Last year, when Navjot Singh Sidhuwent hammer and tongs at Captain Amarinder Singh, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, accusing him of inaction on the sacrilege issue and being unable to control the drug mafia, Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sunil Jakhar maintained a dignified silence. Refusing to be drawn into the game of name-calling, he said his thing quietly, gently. His word though was lost in the din of the daily exchanges between Sidhu and the Captain. Surprisingly, it was not Amarinder Singh whom Sidhu displaced but Jakhar, despite the latter having led the Congress to victory in the 2017 election. Shortly afterwards, Jakhar was made the campaign committee chief.
Jakhar—the son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, a former MP from Gurdaspur and MLA from Abohar—frankly admits the shortcomings of the party on the issues of drugs and sacrilege but claims that the Congress did better than ever before in the preceding five years. Disapproving of the tactics of some Congress leaders seeking re-election on the basis of the 111 days of Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s government, Jakhar insists that his party’s biggest achievements have been restoring communal harmony in the State and improving the infrastructure for school education. One early morning, as he criss-crossed Punjab, balancing the interests and demands of different factions of the party, Jakhar took the time to speak to Frontline . Excerpts from the interview:
What is the main agenda of the Congress in Punjab?
The agenda for the party is taking everybody along. All these people are fragmenting society. We want to take everybody along. We want betterment. We have brought Punjab back on track after five years of slogging it out. When we took over, not just the economy but the social fabric had been ripped apart. There was the sacrilege issue, the drugs issue … threatening Punjab. We have not been able to clinch those issues, but you can see the intent; we are working on it. I think we need time to fix it. It will be another chance, a continuation. The job which was started in 2017 will be fulfilled.
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You talked of taking everybody along, but within the Congress itself how difficult is it to take everybody along? There are so many divisive voices.
Divisive voices which are within the party, not society. There are issues which need to be resolved and which I had also mentioned during my interactions in the CEC [Central Election Committee], that there were bound to be repercussions, resentment, heart-burning after ticket allocation was announced. It happens every time because the decisions are not taken even at the eleventh hour; they are taken at the twelfth hour. There should be some kind of preliminary screening a year before the elections. Not all the decisions can be taken at that time. There are too many variables. But basic performance criterion, some lacuna there or somebody facing anti-incumbency or there are apparent flaws, those things can be fixed and we can give an alternative instead of taking them up at the last minute. Then, you have no other choice. Then, you have to go along with whatever is available to you. A preliminary exercise would in no way be detrimental to the party. It will keep the legislators on track, that they are being watched and assessed.
You talk of screening candidates a year in advance. But a year ago, the Chief Minister and Sidhu were involved in a battle of attrition.
This would not have happened if a preliminary evaluation had been done. The issue of Sidhu-Captain, which was resolved four months before the election, could have been settled one way or the other a year ago: Either reconciliation would have taken place or this decision of which one of them stays. Things would not have come to this. Now it is not the end of all things. We have this election, in Punjab. Very soon, we will have the election in Himachal Pradesh, parliamentary elections, which are critical to the nation, not just the party. There should be an inbuilt mechanism for political evaluation.
Is it not ironic that despite having been in power for five years the Congress goes to the polls seeking votes on the basis of the 111-day government of Charanjit Singh Channi?
I have never reconciled with that. We do not have to shy away from acknowledging our performance. I have said it at every forum [that] I do not subscribe to this theory that we have to go to the polls on the 111 days of the Channi government. Barring the sacrilege and drugs issues, we have done remarkably well as far as development of Punjab is concerned. Loan waiver was never fulfilled in toto. I think in the frenzy to get power, parties tend to get carried away and make certain promises. The political parties and the voters need to be made aware [of the need] to be practical.
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The State is under a heavy debt.
People have to be informed what it means to be under a heavy debt. But most of the leaders even today are making tall promises. We have the SAD [Shiromani Akali Dal] president saying that debt is not bad. He is going around comparing it with that of America, the Central government of India, without realising the repercussions [of such statements]. All the promises being made, whether it is about giving Rs.1,000 to girls or Rs.2,000 and a Scooty, these fall under that category. This is not a madari ’s [monkey juggler] show. You are dealing with the future of the next generation. At another level, I think people who really deserve [help], those who are at the lowest end of economic barometers, and marginal farmers with an acre or two have benefited because of loan waivers of our government. What is a significant achievement for our government is health insurance. Good solid work. The PM health insurance [scheme] of Rs.5 lakh reached only 16 lakh families. But our government insured 46 lakh families. It is a remarkable feat for a State facing heavy debt.
Is that the main accomplishment of the government? The insurance?
No, our education system too has improved, though [Delhi Chief Minister Arvind] Kejriwal sahib goes around complaining. The basic quality of our education has improved, and we topped the evaluation done by the Central government. We can acknowledge that our Chief Minister did not come up to expectations as far as drugs and sacrilege issues are concerned. The sacrilege issue is ... emotive, but other than that we have done well. Punjab has not seen as much development as [in] these [past] five years. In my own constituency, in the last four and half years about Rs.750 crore has been spent in Abohar city. It is now ranked among the top 120 cities in the country. We were among the worst in the past.
Do you agree that the Congress made a mistake on the farm laws in Punjab? Your party was the first to pass a resolution against the laws in the Vidhan Sabha and planned to go to the Supreme Court.
The Congress followed it up, but all those unions [that we took] ... into [our] confidence were not in favour of it [going to court]. I was part of the deliberations; two meetings took place with the kisan unions, all 32 of them were there. Before the second meeting, they were asked for their suggestions about the law to be passed in the Vidhan Sabha. The law was drafted with their consent. I remember very well they all agreed. I told the unions it will be passed in the House, but the Governor won’t give his approval. All the unions said they will get assent from Raj Bhavan. Then, they moved to Delhi for their protests.
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But do you not think that the Congress failed to capitalise on all those optics of Rahul Gandhi on a tractor with the Captain and others with farmers in tow?
Yes, I would say we could not mobilise people around our own party. I remember [the Central government promulgated the three farm Ordinances] ... on June 5, 2020. On June 9, I held the first meeting and briefed the legislators about what had happened. Till then not a murmur had been raised. Some 30-odd MLAs showed up though we had 80 MLAs at that time. I had to call another meeting, then yet another meeting. I said, let’s go to town with it, met zilla parishad and panchayat members, briefed them. It caught on though it was the time of the coronavirus. I don’t know if the agitation would have gained with Congress involvement. Because it was not political, everybody pitched in. What the farmers are doing now [contesting elections] is a half-baked attempt to go to the polls with the issue. The farmers have to be politically empowered but not in this manner. All the gains of sitting on the border for a year will be lost. Seven hundred sacrifices will be at their cost.
How much of a dent will the Captain’s expulsion cost the Congress?
It is no more about the Captain. This charade of Captain sahib and all is a non-starter. It is basically a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] show. His own nominees are contesting on the BJP symbol.
But is not the BJP itself a non-starter in Punjab?
Yes, the BJP and whatever the coalition is called are non-starters. They are using Captain sahib and [SAD (Sanyukt) chief Sukhdev Singh] Dhindsa ji to garnish whatever dish they have offered for Punjab. As people were expecting, maybe [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, who was trying to woo the farmers of Punjab, will offer something to farmers in Punjab. But he clearly has not.