Under fire for alleged misuse of power to benefit his family’s Orbit transport company, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal on Thursday defended his business interests as his livelihood. He asked if a politician should “be begging or dependent upon doles… to feed his family”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Badal denied any conflict of interest between his dual role as Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister and owner of Orbit, which has been in the eye of a storm following the alleged molestation and death of a teenaged girl passenger in one of its buses.
“Is there a law which says that a politician cannot have business interests?” he asked. “If you look at my business, the transport business was started in 1943 when India was not even independent… before I came into politics. I can show you the registration of the company. (What you are saying) means a politician cannot do anything, he has to be begging or dependent upon doles. That he cannot earn any money. Money in the sense that he has to feed his family, house. You prefer politicians who are frank, everything on board, pay their taxes, everything or politicians who hide everything?”
Badal also denied that the Punjab government had bent any rules to favour Orbit. He said Punjab Roadways and PRTC were running losses due to the overheads of government salaries and pension payouts — expenses which a private operator does not have.
Despite murmurs in his Shiromani Akali Dal that the BJP was not giving it due importance, Badal was upbeat about the alliance. “Ours is one alliance where we have no conditions. We are not demanding at all. When you are in an alliance, you need a big heart,” he said.
Badal claimed that Punjab has benefited from the NDA government at the Centre. “Look at the steps that have been taken by Delhi to help Punjab. There is a road network worth Rs 20,000 crore connecting the state with other states. Within four months of NDA regime we got airport clearances and an Indian Institute of Management (to be set up). Sometimes you get more in kind than in numbers,” he said.
Our alliance with BJP is without conditions… we are not demanding, says Sukhbir Singh Badal
Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister of Punjab, is in the eye of a political storm over the molestation and death of a teenaged girl in a bus of the Orbit Transport Company, which he owns. The incident has caused public outrage and anger. In an interview, Badal defended his business interests and denied a conflcit of interest with his role as deputy Chie Minister. Excerpts of the interview:
Has the Moga incident been a turning point for the anti-Badal sentiment in Punjab to come together? From sand mining to delayed procurement of wheat and the drug menace, and now Moga, nothing is going right, there has been so much criticism against your government.
On sand mining, the Punjab government is not at fault at all. It is the Government of India at that time which caused all this. Because of the Supreme Court ban it came down from 200 to 20 mines. The Centre did not give the clearances. When the new government came in we met the ministers. Now suddenly all 200 mines are operational, we got all the clearances. And if you go now to any part of the state you will see nobody discussing sand any more.
On drugs, I ask you: in India which is the hub of drugs? Goa. The name comes first. Because of tourists, Russians, all of them, everywhere, beaches. You look at last five-year record of Goa. Either 30 people caught or some grams caught. Nobody catches them. In the last four-five years, we have caught 20,000 people and a huge amount of drugs. Why? All the drugs come from Pakistan, Afghanistan. When somebody wants to go to Delhi you have to go through Ambala. This is the international route.
But there is obviously someone big on this side who is facilitating this traffic. None of the big fish have been caught. Why?
These are international gangs. Across the border. All the gangs are sitting either in UP or Delhi. These are Nigerian and other African cartels. Here, in Punjab, they are just couriers. Since we are where the road starts we are the first barriers. So we try to catch the maximum. If we had not caught those drugs the same amount would have been in every part of the country. It is the efficiency of the Punjab Police. We have caught people from Chennai, UP cartel heads, from Haryana. We caught someone from Sirsa. We have an anti-narcotics department. So rather than appreciating us, badnaami saadi ho gayi (we are getting a bad name).
But there was the big synthetic drugs case in which your brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia was also named.
Just tell me. Who caught the drug cartel? We caught him. It is not that somebody else caught him. After six months or eight months, 18 months someone takes a name. There is no evidence. I do not want to get into this at the moment because matter is sub judice.
Is there a wave of anti-Badal sentiment in the state?
Did you watch who were making noise in Moga, Congress, AAP, Communists. They do not represent the sentiments of the people. They want to take political mileage of a very bad and sad incident. It is not public sentiment. It is these people. Today if I want I can take 50,000 people at one place shouting against Rahul Gandhi or shouting against someone else. They play their games. If sentiments were there, then how come we won Dhuri and corporation election.
But a question is being increasingly asked: is Sukhbir Singh Badal a Deputy CM first or a businessman first ?
Is there a law which says that a politician cannot have business interests? If you look at my business, transport business was started in 1943. Before I came into politics. Do you mean a politician cannot do anything, he has to be begging or dependent upon doles? That they cannot earn any money? Money in the sense that he has to feed his family, house. Do you prefer politicians who are frank, everything on board, pay their taxes, everything or politicians who hide everything? Do you know what Rahul Gandhi’s statement is. Not even Rs 2 crore. Even a common man today has more than Rs 2 crore. Sonia Gandhi’s complete asset statement is Rs 9 crore. Who are they fooling?
The question really is about the conflict of interest here. You are the Deputy CM and your transport companies seem to have prospered at the same time as Punjab Roadways and PRTC fortunes have dipped.
The cause of loss of Punjab roadways is not the policy made by me or anybody else. Certain costs that a public transport has to bear which a private transport does not have to bear. Salary of a government bus driver is Rs 40-50,000 per month while a private bus driver gets Rs15-20,000 per month. If you look at the balancesheet of PRTC and roadways, they pay nearly Rs 100-150 crore on pension benefits, which they have to give every year. Forget Punjab. If you look at any transport of the entire country if you name one which is making money. Today you look at Air India, and look at Jet Airways. Air India is making a loss of Rs 60,000 crore. Is it because of Jet Airways?
Moving to your alliance with the BJP, don’t you think they have been somewhat standoffish, they haven’t exactly come to your rescue in any of your crises, whether Moga or delay in procurement, or your demand for special package.
Our alliance is there, and it will continue. And it is good for the state of Punjab. It is extremely important for Punjab. Punjab has gone through a bad phase but you would not hear of a riot or communal tension. SAD-BJP relationship sends out a strong message. It is very important that this alliance continues. Ours is one alliance where we have no conditions. We are not demanding at all. In an alliance, there shouldn’t be any give and take. When you are in an alliance, you need a big heart. But look at the steps that have been taken by Delhi to help Punjab. There is a road network worth Rs 20,000 crore connecting the state with other states. Within four months of NDA regime, we got airport clearances and IIM. Sometimes you get more in kind than in numbers.
At the FICCI meet last week, you invited big industrial houses. But there has been no big investment here, in fact, industry seems to be leaving Punjab.
Name one company that has gone back. ITC Food Park, VSL Cycle, Nerolac Paints, IT companies like Infosys and several hospital chains are in the process of setting up base here. We have the advantage of being landlocked, we have advantage of power, consumer base and connectivity. You go to any state and compare it with Punjab. The other states have their flagship cities, outside the flagship cities, there are ruins. In Punjab, every city is a flagship.
You claim Punjab is a power surplus state. But why the power cuts?
There are eight-hour power cuts across the state, on farms, in fields and in industry. We have set aside Rs 1,500 crore for upgradation of transmission system. If you go to a village you will see a network of wires being laid. Due to the upgradation, whenever power is cut to lay power cables, people say it is power cut. Since just four-month job is left, we will not do anything to lay the cables in the hot season. We would restart upgradation system from September onwards.
Congress took up the Moga issue strongly, and they are taking up other issues also.
How was it taken up strongly? They just went there for a minute for a photo-op. Then they say Rahul Gandhi is very active. He came in the third class on the train and went back by a chartered plane. They are cut off from reality. My father is 87. He is in Dhuri today holding sangat darshans. That is the level of commitment. That is the difference. Akalis are connected with the people. Name two things to recall that Captain (Amarinder Singh’s) government did in the past five years. I can recount 100 things (that we have done). I asked this in the Assembly about what five things they did. The could not name even one.
Who do you fear the most? AAP? Congress or BJP?
BJP is a part of us. Why should I fear them? Kejriwal used to say he would share power. But what is he doing? Why is he throwing out his people who were threatening him? AAP was a fad, they came and went. They fought Patiala and Talwandi Sabo byelection and lost badly. They did not have the guts to fight Dhuri. Look at the double standards Kejriwal has had. He has made 22 parliamentary secretaries. He has given all the MLAs a government job.
About Congress, I do not know which Congress are you talking about. Who represents Congress in Punjab? They just fight amongst themselves. Look at the Congress nationally. They were disconnected with the public. That is why they lost so badly. I only fear the media. (laughs)
Are you happy with the Centre’s land acquisition bill?
The best land acquisition bill is that adopted by Punjab. We have suggested this to the government. The farmers are so happy with the bill in Punjab that they come to us and say and offer their land. We have given our views to the government. Let us see.
When are you going to be anointed as the CM?
As long as my father is healthy and fit he will continue to be the CM. He is from Harvard university. Working with him is like an education. Every Punjabi learns from him.