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Last week, the Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal said that his son, the somewhat controversial deputy chief minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, was now ready to step into his shoes. While the 50 year old denies any such date with destiny in the near future, he has been calling the shots in the state and spoke candidly on a range of subjects when Outlook caught up with him this week. Excerpts from an interview with Uttam Sengupta:
As a border state Punjab has a lot at stake in relations with Pakistan. Do you wish the situation on the LoC was handled better?
Stronger economic ties, I believe, will benefit both the countries. I had offered to sell power to Pakistan by the end of this year, when Punjab will have surplus power. I do hope the situation will improve to allow for Pakistan to open a consulate at Amritsar and for India to open its consulate at Lahore. Look at the US and China. They have huge differences but their economic ties are stronger than ever.
Are you inspired by Narendra Modi, who too boasts of doing politics of development?
Mr Modi is leader of an alliance partner. It is not proper for me to comment on him or his politics. But he has certainly raised hope in the country. At a time when people have started believing that nothing is working, he has raised a glimmer of hope that not all is lost.
What makes you think people have lost all hope?
Look, I have never seen the corporate sector so openly and so unitedly oppose a government at the centre. The business houses clearly feel they will be in deeper trouble if the UPA government continues in office for long. I can tell you that the bureaucracy has stopped functioning and ministers have stopped taking decisions. They are sitting over proposals for new power plants, coal linkages, everything. As I said, it is a brain-dead government in New Delhi. It is in the ICU.
You have been a minister at the centre and twice a member of the Lok Sabha. Like the Chief Minister of Gujarat, are you also preparing for a plunge into national politics?
Not at all. I am president of a regional party and dynamics of a regional party are vastly different, leaving you with little time. Moreover there is so much to do and prove to critics in Punjab. During my first term in office in the state (2007-12), we had a credibility gap. People would not believe what I said then. But now they have started seeing results on the ground.
What exactly has changed since then?
Well, three power plants are being commissioned in the state this year. The six-laning and four-laning of highways has been speeded up. Punjab will in the next two years be the only state with three international airports. All the cities are getting stadia and gyms. And all this at zero cost to the state government.
What do you mean by ‘zero cost’?
I do not believe the government should do any business. The job of the government is to act as the facilitator. So, the highways, power plants, airports are all coming up with no investment from the state government.
When you speak of airports, power plants and highways coming up at zero cost to the state government, are you not overlooking the cost of land acquisition, tax concessions and perhaps favourable power tariff etc.?
The Punjab government has basically played a highly pro-active role as the facilitator of the projects while investments have come in from the private sector participants, including the land for the power projects. There would be exceptions like the Airport at Mohali where the land was acquired by the State Government and handed over to the Airports Authority of India, another government body.
But incentives, if any, given to any of the projects would comprise a very nominal and insignificant part as compared to the thousands of crores of investments for the projects which have been made by the private parties
It has been said that liquor is more freely available in Punjab, and from early morning till late in the evening, than medicine. You already have a problem with drug addiction among the youth. How do you justify raising excise revenue?
Look, it is a question of demand and supply. Gujarat is a dry state but liquor is freely available there. In Punjab, excise revenue was Rs 1,500 crore in 2002 when the Congress government headed by Captain Amarinder Singh took over. Five years later, when SAD won the election, excise revenue had increased by only 70 crore. But that was because the Congress encouraged the liquor mafia and allowed both politicians and the bureaucrats to make money. But in less than six years, we have raised the excise revenue to Rs 3,600 crore. Restricting sale of liquor will only encourage production of illicit liquor.
But there seems to be considerable concern about the health of Punjab’s youth …
The drug addiction figures being bandied around are completely misleading. The survey was conducted on a sample size of 1,800 drug addicts and 70 per cent of them were youth. It is absurd to conclude, as sections of the media have done, that therefore 70 per cent of Punjab’s youth are drug addicts.
How do you explain the paradox of Punjab’s agriculture? Punjab provides free electricity to the farmers. Procurement prices have been going up and yet surveys suggest that at least 7,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 10 years…
Allow us to export surplus wheat and paddy and all will be fine. Punjab produces 60 per cent of the foodgrains for the country. Three years ago the Prime Minister thanked the farmers of Punjab for rescuing the country from a famine-like situation. Now officials in the central government say that they will stop procuring foodgrains from Punjab because the Minimum Support Price is too high. Our irrigation system needs to be revamped and we asked the centre for Rs 3,000 crore. But they did not give us a penny. This is not the cavalier way you should treat Punjab. So, yes, we do have issues but we will tide over them.
Because price of land is so high in Punjab, industries have been forced to shift base elsewhere. But you are still promising big industries in the state. What is the source of your optimism?
We are not interested in anyone and everyone coming in. We are targeting engineering, hand tools, textile, IT, food processing industries in a calibrated approach. Towards the end of January, we will announce our industrial policy and a slew of measures to make Punjab attractive to industry. It wasn’t easy because our neighbouring states enjoyed advantages Punjab does not have, like proximity to Delhi, exemptions in the small and hill states etc. But world class infrastructure, uninterrupted power supply and simplified procedures will help bring in units which can make use of Punjab’s natural advantages.
Besides being the leader of a regional party and the deputy chief minister of Punjab, you also have a business empire. Would you agree that some might see a conflict of interest in the different roles?
Most of the businesses are family owned and being run for decades and there is no question of any conflict there. Our hotel business is not in Punjab at all and hence there is no conflict there either.
One last question. There has been some uneasiness following the SGPC building a martyrs’ memorial in the Golden Temple and felicitating assassins of Indira Gandhi and General Vaidya. Does this suggest return of extremism or hardliners to Punjab?
The so-called memorial is merely a precinct where prayers are held 24x7 for the innocent people who got killed in Operation Bluestar. What is wrong in that ? People can light a thousand candles for one life but will not allow even prayers for thousands of lives ? There is certainly a feeling in Punjab that justice has not been done to the culprits responsible for the anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Where else in the world do you have such an example of gross inaction ? But still I can say with confidence that people of Punjab will never allow extremism to return.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print