A year can be a long time in politics. Around this time last year, Amarinder Singh was firmly in charge as the Chief Minister of Punjab and looked well placed to lead the Congress in the 2022 Assembly election. His deft handling of the farm laws issue—the passing of a resolution in the Assembly against them, and his trip to the Delhi border on a tractor with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in support of the agitating farmers—earned him more than a few brownie points. However, a prolonged battle with his former Cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu saw the Captain (as he is popularly referred to) being removed from the post of Chief Minister before the year was through. A member of the Congress for over five decades, Amarinder Singh, however, refused to quit politics, and founded a party, the Punjab Lok Congress. His party has formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Dhindsa) and will contest 37 seats in the elections to be held on February 20.
At the end of a day-long campaign in Patiala, where he is seeking re-election, Amarinder Singh took time off to take a few questions from Frontline . Excerpts:
Is this the biggest electoral battle of your career, considering that you have been in politics for about 50 years?
It is 52 years. So, it is a long time. But I don’t count it as the biggest battle of my political career. As an individual, it is not that important, but for Punjab it is certainly the biggest battle that I have waged in my career. I found it much easier in 2017, 2012, 2007 and so on, except in 2012 when they did not give me seats of my choice. So we lost the election. Otherwise, the ones we won were much easier. This time with five parties in the fray, one cannot really say who is going to emerge, what scenario will develop after the elections.
With five parties in the fray, do you think your principal opponent will be your erstwhile party, the Congress? Or is it the Akali Dal?
I don’t consider the Akali Dal to be really strong though they are working very hard. The voter of the Akali Dal is the common peasant, the rural Sikh. The peasantry is upset. Two issues have damaged the Akali Dal. One is the be-adabi or the sacrilege issue [the 2015 Guru Granth Sahib desecration]. The other is the drug issue. They are yet to emerge from either of them. Therefore, the Akali Dal is fighting an uphill battle.
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As far as the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] is concerned, it is all about Bhagwant Mann. Educated people don’t want Bhagwant Mann. The average, simple man in the village is also against him.
What about the Congress? Is it not a divided house?
Everyone in Punjab knows that the Congress has done nothing in the last five years but make money. Be it sand, liquor, or something like that, they have just made money. In two cases, both in Taran Taran or Shambhu near Patiala, 13 people died after consuming liquor made by Congress workers. Everyone knows about the sand mafia. I was asked by Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi about it. She said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do? Here is the list. You want me to start arresting? Then I will have to start from the top.’
But you were the Chief Minister for four and a half years. What were the corrective measures you took?
I could not take corrective measures. I brought in a good Minister, Sukhbinder Sakaria; he was well-heeled in his own way. I created a special investigation team (SIT) under a senior Additional Director General of Police to probe illegal sand mining, make arrests, etc. Everyone was corrupt, all Ministers were corrupt.
Navjot Singh Sidhu was a Minister in your Cabinet…
He was a Minister. I had to remove him. He was incompetent. He was Minister for Local Government. That means handling all urban projects. That is when he made all his money.
You also spoke about Imran Khan asking for Sidhu to be made a Minister. But he was not the Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time…
No, no. Absolutely not. He was very much the Prime Minister. He sent me a message. In fact, it is in my pocket, in my mobile phone. The message I got was from a mutual friend. It said, ‘IK has asked if you can take NS into your Cabinet. And he would be very grateful. If he misbehaves again, you can throw him out.’ He had already been removed once. I passed that on to the Congress president, and to Priyanka Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi never answered, but Priyanka answered. She said, ‘He is a fool. He should never have done this.’ I am telling you the man is completely mixed up. Then they go and make him the Pradesh Congress Committee president. What do you do?
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All your opponents, including the Congress, the SAD and the AAP, are offering freebies at a time when the State is reeling under a debt of Rs.5 lakh crore. How do you counter that?
Our GSDP [gross State domestic product] today is Rs.5,35,000 crore. Our total borrowings are over Rs.4,00,000 crore. And Rs.1,00,000 crore is borrowed by corporations and all. So we are virtually bankrupt. Yet they carry on. Since Channi came in [September 18, 2021], he has borrowed Rs.33,000 crore and offered freebies. These are freebies which are seldom given. Like giving a telephone to each girl, ‘scooties’, these are just attempts to woo them without having anything else to woo them with.
Not just the Congress, the AAP also has a similar agenda.
I have asked Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal about it. I said, ‘You keep talking of giving girls Rs.1,000 each [every month] in Punjab, have you given it in Delhi?’ In three terms as Chief Minister, he has not given one woman MLA a [ministerial] seat in Delhi. Here, you are concerned about girls.
What is your party’s key agenda as you prepare to face the electorate?
All three of us [the PLC, the BJP and the SAD-Dhindsa] have made our respective agendas. I have made mine. We have set them together. We are thinking of a limited agenda. My manifesto last time had 105 key points. We did fulfil 92 of it, but it was a hell of a hassle. This time, we want to concentrate on certain things which are very important for the State’s development.
Could you elaborate?
One is water, then security of the State, then crop diversification. India is importing pulses every year. I said, you give me Rs.10 lakh crore for 10 years. We will use it for MSP [minimum support price] for pulses, instead of paddy. So that we don’t have to import them. We will save water too which would have gone into paddy cultivation.
But you have aligned with the BJP, which is identified with the three farm laws.
That is a negative way of looking at it. What we are telling the peasantry is, yes, the BJP came up with the three farm laws, which you did not like. And I didn’t like them either. In fact, I passed a resolution in the Assembly that we are against these laws, and if necessary, we will go to the Supreme Court. Then [during the farmers’ agitation] we were told to stop people from going to Delhi. I didn’t. I said it was their constitutional right. There are 132 locations in Punjab that belonged to the Ambanis and Adanis where these guys were sitting and blockading. Even the Railways, where they had their loading and unloading, [were blockaded]. I did not remove them [from the protest site]. I did not send even one man to lift them. Eventually, everything became normal. I feel the farmers’ sympathy is still with us. We will gain from that.
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How confident are you of winning your own seat, without the name of the Congress?
My seat of Patiala? We have had 250 years of association with Patiala. We have been working very hard. I have been an MLA six times. Each time, my margin has gone up. I have been an MP too twice. My wife is there, so is my daughter. They are all working very hard.
Is it the last election you are contesting?
I hope so. I said so last time also. Believe me, the fact is I had no intention of contesting elections. I am not one of those who make vague statements. I want to concentrate on my writing. My subject is military history, and I have written seven books on this. Even as I talk to you, I am into a book on Indo-Chinese future, and what I have visualised in the years to come.