With the Congress out of power in Punjab for 10 years and fast losing ground across the country, Amarinder Singh, the Punjab unit president who is seen as the party’s chief ministerial face, is among the key players in the party’s plans for a revival in the Assembly elections scheduled for 2017.
Nirupama Subramanian: What do you make of the Uri attack? What are the options before India?
I think we encourage these sort of things by making the Army play soft and say we are all for peace. Unless you break the backbone of terrorism in Kashmir, nobody will come to negotiate with you. And Pakistan will continue to be this sort of nuisance. On the other hand, there has to be a thorough inquiry into why this happened. Two battalions, 6 Bihar and 10 Dogras, were changing hands but that does not mean you let your guard down. It was the duty of 10 Dogra to hold until 6 Bihar had shifted in. I think an inquiry needs to be done from this angle. The Indian government must also have some mechanism in place. I don’t say ‘declare war’, but I believe in the old system of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Something has to be done or you will demoralise your forces and the country will ask you questions.
Maneesh Chhibber: What do you expect the PM to do after all that talk in the election campaign that the NDA will be tougher on terrorism?
We cannot discuss solutions sitting across the table in a newspaper office. These need to be discussed with the defence forces. He (PM Modi) must have talked to the Army chief, who will certainly have solutions. It should be that if they kill 10 of ours, we should kill 20 of theirs. And in the Valley, there has to be a no-nonsense approach. I am contradicting myself but I oppose shooting of children; I think it is absolutely inhuman. You cannot shoot children with pellet guns, blow their eyes out and think peace will come. You are sowing the seeds of future bitterness. When there is a crisis like this (in Kashmir), you have rubber bullets that you use on the lower extremities of the body. Eventually though, you have to talk. In Punjab, you had to talk (to quell the insurgency of the ’80s and ’90s).
Khushboo Sandhu: Punjab is going to polls. How do you see the situation developing, especially after the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party?
When the elections were held in 2014 (Lok Sabha), nobody took the AAP seriously and nobody gauged the mood in the countryside. Obviously there was a lot of bitterness, a lot of frustration, which came out in those elections. In my seat (Amritsar parliamentary constituency), I thought Daljeet Singh (the AAP candidate) would get about 25,000 votes, but he polled over 80,000. The Patiala candidate (Dharamvira Gandhi) garnered 3,25,000 votes. But I think they peaked with that election. After that, it has been all downhill for them. I will give you an example. After I won Amritsar, I had to resign from Patiala (the Assembly seat). Preneet (Kaur, Amarinder’s wife) contested from Patiala. During the LS election, though she lost, she led Patiala (city) by 4,000 votes. In the by-election, she won it by 24,000 votes. The AAP chap lost his deposit. So, I do not see them as a major threat this time. They are divided. I think this business of (Arvind) Kejriwal forcing others on Punjab is not acceptable. Punjabis want a Punjabi to rule them.
Kanchan Vasdev: The AAP has denied that Kejriwal will be the Punjab chief ministerial candidate. Do you still think he will declare himself as one at some point?
I think he will. I do not know what the constitutional provision is — if a chief minister in one state can fight as an MLA in another, or if he has to resign from the CM post. But if he decides to fight, I have told him I will fight against him. Not out of great bravado but I will stand for my state. I do not want somebody from outside (Haryana) who we are fighting with all the time. Our disputes are with them (Haryana) on everything. How can a man from there come here in Punjab? My guess is that he will hope his party wins and then have somebody quit and (he will) fight a by-election later. He is a slippery customer. I think this is the way he will function.
Jagdeep Singh Deep: How do you see this fourth front (Awaaz-e-Punjab floated by Navjot Singh Sidhu)?
I call them the ‘tonga’ party: two in the front and two at the back. But if you look at them individually and their standing as of today, Pargat Singh (suspended Akali MLA and former hockey captain) cannot win his seat, nor can the younger Bains (Independent MLA Simarjit Singh). In case of Navjot Sidhu, he does not know people beyond Amritsar, where he was elected as MP, and Patiala, where he was born.
Navjeevan Gopal: At one point, you were keen on having Navjot Sidhu in your party.
No, I was not keen to have him. What I said was that these three leaders, Inderbir Bolaria (Akali MLA), Sidhu and Pargat Singh, have Congress DNA and if they wish to join the party, then they are welcome. Bolaria’s father was a Congress general secretary and was very close to me. Bhagwant Singh Sidhu (Navjot’s father) was the general secretary when my mother was the DCC (District Congress Committee) president, Patiala. After she became a Rajya Sabha member in 1992, he became the president. He was a very good man; it is a Patiala family. Pargat’s father-in-law Darbara Singh died as the governor of Rajasthan. He was also the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. That is what I had said. They chose to form their own group; it’s fine.
Man Aman Singh Chhina: Navjot Sidhu says you and the Akalis are two sides of the same coin. In the day you abuse each other and in the evening you hug and party together.
Can anyone prove that I have met Mr Badal in 10 years other than in the Vidhan Sabha? Or had a conversation with him or with Sukhbir (Singh Badal) or Bikram Majithia (Akali minister) other than the one time they came to my grandson’s wedding? Why did they come? Because my grandson’s family also has Majithia blood and it was a social event. I went once to Badal’s village when his wife died. You cannot cut out niceties and social life altogether. You have to do this.
Vinod Kumar: The Congress has not done well in other states. Are you under pressure to deliver in Punjab?
I do not know about the Congress party, but I am under pressure. I have lost twice and I don’t intend to lose another election. And I want to go out of the political world after having achieved that. This is my last election. I think the time has come for a new generation. I am 74 now and by the time of the next election, I will be 80. I do not want to be like Parkash Singh Badal (Punjab chief minister). He can contest the next election too.
Maneesh Chhibber: In 2012, you said you lost because they did not allow you your choice of candidates. It’s still the same high command.
Today they realise that the selection (of candidates in the last election) was not proper. I had protested then as 39 seats were given to people who were not in a position to win. Seven seats were handed to the Youth Congress and they were the choice of the Youth Congress headquarters. Of these 46 seats, we won in six. This time, Mrs Gandhi has publicly said they were the wrong choice. I think this time, the Congress will have a proper selection process.
Sanjeev Verma: The Congress has been reduced to six states in the country. Recently, we had the case of Arunachal Pradesh. Does it call for a change at the top level?
No, I don’t think any change is needed at the top level. But I think the general secretaries, who are looking after states, must have an understanding of their respective states. They must spend more time in their states like our general secretary (Himachal MLA Asha Kumari). She was here for a meeting with me in the morning. If you take on responsibility, then it is the job of the general secretary to see how things are running. Otherwise things are alright. I never had any problem while functioning with party vice-president (Rahul Gandhi) and the president (Sonia Gandhi). I think I have not met the vice-president for a month but we function through SMSes. I get a response within two hours. It is a much easier system.
Nirupama Subramanian: But the high command hasn’t announced you as CM candidate yet. What do you make of that?
When they announced me (as CM candidate) the last time, it was a bit late, three-four days before polling. In my case, it is more or less taken for granted because IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee formed by political strategist Prashant Kishor) is only concentrating on Amarinder Singh and not on the Congress. This is being paid for by the AICC and not us. It indicates what they want. They will do it (naming him CM candidate) at an appropriate time.
Maneesh Chhibber: In 2002, you came out strongly against the Badals, even saying you would send them to jail. Now we don’t hear these things from you. What has changed?
Many people think that we and the Akalis are together because our attacks have become less virulent. I think with age, people change too. Not that your attitude towards the Akalis has changed. You attack them on the same issues but with facts and figures rather than with abuse and other things. He (Chief Minister Parkash Badal) is 94 and I am 74. If we abuse each other, it is not going to solve any problem. I am attacking Sukhbir, his father and his brother-in-law (Cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia) at every stage.
Kanchan Vasdev: Do you think that your line on not calling for a CBI inquiry against Majithia (in the synthetic drug racket case) has gone against you?
I absolutely stand by the statement. Under the law, once an inquiry is on, you don’t change it. This inquiry is being conducted by a very competent officer who I know. He was a major in the Guards Regiment of the Army and was the SSP in Jalandhar when he got after these guys. They then transferred him to Fatehgarh Sahib. He got after them there. Then he was transferred to Patiala. Before they could transfer him, he had nabbed Bhola (wrestler-turned-cop Jagdish Bhola and alleged kingpin of the racket) and all these guys. That is the question to be asked. When the investigation began, it involved four Central agencies. You had the Enforcement Directorate, you had the Income Tax, the narcotics division and you had Revenue and Intelligence. The same agencies which would have supported the CBI. What would have happened in the CBI? You would have waited another 10 years for something to happen. Here it is in the final stages of investigation and the High Court has said we will monitor the investigation. I have been told that the other day, the High Court made an observation by asking them (the SAD-BJP government), why the delay. That is what I want to know. Why the delay? The Income Tax is under whom? (Union Finance Minister Arun) Jaitley. The ED is under whom? Jaitley. Why are they protecting these guys? They are looking at the elections. They do not care about Punjab.
Maneesh Chhibber: At one point you were a strong votary of interaction between Indian and Pakistani Punjab?
After we undertook one or two visits, we organised a cricket match in Mohali between us and them. I managed to get 5,000 visas for the cricket fans but we did not know where to put them up. We had a panchayat bhavan and other places ready, but I made a request through the papers that these people are coming (from Pakistan) and if anyone would like to invite them into their homes, please do so. Not one man stayed with the government; people took them home. That feeling exists on both sides of the border. When our boys go there and shop at Nankana Sahib, people there do not take money. That feeling is there. It is politics that keeps us apart.
Nirupama Subramanian: If you become the CM, would you restart the initiative?
I would like that to start because this killing business has to stop. I feel this as a soldier. Our borders should be left completely to ourselves and their borders should be the way they want it. I told Pervez Musharraf when I met him that Kashmir is the stumbling block. I said why don’t you look at it this way? I am a soldier, you are a soldier. You know what happened in Italy in 1943. Cassino (where German troops had dug defensive lines to protect Rome) held up the advance of both the British and American armies. After a bloody battle, all the Americans did was bypass Cassino and land at Anzio, south of Rome, and Cassino became irrelevant. I said (to Musharraf), ‘I know Kashmir is a problematic place and much more complex. Why don’t we attempt this? Start trade, tourism and business and gradually Kashmir may fade into the background’. He said, ‘You have a point but I have a more complex problem. I have to deal with a great deal of militant thought.’ Frankly, if some good could have come between us at Agra (summit of 2001) or perhaps later, it could only come when Musharraf was in power because he was both the Chief of the Army Staff and president of Pakistan and had immense power. It was sad it was sabotaged at Agra.
Varinder Bhatia: How soon can we expect the Congress list?
We have got 1,600 applications; we’ve never had so many. They (the high command) have sent us a docket which has to be filled in a particular way. That exercise is on. Once it is ready, say in a week, we will send it. Then it will go to the committee of secretaries who will screen it. Hopefully, it will come to Mrs Gandhi when she is better and Rahul when he finishes a month in UP. I think, maybe, in three or four weeks.
Jaskiran Kapoor: Do you feel religion and politics should be separated?
I think it should be. I am very upset with this Supreme Court ruling (the apex court disposed of a petition that in effect allows an amendment disenfranchising Sehajdhari or non-baptised Sikhs in SGPC elections). They have no business to let Sehajdharis stay out. The Akalis want this because they know that those who cut their hair or beard are more liberal; they are not amritdharis and will not vote for them. If tomorrow, somebody from Kerala becomes a Sikh, then he has every right as any Sikh. Once you have joined a religion, you have joined a religion. Similarly, if a young boy is born to Sikh parents and decides he doesn’t want to keep his hair and beard, you can’t say he is no longer a Sikh. What is the Supreme Court doing? This is the kind of thing they should be looking into and not endorsing what the Akalis want. I think liberalism is being pushed into a corner.
Nirupama Subramanian: You have seen what’s happening over Cauvery. If there is a Supreme Court verdict that is unfavourable to Punjab on the SYL (Satluj-Yamuna Link canal) issue and if you are in government, will you uphold that verdict?
No. Not at all. If the judgment comes and it goes against us, which it is likely from what we are hearing, we will all quit and force a fresh election. We will go back to the House and we will bring about another law to protect our interests. The fact is there is something called Riparian Principle, under which states have the right to water only from where the natural flow goes — the basins. Whether it is Canada or America or anywhere in the world, the Riparian Principle is the way. In this case, the Sutlej water is not riparian to Haryana. Of the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi waters, we have got 12 MAF (million acre-feet) of water and Haryana has got 8 MAF. But the 7 MAF of water from Yamuna at the Tajewala head works is not coming to us but goes to Haryana. So they have got 15 MAF of water and we have got 12 MAF. Why? Because the Yamuna is not riparian to Punjab. Then, how is the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej riparian to Haryana? They are not in the natural flow area. You are carrying water from the Sutlej to Haryana. Our guys haven’t defended the cases properly. Again, we are not going to win. The judgment has been written and I believe it should come out soon.
Nirupama Subramanian: Do you expect it to become the main issue in the election campaign?
Well, I will certainly make it one. I am sure all will make it a campaign issue. But Kejriwal has no legs to stand on. He says different things in different places. But yes, the Akalis will make it an issue . It is crucial for us. If you stop 10 lakh acres from getting canal water, how will people exist? Forget about farming, they won’t be able to live. Where will they drink water from?