Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal and Union Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal were at the Express Adda in Delhi last week, where they spoke about gearing for the Assembly polls, Punjab’s drug crisis and working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This edition of the Express Adda held at Indigo, One Golden Mile, Delhi, saw two guests, a couple who straddle the world of power politics at the Centre and the state. In a discussion moderated by The Indian Express National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra and National Bureau Chief Maneesh Chhibber, Sukhbir Singh Badal, Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Union Minister for Food Processing, spoke on a range of subjects. The ministers took questions from a select audience, as they spoke about the drug crisis in Punjab, the terror attack in Pathankot, their party’s — Shiromani Akali Dal — poll-preparedness ahead of next year assembly elections, the ban on Maggi and the the role of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and their partnership with the BJP.
On gearing for the Assembly polls
Harsimrat Kaur: There’s a by-election (Khadoor Sahib), which is just days away but I would say Punjab is always geared up for an election. That’s something I have come to learn. If it’s not a by-election, it’s an SGPC election or a panchayat election or a committee election, there’s always some election happening. If there’s one thing we Akalis are good at, it is being ready for an election at any given time. There is nothing happening this time but there is this media hype, maybe because there is a new player on the block. We’ve always been confident about our agenda; we took it up nine years ago. So whether an election comes next month or it comes six months later or a year later, our agenda and focus have always remained the same and we are ready to go to the people with it.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: There’s about a year left for the elections. You will see that some of our opponents in the Congress won’t be able to sustain for that long. Because in summer you know, they won’t be able to withstand the heat. Frankly speaking, nobody can beat my father’s hard work. Even at this age he starts at 5 am and goes on till 11-12 pm.
On AAP and on Prashant Kishor advising Amarinder Singh
Sukhbir: If they (Congress) are ready for elections, why are they running away from the by-election? The AAP is just media hype. Look at what all they promised and what they delivered. As for Prashant Kishor, after the Bihar win, everyone is giving him credit. But if his calculations don’t work, then everyone will say that Prashant Kishor is a failure. Elections are about being grounded. If they were just management, then Tatas and Reliance would be winning elections.
On governance reforms
Sukhbir: When we came four years ago, we formed a new department of government reforms. We are the only state to have done that. The job of the department was to look at all the laws of the state and change everything. Today, instead of 10 steps, you can do it all in one step. In another three-four months, our complete state administration will be computerised. We are creating these Sewa Kendras; we’ve outsourced them. Companies have already bid and some of them have been allotted. If you are tech savvy, you don’t have to go anywhere for a government service. Today, in a village, if you want to get some work done, you have to go to the nearest DC office, or to the nearest SDM office. So I said, why do you need to deal with government officials. Instead of those 50 villages or 70 villages going to one office, four villages can create an independent private sector office. For example, now TCS is dealing with passports. A big multi-national company will take over the operations. All 200 services for which a citizen needs to go to the government will be available in that office. The minute you give your application, details will come on your phone and your work will be done in 24 hours. Besides the Sewa Kendra, there will be an app. The PM sent a team to Punjab to understand the whole system. Once it’s implemented, I think it’ll be followed in other states too.
On Punjab’s drug crisis
Sukhbir: Goa is the easiest place in India to get drugs, but there are hardly any arrests. Punjab is acting tough, but gets branded as the drug capital. We all know that drugs coming from Pakistan and Afghanistan are meant for the rest of the country and enter India through Punjab. Punjab is just a highway for the drug route and not the market.
You can malign me, because it is politics but what’s happening is that you are maligning Punjab and every Punjabi. People think, accha he is a Punjabi, maybe he is doing drugs. This is the perception being created.
On the Maggi ban
Harsimrat: Ever since I took over this ministry, I was interacting regularly with the industry. The first things they told me were the hassles they were facing from the FSSAI. First of all, I think it was a very unfortunate incident that damaged our ‘Make in India’ brand. But out of every bad comes something good, which is why I took the lead in saying that despite what has happened, it has brought into focus the shortcomings which were not being addressed, and the (need for) transparent protocols. The industry needed to know how their product was being tested. They also needed to know that putting products in the market which could damage the health of the people was not acceptable to the government. Industry can develop and not be harassed and at the same time, safe and healthy food can be provided. These two things need to go hand-in-hand. This is what the FSSAI is mandated to do and this is what was not being done. Because of the Maggi episode, the focus came where it needed to.
On the alliance with the BJP
Sukhbir: The relationship between the Akali Dal and the BJP is good for the nation. We are a border state. Ours is the only state where whatever may happen in the country, you’ll never hear of a riot, religious conflict or caste conflict. The BJP may have many allies, but the only ally who has never ever questioned or put a condition on it has been the Akali Dal.
Harsimrat: This alliance is for the benefit of both Punjab and the nation. As for the PM, I would say that the media plays a very important role in creating perceptions about people. He’s a very dynamic leader. He’s a leader in the true sense. We had a government before this where the leader was somewhere and the power was somewhere else. The PM works hard and ensures we work hard too. He demands results. He’s very focussed. What I admire the most about him is that he is starting from the ground, from scratch.
After (years of) policy paralysis, there was this sense of doom. Look at the short time in which the world’s attitude towards us has changed. Globally, big leaders are looking at India in a different way.
On rivalry with Amarinder Singh
Sukhbir: When he (Amarinder) became Chief Minister, somebody told him that if you want to rule the state permanently — you know he’s a maharaja but he hasn’t ruled even a single day — finish off the Badal family. Once they’re finished, you won’t have any political opposition. So he said if I finish off Mr Badal, then Sukhbir will come; if Sukhbir is finished off, his mother will come. So he came and put cases against my mother also and they put all of us behind bars; but we all were acquitted. But he’s got caught in his own web. Once we came in, we just stayed away from him. If you listen to my speeches, I never take his name. I have my own agenda but if you listen to his agenda, it’s only ‘Badal, Badal, Badal’. He said the Badals have Rs 35,000 crores worth of property, that we have nightclubs abroad. My father asked me what a nightclub was. I asked him why he wanted to know and he said, ‘apparently we own a few’!
On balancing business with politics
Sukhbir: A person who is a successful businessman will be a successful administrator. Do you need a politician who is broke, who has nothing, or a person who doesn’t need anything? I’ll give you a small example. When I first became Deputy CM, the liaison officer of a big corporate house came to meet me and told me if I ever wanted to go to a five-star hotel, he could arrange it. I said if you ever want to go to one, just come to my hotel. So, do you want people who look for these things or people who can afford everything?
On being accidental politicians
Harsimrat: Well, I call myself a politician by destiny and default. Sukhbir and I got married with the understanding that he would never enter politics. He had just done his MBA and come back and wanted to set up a business. My family had been in politics but my father put a stop to it because he saw what it did to my grandfather and my great-grandfather’s life. My grandfather was Defence Minister with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the first Parliament and before that my great-grandfather was Revenue Minister, when Punjab extended from Lahore to Delhi. I grew up hating politicians and politics. When we were married, the deal was that he would never enter politics, which he promised and five years down, he was fighting his first election. I was most upset about it. Little did I know that 20 years down, not only him, but me, my brother and a whole lot of us would be in politics. Nobody asked me before declaring my name for the Bathinda seat. I was in a gurdwara, washing utensils, when my gunman came running to me and said, ‘Bibaji, your name has been announced for MP election.
Sukhbir: If it wasn’t for the state government, it would have been a massive attack. When our SP was caught, kidnapped and released, within three hours, we were able to locate the first person killed. Initially, nobody knew it was a Pakistani terrorist. Ultimately, we are fighting a continuous war and we have to be vigilant. The borders need to be secured. I have always been saying that the strength of the BSF in Punjab sector is less compared to Jammu & Kashmir. Because of which, there is the entry of drugs, terrorists and people into the state.
On the intolerance debate
Harsimrat: I will just say that it is the intolerant Opposition that’s not able to tolerate the fact that they’ve been kicked out by the people. They are creating this entire perception. It has been totally orchestrated by them. The session (Budget session of the Parliament), which starts on February 23, will prove me right, where yet again they will behave in an intolerant fashion, where they will not let the Parliament function and stall the progress and development of the country.
Sukhbir: At some function, somebody was talking to me about the BJP being intolerant. I think the biggest example of tolerance of the BJP is in J&K, where it has lined up with PDP.