You led the Congress to two successive defeats, and you’ve managed to shoot your way through to the PCC presidency. There’s pressure on you to deliver…
We must also remember the reasons why we lost those two elections. Punjab has always had this tradition of voting the Congress once, the Akalis next. [In 2007] it was anti-incumbency on our side [but] we only lost by 1 per cent of the vote. The second time I took the blame, it was my job as PCC president to take the blame, but 39 seats were given against my wishes. I told [the leadership] these chaps can’t win.
Out of the 39, only six won. And then eight were given to the Youth Congress, out of whom two won. So eight of that lot won. And of the remaining, I won 45. That’s how we lost…
How will it be different this time?
What I have been told by the president and the vice-president… they agree that [ticket distribution] should be on winnability only. Number one, we are saying only one person from a family, so that the Badal factor can be played up there, because the government is being run by their whole family… Number 2, no person who becomes an MLA will get any government job — we’ve got 54 chairmanships — so that other party men can also feel they have a chance of getting something if our government comes. I don’t think this time I’ll have the problem I had in 2012. I’ve already got the approval of the vice-president and mentioned this to the Congress president and she seems to agree on this.
And now, who are we up against? Akalis took 34 per cent of the vote. They’re going to be down in the dumps, they and the BJP, whether they stay together or fight separately… They’ve had 10 years, they’ve messed this state up. So they are going down. So I’m not worried about them. And that vote bank of theirs, I feel of course it will split, part will go to AAP, part will come to us.
A third factor has emerged, and that third factor we’ll have to see how we can deal with it. This is not the Delhi AAP. That is a citizen’s AAP. Here, you’ve on one side the extreme left, cadres are breaking from the Congress and joining, then you have the frustrated youth, then on the extreme right, you’ve the Khalsitanis joining. That is going to be, to my mind, a destabilising force for Punjab.
So how are you going to deal with this?
Here it’s a dangerous AAP that is emerging for the peace of Punjab. That is why I have increased my interaction with the youth a great deal… Everyday, I’m with some college on Skype. I am interacting with the kids. And all girls’ colleges by the way. I am not going to boys’ colleges yet. Because 50 per cent of Punjab are ladies, and 50 per cent of youth are girls, and they don’t go to any political meetings. That is a cultural thing. I find them very perceptive, very eager to discuss issues.
What are you offering them?
I am asking them what their problems are. The first thing is jobs. Some of them are triple MAs, some have PhDs, they’ve all done something or the other, the nursing college that I went to on Skype — they can’t find jobs. Number two , they are concerned about drugs… Education is another. They say we have very small holdings, our parents can’t afford to pay our fees. For government jobs —one girl said I’m doing B Tech, and I want to find a government job, I have to pay Rs 4,000 for an application, and I can’t afford it. And if by chance they don’t get selected, they are not refunded the money. So I’ve said we will scrap it. It’s not the government’s job to start fleecing the unemployed. I’ve already announced that, and we will put that in our programme that anyone can apply, no money is required.
We have set up our own teams of two or three people to go into the various problems… and we are going to produce a paper that will form the basis of our manifesto.
You spoke about the anti-incumbency vote getting divided between you and AAP. Are you looking at alliances, and who are your potential allies ?
We are not going to have a mahagatbandhan, but I would definitely like… the secular forces of Punjab to come together. Which are those forces – [Manpreet Badal’s] PPP, Left parties and BSP. PPP has now joined us. Left parties I’m concerned about because though they got only 2.4 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, they are losing their cadres, who seem to be going towards AAP. PPP has joined us. I will talk again to the Left parties, I hope they can bring their cadres together, we can work with them. And BSP will depend on our national alliance, whether we are doing it in UP.
After your decision not to contest the Khadoor Sahib bypoll, how are you battling the impression that you are running away?
Ramanjit Singh Sikki [the Congress MLA] quit on an issue with which I agree 100 per cent. That the Guru Granth Sahib has been desecrated. And I supported him on it, and the decision he took to not fight the byelection as absolutely correct because till such time as this government comes out and answers just two questions — who did it, and who ordered the firing in which two people were killed and 40 injured – they are answering neither of them, because the fingers will point at Mr Badal eventually… They are not bothered that they must give preference to Guru Granth Sahib over Khadoor Sahib. They seem to be bothered only about Khadoor Sahib. So let them win. But morally we are correct. The majority of the Sikhs are supporting us on this issue. Because it is Khadoor Sahib vs Guru Granth Sahib. I’ve had so many NRIs call me and send me messages, and they are all saying you’ve taken the right decision. Guru Granth Sahib comes first.
You’re focusing on AAP like you think they are the real threat.
I don’t find the Akalis a challenge. I don’t consider AAP a challenge either. But I consider it as a force that has come in and we don’t want them to take too many votes and damage us like Manpreet [Badal] damaged us in the last election — 5.2 per cent vote he took and we lost the election by 0.8 per cent. So I don’t want this to happen again. So that is why I say this is a new phenomenon…
I, for instance, thought my opponent from AAP would take 20,000 votes. He took 80,000 votes in Amritsar. In Patiala, he took 3,20,000. Anandpur Sahib, Ambika [Soni] lost because he took 2,50,000. So that was a phenomenon, and the frustration of the youth which came out. Times have changed. If today elections are held in Punjab, all these four chaps will lose their seats. Take Patiala — Preneet [Kaur, his wife], lost Patiala Urban seat by 4,000 votes. When the byelection was held, she won it by 26,000. All our vote had gone to AAP and it has come back to us. Changes are coming.