Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh believes that the Aam Aadmi Party’s relevance in the state would be further diminished if the Shiromani Akali Dal was able to get its act together and revive in a short span. He has said that his government would proceed against wrongdoers as per the rule of law and there shall be no political witch hunt. He has reiterated his commitment to waging an extensive war against the drug menace. In an interview to The Sunday Guardian, Captain Amarinder Singh admitted that the overwhelming verdict in his party’s favour surprised him and attributed it to the bursting of the AAP bubble. Commenting on the dismal performance of the Congress in UP, he said that neither victory nor defeat is permanent in politics. Excerpts:
Q: Now that you are firmly at the helm of Punjab, you have your tasks cut out for you. How do you propose to implement the various promises you have made to the people of Punjab, considering the poor financial health of the state?
A: When the manifesto was prepared and even during the campaign, while we were making promises, we knew that the state’s fiscal situation was critical and that, once again, we would end up with a legacy of huge debt. We have, however, been confident, all along, that we will be able to find ways and means of overcoming the hurdles to make good all our promises. As I have mentioned earlier, what we need is some innovative and out-of-the-box thinking, and fortunately, I have an excellent team of people to work out effective solutions to carry forward our development agenda for the state. The process has already been initiated and you will begin to see the positive results in a few weeks, if not days. Whether it is waiver of farm loans or jobs for the unemployment or industrial revival, the work has already started and tangible results of the same will be evident soon.
Q: One of the key promises you have made to the people of Punjab is the elimination of the drugs menace within four weeks. It is quite a tall task. Have you worked out the modalities for the same?
A: A Special Task Force (STF) has been assigned the task of identifying the drug cartels in the state and initiate criminal proceedings against them. The STF will work directly under me and I can promise you, nobody found guilty of complicity of any kind will be spared. They have ruined a whole generation of Punjabis and we have to bring our youth back into the mainstream of development. I will not only ensure exemplary punishment for the culprits, but also rehabilitation of the youth affected by drugs. My government has taken this up on priority and it is my personal commitment to wipe out the chitta from the state.
Q: There is a lot of rot in the state’s administrative and police set-ups. How do you propose to clean up 10 years of mess?
A: The rut has been caused not because there is a dearth of good officers, but because of the undemocratic style of functioning of the previous regime. Good bureaucrats were not allowed to work, while police officers were treated as servants by the all-powerful cronies of the top leadership. Punjab has many young and enthusiastic IAS officers, who have not been given the chance to prove their worth. We have already started the process of putting the right people in the right job, and shall continue to strengthen the systems in the weeks and months ahead.
Q: Going back to the days just before government formation, were you surprised by the victory margin of the Congress in these Assembly polls?
A: Well, to be frank, it did turn out to be quite a surprise. While I was totally confident about a clear majority, I did not really expect such an emphatic mandate. The IPAC team of Prashant Kishor had told me that if the AAP bubble bursts then we’ll definitely make a clean sweep. Evidently, the AAP bubble did burst eventually. In fact, the collapse of AAP had started several weeks ago but the social media hype created by them clouded the perception not just of most political pundits but even the media, who continued to project Arvind Kejriwal as the winning horse right till the day of the counting.
Q: When you say perception and judgement were clouded by the social media hype of AAP, are you referring to the ground realities that were largely ignored during electioneering?
A: Yes, so overwhelming was the AAP social media hype that hardly anyone seemed interested in checking out the mood of the people on the ground. For instance, experts and the media were giving Malwa to AAP and, carried away by their sentiment, I had also begun to get convinced that they were winning in the region. However, when I went there to campaign I did not see any signs of an AAP wave. I met and interacted with people at the grassroots and saw a perceptible mood in favour of the Congress. In fact, I told Rahul Gandhi (AICC vice president) that we will get 35 in Malwa. The final tally of 40 exceeded even my expectations.
Q: Talking of AAP, what do you feel about their persistent allegations of rigging of the EVMs?
A: Now that they have lost, they need some excuse to justify their humiliating defeat. So they have raised the EVM rigging bogey. Why did they not raise doubts about EVM accuracy in Delhi? They won Delhi so there was nothing wrong with the EVMs then, and they have lost Punjab, so EVMs have suddenly become the devil incarnate?
Q: So do you think AAP is here to stay or will it disappear from the Punjab political landscape?
A: That really depends on the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and how soon they are able to get their act together now. If SAD revives soon (and I personally expect that will happen, given their better than expected performance in the elections), then AAP will not remain on the Punjab political scene.
Q: There is a general apprehension that your government will unleash vendetta politics against the SAD leaders, whom you have repeatedly accused of corruption, fabrication of cases against innocent people and a whole lot of other crimes. How do you propose to deal with these leaders and their supporters?
A: I have made it amply clear, since the day of the announcement of the poll results, that my government will not go for witch-hunt against anyone. We will get every instance of corruption, scams, false cases, religious sacrilege etc., thoroughly investigated and take action as per the law of the land. While there is no question of sparing anyone for any kind of criminal misconduct, nobody will be allowed to take the law in their own hands for avenging the wrongs done to the people of Punjab. It is not the Congress culture to indulge in vendetta politics and we will not do it under any circumstance. Even during the poll campaign, unlike Kejriwal and his associates, we never spoke about dragging any SAD leader to jail after coming to power. The due process of law will be followed to bring the guilty to book. My main objective now is to get Punjab moving and not waste time indulging in any kind of vendetta against my political adversaries.
Q: Where do you see yourself five years from now? Can we look at seeing you in a bigger national role?
A: Even before the election, I had announced that after these polls I will hang up my boots. I feel it is time to hand over the reins of Punjab to the younger generation, who we will groom over the next five years. As far as my own role is concerned, I never had, and still do not have, any national aspirations. My heart has always been in Punjab and though I did contest and win the Lok Sabha election from Amritsar at the behest of AICC president Sonia Gandhi-ji, I always felt I could not do enough for my state and its people sitting in Delhi. My only ambition is to work for the people of Punjab directly, by being among them, which I can now do effectively with their decisive mandate.
Q: Given the massive drubbing the Congress has received in Uttar Pradesh, do you think the party is now a spent force?
A: Neither victory nor defeat are permanent in politics. Punjab is a case in instance. We lost 2012 quite badly, but have come back with a bang. I am confident that Rahul (Gandhi) will rebuild the party by bringing all the Congress thinkers together. I have worked closely with Rahul for the past two years and know him to be a good and intelligent leader, with the charisma needed to revive the party’s grassroots connect. I think it is time to hand over the Congress reins to him and allow him to build the party with his innate dynamism and visionary focus.