Two days after a confrontation between Punjab Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh and several ministers, the official was forced to stay away from a Cabinet meeting called to decide on an amendment to the excise policy aimed at giving relief to liquor contractors.
Karan Avtar Singh proceeded on half-day leave, authorising the next seniormost IAS officer in the state, Home Secretary Satish Chandra, to chair the meeting. As per rules, the chief secretary is the cabinet secretary; Karan Avtar Singh is also Financial Commissioner (Taxation) and the administrative secretary of the Punjab Excise Department.
The ministers, while authorising Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh to decide on the relief to be given to contractors, unanimously refused to attend any Cabinet meeting in the future if it was conducted by Karan Avtar Singh.
The issue was raised by Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, who told the CM that he would not join any meeting of which Karan Avtar Singh was part. Badal was supported by Technical Education Minister Charanjeet Singh Channi and Transport Minister Razia Sultana.
The chief minister is then learnt to have asked the other ministers if they agreed, and received a unanimous answer in favour. Amarinder then asked for the development to be recorded in the proceedings of the Cabinet meeting.
In the evening, a government statement said the ministers had left the decision on the excise policy amendment to the CM. The chief secretary was not available for a comment.
After the Cabinet meeting, Badal told reporters, “We left it to the CM. He is the excise and taxation minister of the state, and he would see if this is a profitable or loss-making amendment.”
Badal added: “On the unofficial agenda of Karan Avtar Singh’s behaviour with us the other day, the way he had spoken to us and exhibited a body language that does not behove of his office, I made it clear that if the continues to come for the meetings, I would not be a part of those. Channi supported my decision and then the CM asked the ministers to record it officially. We all have done it that we will not attend any meeting of which the CS is part.”
This, Badal said, was not about his ego. “Just seven weeks ago, I lost my mother. My father is very sick and is in the hospital. A person who has seen death so closely has no ego left. My decision is in the interest of the state. I am loyal to the interests of Punjab,” he said.
Before the meeting, the ministers had got together to decide their course of action. Cabinet Minister Tripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa is learnt to have counselled restraint, telling his colleagues that they should not do anything that could spoil the image of the government. Badal, however, is learnt to have stood firm, and declared that he did not mind even going alone on the matter.
The ministers had then decided that commenting on the policy would amount to insulting the chief minister, and that they would authorise him to take a call on the issue.
The question of home delivery of liquor too was raised at the meeting, a government release said. A few ministers opposed the proposal saying it would bring a bad name to the government, but the final decision was again left to the CM.
While all ministers were present at Punjab Bhawan, Amarinder joined from his residence by a video link.
The ministers had been upset with the chief secretary since Friday, when they were sent the amendment in the excise policy minutes before a meeting of the Cabinet. The ministers protested there was too little time to study the lengthy document, following which the CM rescheduled the meeting for Saturday. The ministers decided to meet to discuss the policy threadbare.
Before the meeting, as the chief secretary was briefing the ministers, Channi objected to the relief being given to the contractors at the cost of the exchequer. An argument between the official and the minister followed, and Badal joined in.
After a while, Badal walked out of the meeting, and Channi and the others followed. The chief secretary’s request to the ministers to stay on did not help. Subsequently, the CM too, spoke to a few ministers, but they were learnt to have told him that they would not participate in any meeting that also had the chief secretary.
Liquor vends in the state, meanwhile, continued to be shut. The vends have been asking the government to reduce the licence fee to mitigate their losses, and seeking recompense for the 37 days of curfew in the state due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The new policy has proposed relief to the liquor contractors.