“PUNJAB will never accept a Haryanvi Chief Minister who will not think twice before selling off the State’s interests to the neighbouring States,” said the former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, the face of the Congress’ campaign in the Assembly elections. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :
How do you assess the electoral prospects of the Congress and the AAP in the coming elections?
Let’s not club the two parties. The Congress is all set to make a clean sweep in the elections while the AAP has no standing and is continuously losing whatever little ground it had earlier managed to gain in Punjab. Marred by allegations of corruption and sex scandals, Arvind Kejriwal’s party has lost the trust of the people of Punjab and has no hope of showing a decent performance in these elections. Punjab will never accept a Haryanvi Chief Minister who will not think twice before selling off the State’s interests to the neighbouring States.
One hears of a region-wise split in public response to the Congress and the AAP. The people of Malwa, the region with the most number of constituencies, are said to be in favour of the AAP. What is your assessment?
My overall assessment is that the Akali Dal will win less than 20 seats, and the AAP’s tally will be less than 30; that is the situation now. Our fight is with the AAP in south [Malwa], not with the Akali Dal, because those are the core districts; that is where all farmer suicides have taken place, and that is where we are doing well. Upper northern Malwa seats are all with us. Ludhiana, Ropar, Patiala.
You are a popular leader across the State, yet the Congress did not officially declare you as its chief ministerial candidate early enough. Why?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me clarify that the prerogative of declaring or not declaring the chief ministerial candidate in any election-bound State lies with All India Congress Committee president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi. We always announce the Chief Minister after the elections are over.
The AAP’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Badal have questioned your decision to contest from both Patiala and Lambi. What prompted you to take the decision?
Patiala is my hometown and the place from where I began my political career 47 years ago. Since this is my last election, I want to end my political innings from Patiala. My decision to contest from Lambi was motivated by my strong desire to teach Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal a lesson for what he has done to the people of Punjab. As I get ready to take to a life of retirement, I want to be satisfied that I played some role in rescuing the people of my State from the victimisation and devastation [they suffered] during Badal’s regime. Choosing one or the other constituency would have been a tough choice for me, and I’m sure nobody would have wanted to put me through such a difficult choice at this age and stage in my life.
You had planned a grand spectacle with Navjot Singh Sidhu (who quit the Bharatiya Janata Party and joined the Congress late last year) in Amritsar with a press conference, a road show and a visit to the Golden Temple, but none of it materialised. Why?
I always leave my campaign plans to my campaign managers and strategists. They were the ones who planned out the entire schedule for Amritsar. It was never a question of a grand spectacle, but yes, I had definitely wanted to meet the people of Amritsar, which was my parliamentary constituency before I resigned the Lok Sabha seat [in protest against the November 10 Supreme Court verdict on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal water sharing agreement]. I also wanted to pay my respects at Darbar Sahib. Unfortunately, other pressing engagements came up. In particular, the party decided it was important for the Assembly election and the Lok Sabha byelection candidates to be present when scrutiny of their nomination papers came up in order to ensure that the SAD did not play dirty games.
Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently said in Amritsar that a split in opposition vote would help the ruling alliance retain power.
Jaitley, if he comes and fights again [in Amritsar; Amarinder defeated Jaitley in the Amritsar Lok Sabha elections in 2014], I can guarantee you that he will lose. He can make whatever statements he wants. The BJP is nowhere in the reckoning. What is the credibility of this man? I don’t think he even knew that demonetisation was taking place—the Finance Minister of India did not know this.
He is a petty man, says petty things. He says he wants to expose my Swiss Bank account. You can say what you like, there is the law of the land. I will call Jaitley as a witness with the senior Income Tax officers who connived in this. This is a total blackmail attitude [sic]; 100 per cent he had a role in this. He called one of his officers saying he wants a case against Amarinder Singh. After three months, when he was told there was no case that would stand scrutiny of law, he said, “I don’t care.” Therefore, I know all the conversations, with whom and when they had [them]. How they connived. I will call them to the witness box, on oath, and I will call Jaitley also. I will see what they talk on oath.
Your campaign, “karza khurki khatam, fasal di poori rakam” promising debt waiver to farmers, has been criticised by the SAD and the AAP as unrealistic and misleading. What is your response?
If it is unrealistic and misleading, tell me why both the SAD and the AAP have replicated our promise of debt waiver and reached out to the farmers with similar schemes? The waiver of loans for farmers is not only doable but on the lines of similar promises we had made and successfully implemented during the previous Congress regime in the State. As I have repeatedly said, we will renegotiate the interests on loans taken by farmers and agricultural labourers and the government will take over the rest [including the principal] and pay it to the banks.
What is the permanent solution for such a massive scale of indebtedness and suicides among the farming community in Punjab?
The M.S. Swaminathan Commission report is, in my opinion, the key to finding a permanent solution to the woes afflicting the farming community in Punjab. The report has, unfortunately, been gathering dust and the Congress is committed to approaching the Central government for its early implementation; our manifesto clearly states this. We also propose to introduce a new law to prohibit the sale and kurki [attachment] of farmers’ land by lending agencies since the earlier law had become outdated and needed to be changed in the interest of the farming community.