About five-and-a -half months into his second innings as Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh seems to be quite clear about the task of steering an economically emaciated state he has inherited after a decade-long misrule of Akali-BJP combine. There was unimaginably decisive electoral verdict in favour of the Congress under his leadership. Correctly and quickly he read the message of this victory and has set out to first achieve the herculean task of restoring the state’s fiscal health. He seems to have realized, for this, he needs to duck temptations of taking populist course.
Having set this as his foremost priority, he didn’t care about the accusations of turning back on the poll promises. He quite well understood that adopting a confrontationist stance against the BJP-led Centre would do his funds-starved state no good. It is probably for this pragmatic approach that he chose to politely ignore questions asking him to evaluate performance of his party’s national political rival. Known as a clear-headed administrator, he doesn’t often succumb to political expediency. And he showed this quality, in sharp contrast to his Haryana counterpart, while dealing with the spate of violence post conviction of godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim in rape cases.
His military past showed up and he led from the front in strategizing and containing the frenzy that threatened to spill over to Punjab from neighbouring Haryana. His deft handling of the crisis resulted in neither any loss of life or any major damage to property. He discusses in an interview with RAJU WILLIAM various issues of immediate and long-term importance for Punjab and the way he would want these to be tackled.
Edited Excerpts from the interview:
While followers of Dera Sacha Sauda ran amok in neighbor Haryana recently, peace prevailed in Punjab where they have a dominant presence in its Malwa region. You personally visited several districts of this region for assessment of the security situation. Who do you think credit goes to?
The credit for this goes to all the people of Punjab, including the police who maintained 24×7 vigil to ensure there was no breakdown of law and order. And the credit also goes to the paramilitary forces and the Army who pitched in to help us during this tough time. I am thankful to all of them for preventing things going out of control despite heightened tension and provocation. Then there were all those civil and administrative officers who came out on the ground to implement the strategies that I and my government came up with, from time to time. Each of them stood by me and helped me realize my resolve not to allow the state to fall into anarchy, which could have easily have happened had we not done our preparation well in time and moved proactively to check any trouble.
Do you think it will be, in long term, beneficial for all political parties and people at large if Deras are done away with once and for all?
This is not a decision that I, as the Chief Minister of Punjab, can take. It is a policy decision which every political party needs to take internally. The parties have to decide how they want to deal with Deras in future.Whether they want to eliminate their presence completely or work to ensure that Deras work as religious and social institutions without political patronage is a bigger question that needs to be addressed at a bigger level.
Punjab and prosperity were once synonymous. The balle balle culture symbolized joy and lightness of its people. Today the situation appears to have turned rather negative. Does it worry you that Punjab is in economic decline?
Of course, it troubles me that Punjab is in the midst of its worst ever economic crisis. In fact, I feel pained at the state of affairs my government has inherited, and it is my dream to see Punjab back in its pristine glory. Our efforts are entirely geared towards transforming the state, once again, into the symbol of prosperity it once was. I have promised the people of Punjab, and I have promised myself that I will not rest till I restore Punjab to its old glory and bring the lost smiles back on the faces of its people.
How far do you think the Congress government under you has come in providing good governance?
We have made major strides in providing good governance in the state, which had been plunged into total disarray due to governance failure by the previous SAD-BJP government. While there is a lot more to be done, which I promise to do over the next few months, many initiatives have already been taken by our government to ensure healthy governance, backed by transparency, in all governance systems. We have made the government more accessible to the people. We are going digital in a big way to ease the systems to enable ease of access to public services. We have wiped out the mafias and brought an end to corruption. We have ensured that middlemen are not allowed to stand between the government and the people who elected us. And we have simplified processes and procedures across departments to make it easier for the citizens of Punjab to exercise their rights and secure their interests.
The Special Task Force on drugs works directly under your office. Who and what factors brought it about, you think? Would you say that it has started to make a difference in ridding Punjab of the drug menace?
If you mean what prompted the establishment of the task force directly under my office, the answer lies in our election manifesto as well as my personal commitment to freeing Punjab from this menace. I, and every member of my government and also the Congress party, have been seriously concerned about the rampant spread of drugs, which have destroyed a whole generation of youth in Punjab. We made a commitment to the people that if elected to power we will eliminate this menace from the soil of Punjab. In order to take proactive and quick actions, it was essential to set up a separate body, with sweeping powers, to crack down on drugs. The best way to do it was to ensure that it had a free hand, while being under my direct control for overall supervision. It is a matter very close to my heart and a personal promise which I am committed to fulfilling.
As for the difference this had made on the ground, the numbers say it all. So far, 6018 cases have been registered under the NDPS Act. A total of 6933 people, including some police officials who were abetting such activities, have been arrested, and more than 97 kg heroin has been recovered besides other banned substances. Also, supplies of Schedule-H drugs/ prescription drugs, which were misused in the State to produce synthetic drugs, had gone down by 50 percent in the last three months. We have well and truly broken the backbone of the drugs mafia in the state. And we are now after the big fish who have fled the state due to fear of arrests. But let me assure you, we will not let them escape. They are very much on our radar and we shall get hold of them sooner than later.
In what is seen as a throwback to corrupt Akali ways, the sand mafia is flourishing as before. Has it sullied the image of your government? Is it being pushed under the carpet and as alleged Power Minister Rana Gurjit not shown the door?
These are all lies spread by the opposition to mislead the people. The Akalis made millions from the sand mafia at the cost of the state exchequer and have been trying hard to hide their misdeeds. As part of their efforts they have been fabricating stories. The fact is that for the first time in 10 years the sand auctions have been conducted in a transparent and fair manner. The state government has actually earned its fair share from the auctions for the first time in years. All that money was previously going into the pockets of Akali leaders and their coterie. Let me reiterated that our zero tolerance to corruption is sacrosanct. There is no question of sparing anyone found guilty of any kind of corruption.
Punjab is in a fiscal mess. What are the factors responsible for this since your previous 2002-07 term as Chief Minister?
I think I have already answered this question. The previous Akali-BJP government was solely responsible for the state’s fiscal mess. They were running mafias of all kinds — mining, transport, cable etc, to divert state funds into their own pockets, thus leaving the government coffers with an unimaginable debt burden. Their fiscal policies were completely awry and there was total financial mismanagement, which led to the economic collapse of the state over the past 10 years.
What is the remedial action you have planned to restore the state’s fiscal health?
Well, considering the level of economic mess in the state, restoring its fiscal health is a long-drawn process. But in just five months, we have taken several initiatives to revive the state’s economic condition. The spate of investments we have witnessed in recent weeks and the way industries are coming back to Punjab is a major factor in reviving the economy. We have taken several steps to restore the confidence of investors and industries, which we shall continue to augment going forward. Elimination of the mafias (transport, sand etc) and of the VIP culture have also helped boost the state’s exchequer. Our focus is on thinking out-of-the-box to come out with innovative measures to generate revenue.
How far are GST accruals going to help?
As far as GST is concerned, I have always maintained it will be a big help for the state by generating the much-needed funds for the government. I see around Rs 5500 crore coming in, tentatively, as revenue from GST in this financial year. Of course, it would have been better had the Centre gone in for a single slab to bring in the `one nation, one tax’ regime. But even in its current shape, GST will definitely enhance the state’s earning capabilities.
As on today, what’s the total debt liability on Punjab?
As far as the debt liability is concerned, the White Paper released by my government two months ago puts it in the range of 2.08 lakh crore — much more than what we had envisaged.
The agrarian crisis seems to be getting worse. Suicides by farmers have become a daily affair. What are your views?
No, it is not getting worse, it is simply taking time to restore the confidence of the farmers who have suffered severely under the SAD-BJP rule. And that, frankly, was to be expected. After all, we cannot wipe out the problems that have developed and grown over 10 years in a matter of 3-4 months. At the cost of sounding repetitive, I would once again like to point out that our decision to waive off the loans up to 2 lakh (with up to 5 acres of land) and to give a flat 2 lakh to other small and marginal farmers has benefitted as many as 10.75 lakh farmers.
The problem is getting the message across to them and making them realize that we have taken over their loans and they are no longer burdened by the debts. The opposition, far from playing a constructive role in this, is actually trying to mislead the farmers. In the circumstances, it is taking time to convince the small farmers that they are now free of their loans. We are working on that and I would like to once again appeal to the farmers not to resort to such extreme steps. They are free of their loans and that is a reality which neither the Akalis nor AAP can negate.
There seems a lot of emphasis on your government on bringing investment into Punjab. How do you think these can alleviate Punjab financially and which segments of the state’s economy have you prioritised for the purpose?
Investment is directly related to the economic growth of any region. Any investments coming into Punjab will give a definite and immediate boost to the state’s economy. While we are looking at investments in all the major sectors of the economy, we see a lot of interest by domestic and foreign investors in food processing, MSME, textiles, farm equipment manufacturing, bicycle manufacturing, Power and even Defence. Horticulture and dairy farming are other areas which we have prioritized for growth as we are keen to diversify our crop systems in order to alleviate the sufferings of the distressed and debt-ridden farmers of the state. I also see significant investments coming into storage & logistics, life-sciences & pharmaceuticals, urban smart infrastructure, clean fuel/electric transportation, with many foreign companies and investors also showing interest in these areas, apart from the Indian corporates and business houses.
How much investment has been committed so far?
It is difficult to say, off-hand, the quantum of total investment committed so far, as there are proposals in different stages of discussion by various departments of the government. But of course, it runs into many crores of rupees. PEPSICO alone has recently committed an additional 600 crore for its ongoing projects. The IT City in Mohali is also drawing significant investment. Then we have many investment proposals from some of India’s leading captains of industry. Godrej, Reliance, Mahindra & Mahindra, ADAG, Britannia, Nerolac, Sanofi, HUL, HDFC, ICICI have all evinced interest in investing in Punjab. Nerolac is in process of setting up of HD Paints in Goindwal and has recently decided to increase investment of additional 200 Crore approximately. Godrej with collaboration of US based company called Tyson is putting up plant in Ludhiana Food Park. In the same sector of food processing, Britannia is keen to start new unit in Punjab and looking for suitable land site. Mahindra & Mahindra is also keen to increase its footprint in Punjab by increasing existing installed capacity of Tractors & Farm Equipment, with additional investment of about 300 crores.
In the Education sector, leading groups like Ashoka University and Amity are in the process of finalizing suitable sites.
Soldiering was the most sought-after vocation of the State’s people once. You yourself as an Army Captain must have experienced it but today that spirit stands almost wiped out. What are your thoughts about it?
It is extremely unfortunate that Punjabis, who have traditionally been the backbone of our armed forces, are increasingly pulling away from this vocation. I feel sad about this and have already announced a series of initiatives to incentivize the youth to join the Army. We are upgrading existing training schools and setting up more such institutions to encourage youth to take up this vocation. As an ex-Army man, I would like to tell the youth of Punjab that the pride one gets out of being a part of this hallowed vocation is unmatched. The youth of Punjab are among the most courageous and strong, and the country needs them.
As a veteran leader, you have been a witness to so many ups and downs in Punjab politics over the last many decades. How do you see the current political scenario especially with the emergence of AAP as the principal Opposition party?
Frankly, the emergence of AAP as principal Opposition party is not an endorsement of their policies. On the contrary, it is the failure of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which has found manifestation in AAP’s emergence on Punjab’s political landscape. AAP is bereft of any philosophy and has failed to connect with the people of the state. Their honeymoon period, not just in Punjab but in other states too, is already over and I do not see them reviving their fortunes.
As far as SAD is concerned, it is an old and established political party which can come back if it mends its ways. At the moment, the people are unwilling to forgive them for their misdeeds of the past 10 years. However, if they show, by their words and deeds, that they regret their actions and are ready to work for the welfare of the people, I think they can once again become a force to reckon with. For the present, however, I feel there really is no effective opposition in Punjab, which is not a healthy sign in a democratic dispensation.
How serious is the revival of religious extremism in Punjab?
Even the slightest sign of religious extremism is harmful for us. We Punjabis have been through years of pain and suffering due to such extremism and I see today strong signs of revival of the same. There are vested interests, not only within the country and across the border in Pakistan, but in various parts of the world who want to destabilize Punjab. This is a matter of serious concern for all of us and we shall do all it takes to prevent them from succeeding in their nefarious designs.
What are your views on the Punjabi NRIs and overseas Khalistanis?
These are two different things and I feel sad at the way they are being clubbed not only by vested political entities but even by the media.
Let me make it very clear, I respect the Punjabi NRIs who have done each one of us in the state proud with their accomplishments. Punjabis in any part of the world are considered and seen as the most hard working, courageous, sincere and committed people.
On the other hand, Khalistanis operating from overseas are not Punjabis at all. A true Punjabi can never do anything against the interests of his/her own people, which is what these Khalistanis have been doing. I want to ensure that the Khalistanis are not allowed to come back into Punjab at any cost. At the same time, I welcome Punjabi NRIs to come to Punjab and do for their native land what they have done for their new home countries around the world.
Would you like to give a chance to liberal trade ties with Pakistan and economic gains for Punjab if it happens?
I have always maintained that it is in the interest of both Pakistan and India (not just Punjab) to live together in an environment of peace, with close economic and trade ties. For Punjab, any improvement in relations with Pakistan would mean immense economic gains. I have already requested the Prime Minister to allow us to sell our surplus power to Pakistan. Besides, if trade relations between the two countries normalize it would help us open new export routes since Pakistan is a trade corridor for India to the Gulf region. Our economic cooperation with the Gulf nations can get a massive boost with the opening of this corridor. So let us give peace and prosperity a chance. We, the governments in both the countries, owe it to our respective people.
In the face of reverses for the party lately, you led the Congress to an emphatic win in Punjab. Do you see yourself as the face the Opposition parties are looking for to build a counter-narrative to the BJP government?
The Congress already has a strong face in Rahul Gandhi, who has the ability to bring all opposition parties together against the ruling party at the Centre. As I have said earlier, it is time that he is handed over the reins of the Congress and given a free hand to take the party forward as a strong opposition. As far as I am concerned, I have already made it clear that I have fought my last election and want to spend the remaining part of my tenure in bringing Punjab back on its path to development and progress.
You are a former Army officer and author of books on military matters. What your military mind thinks about handling the latest threat from China?
As a former Army officer and as a citizen of India, I strongly feel that the Army alone is best equipped to handle any border threat, be it from China or any other country. The Army should be given a free hand to tackle any such cross-border threats as best as it deems fit. You cannot tie the hands of the soldiers and then ask them to fire at the enemy. While the government needs to try all diplomatic channels to ease the border tensions, any serious threat on the ground needs to be nipped by the armed forces.