Promises in Punjab

Print edition : March 16, 2002

PUNJAB'S new Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, came to power promising to put the State's nearly defunct administrative and economic infrastructure in order. Now, he has come up with what he describes as "a team for the reconstruction of Punjab".

Amarinder Singh being sworn in Chief Minister by the Governor, Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob.-

The 19-member Council of Ministers sworn in on March 5 marks a careful balancing of power between the Congress(I)'s major factions. Former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who had earlier announced that she would seek the post again, came in with Cabinet rank as Minister for Rural Development and Panchayats, Agriculture and Development of Women and Children. Others, such as Finance and Food Supplies Minister Lal Singh, are Amarinder Singh's close confidants. The Malwa region, which returned a single Congress(I) MLA, has no representation in the Cabinet, while Gurdaspur, a one-time Bharatiya Janata Party stronghold, has four Ministers.

Bhattal's rapprochement with Amarinder Singh came after days of open arm-twisting by the party's central command. Shortly after she staked her claim to the chief ministership, Rajinder Kaur was summoned for a meeting with party president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi. She returned from the meeting saying she would "abide by the decision, whatever it may be, of the party high command", adding that she would give her opinion like others at the legislature party meeting called to elect the Chief Minister. She then said that she would accept no position below that of Chief Minister.

Given the temptation to guard against such sniping, which could be devastating since the Congress(I) has just a four-seat majority, Amarinder Singh's mid-sized Cabinet is a welcome departure from precedent. Its predecessor in power, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine, had expanded it to a point where over two-thirds of its MLAs held office.

Amarinder Singh said that "many first-time and young MLAs will be inducted into the Council of Ministers in the coming months", after potential candidates obtained some "legislative experience". Certain other senior party legislators who could not be accommodated in the first phase of government formation would also be brought in subsequently. The Chief Minister has retained the portfolios of Home, Vigilance, Power, Information, Public Relations, Industries, Cooperation, Sports, Youth Welfare, Civil Aviation and Horticulture for distribution at a later stage.

The new team will face its first major challenge at the end of March, as the wheat harvest begins. Amarinder Singh is expected to visit New Delhi to lobby for a high minimum support price for the crop. He will, however, face problems on two counts. First, the BJP-led government at the Centre has no reason to hand him a generous payout, as it did during the regime of Prakash Singh Badal. Second, Badal was able to secure a high paddy procurement price because of support from influential allies such as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. Chandrababu Naidu has no interest in wheat, and could accept the Centre's pleas that it needs to cut subsidies to farmers. The academic S.S. Johl will play a key role in these negotiations, as head of the new, high-power Committee on Reorganising Agriculture and Diversification. He is charged with drawing up a blueprint for Punjab to shed its dependency on a two-crop system and for agriculture to develop forward linkages with industry. Surinder Singla, Bhatinda's first-time Congress(I) MLA, will head a parallel committee on finance, while former Chief Secretary Ajit Singh Chatha, one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the Beant Singh government, will head the Committee on the Revival of Industry in the State.

Days before the Cabinet was sworn in, Amarinder Singh resorted to a wide-ranging purge of bureaucrats perceived as close to Badal. He brought in Y.S. Ratra as Chief Secretary and M.S. Bhullar as Director-General of Police. S.K. Sinha, a top bureaucrat sidelined under the Badal dispensation, was appointed personal secretary to Chief Minister. All three are former soldiers, as is the Chief Minister they serve. Ordinary people in Punjab will follow the working of these three key bureaucrats with keen interest, since one of the key promises of the Congress(I)'s was to wipe out corruption.

In the weeks to come, Amarinder Singh has promised that the party's ethics committee will make it mandatory for its leaders to declare their assets. He is also considering the prospect of setting up a judicial investigation into alleged corrupt practices involving the previous government. Some eyebrows, however, have been raised by the presence of individuals in Amarinder Singh's inner circle who, in fairness, acquired some notoriety for their lack of financial probity under the previous Congress(I) regimes.

A few aberrations may not matter if Amarinder Singh is able to deliver on his economic promises. Should he fail, the new Chief Minister might find himself in much the same predicament as his predecessor.

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