For the future

Print edition : January 12, 2007

Shiromani Akali Dal general secretary Sukhbir Singh. - AKHILESH KUMAR

Interview with Sukhbir Singh.

WHEN politics in Punjab appears to be in a state of flux and devoid of major issues, making his presence felt on the scene is four-time Member of Parliament Sukhbir Singh, the only son of former Chief Minister Prakash Singh. Previously dismissed by many in his own party as just an appendage of his father, the 44-year-old leader seems to be emerging as the winner in the party's succession struggle, which was evident when he recently received accolades from friends and foes alike for mobilising unprecedented crowds at the rallies in Chandigarh and Moga. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which was at the receiving end on many occasions in the past five years, now looks forward with hope to his energetic style of functioning.

A post-graduate in economics with a management degree from the California State University in Los Angeles, Sukhbir Singh is also engaged in promoting the family's business. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Why did you opt to join politics, which many people consider a rogue's game?

For me it was a difficult choice to make, between building our business further and joining politics and contributing towards making Punjab a leader in global development as well as an example of bringing marginalised sections into the development process. Also, I envisage myself as participating in the process based on Guru Nanak Devji's philosophy of "Sarbat da Bhala" [welfare of all]. Punjab should emerge as an icon of universal brotherhood.

What have been the advantages and disadvantages of being Prakash Singh Badal's son?

Unlike other professions, there are no well-accepted laws of inheritance in politics. One has to make one's own space, and this is particularly true in the Shiromani Akali Dal. I have been active as an ordinary worker of the party for almost two decades. For me it has always been a challenge to prove my capabilities as a politician and emerge from the shadows of an illustrious father and other senior Akali leaders while simultaneously imbibing their blessings, guidance and words of caution.

So what have been the lessons so far?

Restraint when faced with personal vendetta and vilification from opponents along with caution against sycophancy from those around you when in a position of decision-making.

Who can you identify as your political icon?

Undoubtedly Sardar Prakash Singh Badal, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal. He exhibits a rare combination of sincerity towards the people of the State, capacity to work hard even when results may be nowhere in sight, extreme levels of patience, and ability to take almost everybody along with him as he marches towards the goal.

The SAD is branded by some as a party without a modern vision or a development agenda and lacking the capacity to carry Punjab forward in the 21st century.

The SAD is a vibrant, progressive party that is rooted in tradition. Historically, the party has been very successful in maintaining a balance between traditional values and modern thought. It has always based its ideology on the basic principles of Sikhism, which is the most modern religion in the world.

While the menace of drug addiction and problems relating to lack of adequate employment avenues seem to haunt every decision-maker in Punjab, do you have any special programme for the youth of the State?

The youth constitute about 65 per cent of the population in Punjab. About two years ago, we launched the Students' Organisation of India [SOI], which now has at least six lakh members from different educational institutions. After their exposure to primary organisational matters and developing basic skills in political management, SOI members, on completion of their studies, are absorbed into the Youth Akali Dal [YAD], which undertakes the responsibility of training its cadre and creating awareness about the latest developments across the political spectrum. In a few weeks from now, the people of Punjab will exercise their franchise, and the SAD is confident that in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party it will be able re-establish people's rule in the State.

The key area that our government would focus on is developing competitive skills in youth so that they can get productive employment anywhere in the world. For this, we shall impress upon our leadership to grant a "Youth Ministry" among the major portfolios and set up a Youth Development Board, with Minister status to its members. These two bodies would ensure participation of youth in the decision-making process.

Have you planned any special programmes in case your party regains power?

Sukhbir Singh with his father, Prakash Singh Badal, at a rally.-

We plan to organise exchange programmes with universities of international repute. For youth from Dalit families and economically weaker sections, we propose to institute scholarships to help them receive quality education from reputed international universities as well as institutes of excellence within the country. Meanwhile, at the village level, we shall set up new sports and activity clubs, and augment the existing ones to promote healthy living and wean the youth away from drug addiction.

We plan to set up Information Technology [IT] centres and market intelligence hubs in all villages across the State, which are to be managed by qualified youth from rural areas. Educated youth from villages would get employment also when our government helps set up fodder and milk-chilling units in every village. This would also help augment farmers' income.

To revive the culture of sports in the State, our government shall set up three institutes for specialisation in sports, one each in the Malwa, Doaba and Majha regions.

You have had a major stint in both Houses of Parliament. What has been your toughest moment in politics?

In my opinion I had done a lot for the people after getting elected to the Lok Sabha in the 1996 and 1998 elections and with our party at the helm in the State since 1997. But in the subsequent general elections, I lost. That was very tough to believe.

What do you recall as your moment of glory?

For almost 20 years, lakhs of people in about 180 villages in my Faridkot constituency had been living in utter misery owing to water logging. By 1996, when I won the seat for the first time, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that vast stretches of cultivable land were flooded. We decided to take the problem head on and took whatever measures were possible. And by the beginning of 1998, we had resolved the problem. The smiles on the faces of the people, who could reclaim their land, was a matter of satisfaction for me - something that I had never experienced before.

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