Hardly over a week in office, Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, 58, has his task cut out. The cabinet formation is on hold, while the first session of the state Assembly convened at Dharamshala in the third week of December had to be deferred after Sukhu tested positive for the coronavirus. His meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, slated for December 19, was also cancelled.
In the backdrop of all major developments, Ashwani Sharma of Outlook spoke to the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh on his governance plans, challenges, his ties with PCC president Pratibha Singh and cabinet formation. Some excerpts:
Are you firmly in the saddle now?
Bilkul (Absolutely). After the BJP’s five-year misrule, the Congress has returned to power, winning 40 seats in the 68-member assembly. There was no chief ministerial face in the elections from the Congress. Once the party got the majority, I was unanimously elected as leader and took oath of office. The government is very much in place. It is going to be a transparent government, which will ensure justice to all. Our government will complete its full term.
Do you fear any threat from within the party or outside?
There is no threat to the government from any side. There is no chance of any so-called ‘Operation Lotus’ here in Himachal. Rather, it is time for the BJP to guard itself against a possible split. Take it as a forecast from me.
You have not been able to form your cabinet. Reasons? Are you feeling the pressure?
I don’t take pressure. Do I look like someone who does? The process of forming the cabinet is very much underway. I thought we should have the Assembly session first, so that newly elected MLAs are administered oath. The House should elect its speaker and deputy speaker. Thereafter, the cabinet will be formed. In between, all 40 MLAs had to go for the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ in Rajasthan. It is true that only Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri has taken oath with me. I have allocated responsibilities to him and things are moving smoothly.
Don’t you think the delay could complicate things for the government?
It will not. I know the cabinet is important for the government. But we have to choose a team from a large pool of 40 MLAs. A formula has to be evolved. Once the formula gets finalised, the cabinet will be in place.
What are your five big priorities as chief minister?
I want to give a big impetus to new technologies. One of the areas I have chosen is healthcare. I will hold consultations with top health experts to improve the basic healthcare infrastructure and bring innovation. The emergency, the first contact point of every patient, should be A-one. Second, I have a vision about building a series of heliports in the state to boost tourism. Third, I will try to create world-class facilities for destitute children—both girls and boys living in government-run orphanages. We will try to develop a mechanism for their care, education, career advancement and marriage. Fourth, all diesel- and petrol-run vehicles used by the state government will be replaced with electric-run vehicles in a phased manner. The entire fleet of the state transport department will be changed to electric vehicles by January 15 as a pilot project. Fifth, school education—from Class I to VII—will get a big overhaul in terms of world-class infrastructure and facilities .We will have some pilot projects in place to showcase this.
How about the old pension scheme (OPS), the biggest election plank of the Congress?
The decision on the OPS will be taken in the first meeting of the cabinet. The BJP is saying that it cannot be done. The Centre is also not in favour of the scheme. We will generate resources to implement the scheme. Whosoever retires after our first cabinet meeting will get OPS. We will stop our contribution to the corpus fund and ask the Centre to return all the money contributed by employees to the corpus.
What about your promise of giving Rs 1,500 to women every month? Have you assessed the burden on state finances it might create?
This is one of the 10 guarantees the Congress has given during the elections. I have given instructions to the finance secretary to prepare the scheme and exact liability. A new policy is being worked out to raise additional revenue and use fiscal prudence. I have asked MLAs to come out with proposals and new ideas. We are working on it. Tourism and hydro-power are the two big sectors for resource generation to be tapped.
There is a promise to provide one lakh jobs?
Of course. There are two things in my mind: investment and job creation. I propose to introduce an open policy for attracting big tourism projects . The promoters can submit their proposals, buy land and get approvals from deputy commissioners. They will be asked to pay a premium upfront. A similar thing will be done for hydro-power projects. This will increase the inflow of hassle-free investments. We will have plenty of revenue and jobs.
What is your plan to boost the rural economy?
There is a plan to introduce a very lucrative milk procurement scheme. The government will buy milk at Rs 80 a litre upto 10 litres from every household. Apart from job guarantee under the MNREGA, the government will give interest-free loans to youth for start-ups. A fund of Rs 680 crore, Rs 10 crore for each constituency, will be earmarked.
Do you have some plans for senior citizens?
This is going to be a first-of-its-kind concept in India. We will set up resorts for old people. The concept is different from old-age homes. It will have five-star kind of facilities, where senior citizens can pay out of their personal savings and live a luxurious life. All facilities like stay, food, healthcare, entertainment, library, meditation, yoga and parties will be provided. Even children, unable to take care of their aged parents as they are abroad or work elsewhere, will be happy to book such resorts. Two such resorts are proposed in the first phase in different climate zones, with winter and summer stays.
Do you foresee problems from PCC president Pratibha Singh, since she was a contender for the chief minister’s post?
Pratibha Singh ji is my boss as party chief. The fight was for the chief ministership. She is a sitting Congress MP and has an important role to play. We will work together for the state.
(This appeared in the print edition as "‘It is Going to Be a Transparent Government’")