A septuagenarian, Captain Amarinder Singh helms one of the most stable Congress-led state governments today. Unlike other states where internecine power struggles perennially undermine or threaten incumbent chief ministers, Singh administers his state without much opposition. He has his share of detractors, but none have succeeded in measuring up to the CM who once served in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army. Having completed three years of his current term as CM, Singh is now firmly focused on the remaining two. He spoke to editor-in-chief Ruben Banerjee about the challenges that confront him and the Congress.
You have completed three years as Punjab CM. How would you rate your performance? Any disappointments?
I’ll the leave the ratings to you in the media. But I do think the people of Punjab are largely happy with our performance of the past three years. They see a Punjab that is progressing and peaceful. They see development all around. They see gangsters and criminals, and terrorists, either being eliminated or fleeing the state. They see industry coming back. They see farmers finally getting out of their vicious debt cycles. They see new schools, colleges and hospitals coming up, and old ones being upgraded. They see the youth finally getting the much-needed job opportunities, and getting weaned out of the drug menace.
All this makes me happy and satisfied at the way things have progressed in this period. Of course, there is more to be done, and I am confident we will be able to deliver on our remaining promises during the rest of my term. But I wouldn’t call them disappointments. It is part of a process, and a process of recovery takes time, especially when you look at the mess in which the previous SAD-BJP government left the state.
However, I have promised the people of Punjab that I will complete the recovery, howsoever long it takes.
What would be your priorities and challenges in the next two years of your term?
As I just pointed out, there are some unkept promises that we need to fulfill, and the next two years will see them being implemented. At the same time, we shall be stepping up the pace of improvement across areas where we have already made a beginning. Industry, environment protection, crop diversification, education and health are some of the areas where we will focus even more aggressively now that the foundation has been laid.
Though we are finally getting back on track with economic recovery, the challenges remain, particularly in view of the lack of support from the Centre on the issue of farm debt waiver and MSP for alternativee crops.
A lot of the centrally-sponsored projects also need more investment, which I and my cabinet colleagues are persistently pursuing with the Union government. Delay in payment of our GST share is another issue of serious concern, which the central government needs to resolve at the earliest, given that GST is the only source of revenue left with the states in the new tax regime.
I am hopeful all these issues will be sorted over a period of time, and eventually things will be streamlined and the process of development and growth will be further expedited.
You inherited a treasury that was heavily in debt. How are the state’s finances now, particularly as the whole country is in the midst of an economic crisis?
Frankly, the state’s economic situation when we took over in March 2017 was worse than we had expected it to be. Fiscal mismanagement by the previous government had not only left the coffers empty, but also virtually destroyed the very edifice on which the state’s development process could be reignited.
Considering how deep the crisis was, I am happy to say that things have really started looking up finally, as a result of the prudent fiscal policies of my government. (Finance minister) Manpreet (Badal) shared with the House some of the details of the impact in his Budget 2020 speech. We have brought down the debt to-GSDP (gross state domestic product) ratio and ensured that the state did not go into a double overdraft or remain in overdraft for the most of the current fiscal.
Apart from fiscal prudence, another key factor that is helping our economy is the ease of business we have promoted, which has led to Rs 58,000 crore of on-ground investment being realised since we took over. Incentivisation of industry remains a key priority for us, given its potential to strengthen the economy further and to generate large-scale employment.
Of course, there is still quite a long way to go before things are completely back on track, but I am happy to state that Punjab has actually managed to beat the negative trend of the national economy in the past year. This is indeed a great achievement, which makes me proud for all of us in the government.
The Punjab Assembly, like several other states, has passed a resolution against CAA. But the CAA is a central law and citizenship a central-list subject. How can you not implement the law then? Is this mere posturing?
No, this is not mere posturing. And don’t forget—Punjab is not alone in taking this decision. Apart from contesting the legislation in courts, as we have already announced, we will continue to take up the issue on all possible forums with the Centre. How can a central law be a national law if so many states are against it, and if the people of the nation are out on the streets protesting against it? In passing the resolution against CAA, the MLAs were expressing the people’s resentment, and it is the will of the people that the resolution reflects. The Centre needs to review and reconsider the law, which, on the face of it, is totally unconstitutional. The Indian Constitution does not allow for discrimination on the ground of religion, and it is the duty of the central government, as the custodian of the Constitution, to protect it, in letter and in spirit.
You have consistently maintained that Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi Model is not new and that your government has a better model. Then why is the Punjab model not talked about as much as the Delhi or Gujarat model?
It is just the media that keeps talking about such things. What we have been doing in Punjab is much better than what has been done in Delhi. The so-called Delhi model was hyped up because of the elections and the publicity it got as a result of aggressive advertising by Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. You just have to visit the government schools in Punjab, and check out their performance, to see how well we are doing on that count. And then the free power that Kejriwal keeps talking about...have you checked the numbers? In Punjab, we are actually giving a bigger power subsidy, despite the financial crunch we have been facing since we took over in March 2017. And in Delhi they announced free bus rides for women just ahead of the polls, obviously with an eye on the votes. I announced 50 per cent fare concession for women in my state in this budget session even though there is no election ahead.
And while I do not know much about the Gujarat model, it seems that is all about big projects and big business. While that is good for the economy of the state, what is in it for common people? What are the welfare measures being taken on the ground there?
With AAP’s fresh win in Delhi, do you anticipate its revival in Punjab? Will 2022 see a three-way contest involving Congress, Akali Dal and AAP?
AAP won Delhi even in 2014, yet failed to do anything in any other state, or in the 2019 general elections. They have failed to prove their credentials in Punjab, and have no leadership here. For the third time in a year, they recently appointed a new in-charge for AAP in Punjab. This shows how bereft they are of a strong leadership. And frankly, Punjab is no Delhi. People here have suffered long and have finally got some reprieve in the past three years. That is what they will continue to look for. For now, it is continuity they want. AAP really has no roots and no standing here in Punjab. Even in 2017 there was all this talk of AAP hype and a three-way contest in Punjab. But the Congress swept the election hands down. We will do it again.
Your party at the national level has been in kind of a flux since Rahul Gandhi quit as its president. Now there is talk of bringing him back. What would be best for the party?
There is no flux. We have a strong and great leader in Sonia Gandhi. She was the unanimous choice after Rahul quit, and she is doing an excellent job. But if she does decide to step down for any reason, Rahul is the best bet for party leadership, in my opinion. That is also the view of many others, which is why the talk of bringing him back. Eventually he has to come back. He is qualified, competent and young. This is what the Congress needs. And the nation too.
Can there be a leader beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family?
The Congress is an old party with strong leadership. If and when the need arises, I am sure there are any number of good leaders who can take the reins.
There is a buzz for getting Priyanka Gandhi nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Do you think it’s a good idea? She still hasn’t been able to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
She does not have a magic wand with which she can transform things overnight. There is change taking place on the ground in UP, and the results will start becoming palpable soon. I think the time is right to give her a bigger responsibility in the party and in Parliament, where she can really make a difference for not just UP and the party, but the whole country.
Lately, several leaders such as Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tiwari have publicly said the Congress needs to rethink and clarify its ideological position. What does the party stand for, what is the narrative it offers. Simply saying it’s a secular party is not enough. What is the course correction the Congress needs according to you?
Given the traumatic times India is going through, I think being a secular party is the Congress’s biggest strength. We are a party for every Indian, which is what being secular is all about. Unlike other parties, we stand with all sections of society. When some of the leaders talk of change, I do not think they are referring to ideology. It is about the need to involve more youth in leadership. It is about giving more weightage to the regional leadership. And this process has already started. Going forward, I see it getting further strengthened.