P argat Singh , who is still remembered for the solo goal against Germany in the 1985 Hockey Champions Trophy in Perth, has brought the same fearless approach to his politics. For long, he was counted among Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu’s loyalists in the cricketer-politician’s long-drawn-out battle with the then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. Pargat Singh is the Minister for Education, Sports and NRI Affairs. An elected representative from Jalandhar Cantt constituency, he believes the Congress’ fortunes have been turned around during the 111-day-period under Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi. (Channi became Chief Minister on September 20, 2021, and the Assembly election schedule was announced by the Election Commission on January 8, 2022.) All set to hit the campaign trail on a cold winter morning, Pargat Singh took time out to answer a few questions from Frontline .
What changes do you see in the Congress ahead of the election?
In its 111-day period, the Channi government was successful in making people feel that this is a people’s government. We were able to address all the main issues. For example, we were able to cancel the financial clauses with companies in the power purchase agreements. We reduced the cost of electricity by Rs.3 and transferred the benefit to the domestic consumer [with a sanctioned load of up to 7 kilowatt]. To avoid this, we made the electricity companies reduce prices. The other major issue is be-adabi, or the sacrilege issue. We booked people, got them arrested, forced further investigation and presented the related challan in the court.
Why did this procedure take the Congress five years?
It was supposed to have happened earlier. That is what we fought with Captain Amarinder Singh for.
What about drug-related issues?
Basically, there is a strong case against Bikram Singh Majithia [former Minister and sitting MLA of the Shiromani Akali Dal]. Although he got anticipatory bail, that case is good enough to put him behind bars for long. The court has asked him to join investigations whenever needed. We are serious about rooting out the drug problem.
You had said the government schools in Punjab were better than Delhi government schools. You had even taken on Manish Sisodia [Delhi’s Education Minister] on this.
We have 20,000 schools. Since Delhi is a metropolitan city, there are 1,000 schools there. In view of this, I feel it makes no sense to draw a comparison. We are number one in PGI [Performance Grading Index for 2019-20 on the status of school education] survey of the Government of India and Delhi is number six. We were number 23 four years ago; Delhi was number four then. Sisodia visited a few schools here and found some broken bathrooms. If education could be helped by good bathrooms, then schools would have run from five-star hotels.
Schools should have toilet facilities. How will girl students manage?
I can show many schools in Delhi which are in worse condition. I am not saying we don’t need to take remedial measures. Over the last few years, we have built 14,000 smart schools. We need to put in more work. Under the teacher transfer policy, we have even covered areas where students and teachers had to cross a river, the dariya-paar schools, near the Pakistan border. The problem of crossing a river has been taken care of.
W hat are the measures you have taken to facilitate easy communication to schools in these ‘dariya-paar’ areas?
We have installed WiFi there. In schools close to the Border Security Force post near the Pakistan border, we created a separate cadre for those areas so that those teachers did not seek a transfer to cities. For the first time, we have adequate number of teachers there.
What are the issues with which the Congress is going to the election this time?
Governance and deliverance of the Channi government. Over the past five years, you would have noticed some shortcomings, some weaknesses. But we have kept democracy alive in Punjab. Internal democracy is as important as external democracy.
This internal democracy was exhibited in the public domain. The Sidhu-Amarinder public spat became an everyday event.
You must appreciate that this frank exchange of views has never taken place in the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] or the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP]. I consider it good for democracy that whatever takes place, takes place in front of people. If there is no difference of opinion, there is deadwood.
Whom are you hinting at?
Both the BJP and the AAP. Can anyone challenge Narendra Modi, Amit Shah or Arvind Kejriwal in these parties. I come from a background in which as a player we even abused a teammate if a ball crossed him. That is my idea of accountability.
Today, unfortunately, we are not running a democracy. We are having a dictatorship. Nobody is ready to say a thing or listen to a thing. A man is chosen, then built up as a demigod. The coterie in the power corridors keeps telling the leader that there is nobody like you, nor will anybody be born like you. That is the biggest problem. A human being is a human being. He has to have weaknesses. Building up a leader suits bureaucrats, not the country.
What exactly transpired when Prime Minister Modi went to Ferozepur? He said, “Main jaan bacha kar aa gaya” (I was able to save my life).
I have been in the police, too. If you look at it from the security angle, it should not take place. But there are so many agencies involved in the Prime Minister’s security. That should be probed. Such a lapse around the Prime Minister’s security should not happen.
But if you look at it from the political angle, if the Prime Minister is going to address a rally of 70,000 people and there are only 700 people, then the government cannot be blamed. Many people tend to club the two.
Do you think he backtracked because his partymen alerted him to the fact that there were only 700 people to listen to him?
Modi was sitting at the Bathinda airport for at least 40 minutes. He was waiting there because enough crowd had not been mobilised. Every minute of the Prime Minister’s time counts. But he waited at the airport. The BJP is known for its dramatics. People have seen videos showing people waving BJP flags near the Prime Minister’s entourage. It creates a doubt.
You talk of the BJP’s drama, but in 2021, from May-June to September-October, the Congress was not short of drama either. The crisis in the party finally led to the removal of Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister. How much of a loss will it be for the Congress?
His departure is the only gain for us in fighting the election. If we had gone to the election under Amarinder Singh, we probably would not have been able to face the electorate. I had been talking about the shortcomings to Captain for long. First I said to him directly, then wrote to him, then went public. At that time, many party leaders were not ready to believe me, both in Punjab and in Delhi. They said I was a mad man. They said, “He fights with everybody. He fought Badal, he fought Kalmadi.” But when I fight, I fight for the larger good and logic.
Amarinder Singh has been a popular leader. Would you agree that he could harm the Congress? He could eat into the Congress vote.
No. Not at all. In the hockey-ball [electoral] symbol he has got, the hockey stick belongs to the BJP. He only has the ball. Whoever wants, can hit the ball. We must remember whosoever is born has to die too. There is an end to everything. I played for 15 years. If I had not taken retirement at the right time, I would have been disgraced. For self-esteem, one has to quit at the right time.
So, Amarinder Singh outlived his utility?
Yes. I would still say that he should quit gracefully.
Sidhu continues to take potshots at his party and party leaders.
He should not be so vocal. Even if he is, what is the harm? It is part of a healthy democracy.
What signal does it send to voters? The perception is that the Congress is a divided house and its leaders are busy fighting one another.
I don’t agree, although we must take corrective measures. The party has decided on a collective leadership. Channi ji , Sidhu ji , and Sunil Jakhar ji, who is chairman of the campaign committee, are all our leaders. Let people decide. But why talk of divisions in the Congress. Look at the AAP. They are a fraud party. They write a script. The script comes from Delhi. They are not selling a dream but a nightmare. Look at their background. Earlier, they had Prashant Bhushan, Medha Patkar, and other stalwarts. Who is left in the AAP now? The party won four [of the 13] Lok Sabha seats in 2014. Now it has only one MP [in the State]. The AAP had 20 MLAs in 2017. Now they have nine. The party has a strong media presence. But the ground reality is different.
With a Dalit as Chief Minister has the Congress taken the wind out of the sails of the SAD, which promised to give the Deputy Chief Minister’s post to a Dalit if elected to power?
I follow Guru Nanak. I don’t believe in Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. I played [hockey] with Zafar Iqbal, Mohammed Shahid and Mervyn Fernandes. Same for politics. I don’t think in terms of Dalit or upper caste. I am a Jat Sikh but I believe in humanity. In the Assembly election, the anti-Congress vote will be divided.