats his fears for Punjab security. This session was moderated by Resident Editor Manraj Grewal Sharma.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: You have announced a new party, Punjab Lok Congress. Is it just born out of anti-Congressism? What would you call your charter or philosophy?
A high-power committee will sit down over the next couple of days and decide the broad outlines, which really will be the manifesto of the party. We are very serious, we are not going to leave Punjab at sea. We have threats from within, without, and it is for us to do our bit. I don’t know whether the Congress is going to be in a position to do anything the way they are right now; everyone is pulling everyone to bits. And I don’t trust the (Shiromani) Akali Dal, which has always played ‘double’ on these issues… I was around during the build-up to terrorism, and they played with both sides… I think there is a place for all of us who feel Punjab should be secure, Punjabis should be secure.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: You said you were open to a seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP, but the BJP has said it will fight all the 117 Assembly constituencies in the state. It said there is polarisation in Punjab and they hope to do well. Are these conflicting signals?
We will fight all the seats with our allies — whether in adjustment with the BJP or with Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa (a former Akali Dal leader who has formed his own party). When the BJP said it (that it will contest all the seats), I had not left the Congress… I don’t think anyone can claim that we are going to win 117 seats… Neither can you expect a national party to say we will fight anything less than 117 seats. They say that, but they also know that if we have alliances — they are doing it with Dhindsa too — then give-and-take always takes place. I also said we are going to target 117 seats… What I meant was that we will fight with whoever is our electoral partner.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: As a military historian, you have a deep sense of legacy. How will your alliance with the BJP be seen, given its right-wing ideology that you have always opposed?
I can’t talk about ideology at a national level, but in Punjab, we don’t have this sort of business. Punjab believes in Punjabiyat. We are a very liberal society. All of us are together — the Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains… We are a regional party and I’m not looking beyond that. I’m looking at what we can achieve for Punjab. Don’t forget, we have a 600-km border with a hostile country, and it is very important that we maintain good, friendly relations with all communities.

… I’m here to be remembered as somebody who has achieved a great deal. I had two terms in the government: 2002-07 and now. What we have achieved, I don’t think any government has. We achieved 92% of our manifesto promises till I was chief minister, and I think the Congress government is carrying on with it. The last time this was done was by (then Andhra CM) Chandrababu Naidu in 1983, when he achieved 83% of his manifesto promises… For instance, everybody in Punjab is covered by Rs 5 lakh insurance; anybody within the Lal Dora land has possession of their house; we run the Basera scheme in urban areas… I cleared a whole lot of projects, conceived at least three to four months ago. I hope the government implements them before the elections.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: The Congress now accuses you of not doing what was needed, such as on the power purchase agreements (PPAs), which have been reworked. CM Charanjit Singh Channi has said on record that you were in cahoots with the Badals.
He can say what he likes… When you want to get rid of somebody or something, you find an excuse. All the decisions which I took are now being implemented. About the PPAs… first, let’s understand what Punjab requires. This July, the rains were less, the dams were not full and the power requirement went up to something like 50,000 megawatts… We have just two power units… So, then you have to buy from the national grid. Punjab can only transmit 7,000 megawatts… We were, at that time, buying power at a very heavy rate, but it fluctuates… You can be buying it at Rs 1 or at Rs 15… depending on the supply and demand. We rejected Damodar Valley and Bokaro offers of Rs 21 and Rs 19… Last week, where I’m sitting, we have had four hours of power cuts already. Industry and farmers need power… All these things you have to think of, you can’t just take decisions emotionally. Yes, we all decided that the arrangement should be renegotiated. Why? Because what the Akali government did was absolutely wrong… that even if we do not ask to buy your power, we will pay you for it.

MANOJ C G: You have been in politics for almost five decades, CM for two terms. Why has no significant Congress leader or MLA or district president joined you? Why are you so isolated?
I’m not isolated, I have got set-ups now in all the districts. We are starting a membership trial. Why is no one from the Congress joining me? It’s very simple — if somebody joins me, they sack them… The moment any MLA steps out of line, they cut his funds. Therefore, I told them all, ‘Keep sitting, let the Code of Conduct be enforced, then you join (once it is in place, the use of funds is restricted)’. So we are waiting for the Code of Conduct.

MANOJ C G: After you resigned as CM and signalled that you will float a new party, did Sonia Gandhi speak to you, or Rahul or Priyanka? Did they reach out to you?
Mrs Gandhi spoke to me about three or four weeks before I offered to resign. I told her I cannot carry on. She asked me why. I said because Navjot Singh Sidhu is pulling right, I am pulling left… She told me to stay. Then, one morning, she called me and told me I should resign. I said I had offered you my resignation… She just said I’m very sorry. I said that’s fine, you don’t have to be sorry… They think I’m ready to retire, I don’t think I’m… I have still got many years of productive life left in me. I will fight but I will fight for my state. I will also fight the anti-national elements… Look at the weapons that are coming in, the drones, the bombs… What is the objective? What is Pakistan’s intent?… I have been through the time after Operation Blue Star and terrorist activities, 35,000 Punjabis died. I don’t want another Punjabi to die. These are the sort of things that are going to happen, and these fellows have no idea… Submachine guns have come in. These incidents were only documented during June, July and August this last quarter. Drones started coming last year, by June. Earlier, they would burrow the drones under the (border) wires or send them via rivers, but last June they started air dropping them… As a person who has dedicated my life to the state and to the country — 10 years in uniform and then as CM — I owe it to them to do what I can for them.

Do you know what the debt of Punjab is, how much these guys are spending? Our GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) at the time of last assessment was about Rs 5,35,000 crore. We have already borrowed Rs 4,00,000 crore… Seventy-five per cent of Punjab is in debt… Two months since I left, they have spent another Rs 20,000 crore… Therefore, I must stay and do what I can.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: You once said that if Punjab continues to grow paddy, it will face desertification in 25 years, and that we will grow kinnow instead. But it seems the area under paddy has only increased even under your watch.
We started a field-to-fork programme and a few pilot projects in Ropar district with Reliance. It would have set up 100,000 outlets and we would have grown vegetables and fruits for them. Reliance would give seeds to the farmer, teach them the techniques, and directly lift the produce… But the Akalis cancelled it… I have been talking to experts… suggested that if we can get a grant from the Government of India… for maybe Rs 20,000-30,000 crore, create a sort of MSP for pulses. We stop growing paddy and start growing pulses… Pulses need no water, they will grow just with rainfall… I hope this interests the Government, we have sent a proposal.

HARIKISHAN SHARMA: During your tenure as CM, did the Centre, particularly the Minister of Agriculture or anyone from the Prime Minister’s Office, ever ask you to mediate with the farmers?
Initially, the Government of India thought I was the one behind this movement… If anyone wants to protest in the national capital, it is within their power to do so. I’m not going to stop them… But yes, people have been meeting these farmers at the Singhu border to find a solution — not politicians, but intelligence officials, agencies… I know the farmers are tough but I (was) worried of the impact on the law and order in Punjab. The farmers have been very peaceful, cooperative.

… For me, it (the concern) goes beyond that… Today, there is a China and Pakistan collusion, now you will have a Taliban collusion… The Taliban, Chinese and Pakistani forces together… I want Punjab to be secure and safe.

If you don’t have a solution (before the elections), none of us will be able to go to villages, they will not want you. How do you fight an election? How do you enter the rural belt? They throw stones and break cars.

MANOJ C G: Now that you are out of the Congress, what is your frank opinion about Rahul Gandhi? Do you think the Congress can bounce back under his leadership?
ANANT GOENKA: I want to add to the question. Four or five months ago, you were very supportive of the next generation of the Gandhi family (in a conversation with The Indian Express).
I have seen the Congress grow. I was a young MP with Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1980, she had a very good set of advisors. When Rahul came into the picture, I said he was not ready for it. Subsequently, he and Priyanka started travelling, and they have improved since then. So let’s see, only time will tell if they are ready for it.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: Many feel that if the Congress is to succeed, the Opposition is to succeed, the Gandhis should get out of the way.
I’m no longer in the Congress, why are you asking me? However, you (the party) put aside 23 eminent people, such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, Kapil Sibal (part of the Group of 23 that is demanding sweeping changes in the Congress). They are assets of the party. What are you achieving by that? If you want to strengthen a party, you make it a cohesive force, make people join it, you don’t push them out. And if you think you can do away with the older generation and just start something right from the start, it’s not going to work.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You won with a huge majority in 2017, announced some fantastic projects. Can you reflect on where things went wrong? Could you have done something differently?
There are ambitions of your own people; every minister has multiple portfolios. I’m not saying Charanjit Singh Channi is not a good minister. But then ambition comes… People were cooking up reports… I’m going to continue doing a good job whether I’m within the Congress or without it.

I hope we will be able to have a seat adjustment with the BJP and with the Dhindsa faction.

VANDITA MISHRA: One cannot avoid the sense of crisis in Punjab. The industry has stalled, agriculture has plateaued, parents want to send their children abroad. You say Punjab needs to be protected and secured. But do you think you’re not safe, you’re not secure? Do you need a government or police or military to secure Punjab and Punjabiyat?
Punjabiyat means people of Punjab have always considered themselves Punjabi, whether from an upper caste or any other caste. Everyone works together because it’s our heritage, it comes through our religion. You’re right, people are asking their parents to sell their land to help them go to other countries. Young people have ambition, that doesn’t mean we abandon Punjab. Hence, my target was that ` 1 lakh crore industrial investment needs to come into the state… They (the vested interests) have no recruits today and Punjab is peaceful. But they will recruit (if there’s no solution to the farmer agitation).

KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR: Can you share names of some of the big smugglers arrested during your tenure as part of the crackdown on drugs?
When I took over, 65,000 people caught in drug cases were in jail. When I left, there were 45,000. There were six big fish, but I am sorry, I don’t have the names with me. For one of the accused we had reached out to the Interpol and were trying to get him extradited. We extradited one person from Armenia, one from Spain, one person is already in a lockup in Rome, another is going through extradition proceedings, and one person is from Georgia… I broke the back of the drug cartels, but that doesn’t mean the racket has ended. It hasn’t ended in America and Americans have been working since the 1930s to finish the drug cartels.

KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR: Your government didn’t act on the STF report that alleged a nexus between police personnel, politicians and an alleged smuggler, Gurdeep Singh, who was arrested last year.
It’s the STF’s job today to see to it that action is taken.

NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: In your resignation letter to Sonia Gandhi, you said a number of Congress leaders were involved in illegal sand mining, but you did not name them as it could embarrass the party. Do you plan to reveal those names now?
I’m told that there are four or five large contractors in the mining business and little fellows who get involved… The Congress president told me illegal mining is going on in the state and we discussed some of the names. I informed the minister concerned to look into this issue. We knew who these people were, but they were not caught. It would not be right of me to take names until these people are caught.

ANJU AGNIHOTRI CHABA: Every successive government in Punjab in the past few decades has been talking about diversification of crops, but nothing has happened. Why is there no concrete or long-term plan on this issue?
No, there is not just talk… We made a proposal that pulses be grown. Unfortunately, these are things you have to raise with the Government of India, because food security is an issue. And it takes a long time for the Government of India to decide. And by the time something happens, governments change. On issues such as diversification and the future of Punjab, every government must follow what the earlier government has done… So I agree that this business of diversification has been all talk and nothing is on the ground… In my time, it’s not that the area (under paddy) has gone up, the production has. Cotton area has gone up, but that’s part of the diversification programme. We have cut down fertilisers for instance, to get this bumper crop. But yes, it’s a bad sign that we continue to have paddy.

(This session was held before the PM’s announcement on Nov 19 that the three farm laws would be repealed)

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