Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal and all other ministers on Saturday walked out of a pre-Cabinet meeting to discuss an amendment in the excise policy, after a showdown between them and Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh as they opposed relief to liquor contractors amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Cabinet meeting scheduled at 2 pm was later postponed. The decision to provide relief to liquor contractors and end the deadlock between them and the government was also deferred.
Trouble started when the chief secretary informed the ministers about providing relief to the contractors by waiving the license fee for 37 days of curfew period. Sources who were present at the meeting said Technical Education Minister Charanjeet Singh Channi objected, saying there was no need for Cabinet ministers to be called in when the amendment had already been decided “at the cost of the state exchequer”.
He is learnt to have asked how a policy could be finalised without consulting the Cabinet. To this, the chief secretary is learnt to have stated that policies were prepared at the behest of the Cabinet only.
This angered Channi, who also raised the issue of the new policy being sent to ministers only 10 minutes prior to the Cabinet meeting on Friday.
Manpreet Badal is also learnt to have objected to the proposed relief, saying, “Chief secretary’s retort was not only for Channi but for the entire Cabinet.”
He went on to say that excise collection of the state could not meet the target last year and there was a deficit of Rs 700 crore. He is learnt to have asked how he as finance minister would run the state if relief is to be given. To this the chief secretary is learnt to have objected, saying that he was also a responsible official of the state. This led to Manpreet Badal getting up and walking out of the meeting. He was followed by Channi soon after.
Seeing the ministers walking out, Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Brahm Mohindra is learnt to have followed to placate them but then Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa threw the papers related to the policy. He is learnt to have accused the officials of “looting” the state and “accusing the ministers instead”. It is learnt that he accused the officials of their largesse for the contractors at the cost of state exchequer.
“The meeting ended in firecrackers in less than 10 minutes. Everybody was startled and could not intervene to help matters,” a source told The Indian Express.
The meeting took place at Punjab Bhawan. All ministers walked out. The chief secretary followed them but to no avail.
The Cabinet meeting was also to be held at Punjab Bhawan for the first time after the Covid-19 outbreak. Till now it had been happening via video conferencing.
Except a few ministers including Industries Minister Sunder Sham Arora, Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Transport Minister Razia Sultana, all other ministers were present. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was, however, not there. He was to join in through video conferencing later.
A minister said that earlier, the chief secretary had wanted to join the meeting through video conferencing, but the ministers insisted that he attend the meeting personally.
With the Cabinet meeting postponed, liquor vends will not open in most parts of the state on Monday. The contractors have been demanding that they be given relief in the license fee as they were not able to sell liquor for 37 days of curfew in the state.
Several ministers were preparing to take on the government for allowing home delivery of liquor, stating that the Congress government was losing the perception game by allowing this option. “But before we could raise it, the meeting ended,” a minister said.
Cong takes on chief secy
After the incident, Punjab Congress president Sunil Kumar Jakhar came up in support of the Cabinet, saying that the chief secretary has not just insulted the Cabinet but the entire political class.
“I compliment Manpreet Badal for his mature handling of the situation. By walking out he not only exhibited sobriety but also prevented a Delhi Cabinet-like situation where the chief secretary was manhandled. This kind of impudence and narrow-mindedness is not expected nor will it be tolerated, especially in Punjab. My views about bureaucracy in Punjab are well known. Time and again they have been taking liberty with the kind gentleman Capt Amarinder Singh is. But I personally think it is about time to rein in such elements,” Jakhar said.
Congress MLA from Gidderbaha Amrinder Singh Raja Warring demanded removal of the chief secretary. “He should be given marching orders. I have always expressed my opinion in public about him. Had I been at the helm of affairs, I would not even appoint him as a tehsildar,” he added.
Ludhiana MP comes out in chief secy’s support
Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu came out in support of the chief secretary, tweeting, “During the corona pandemic, the coordination between ministers and bureaucrats should be strong but ministers walking out from a pre-Cabinet meeting might as well resign for their incompetent behaviour as many other capable of handling work pressure are ready to replace them.”
The chief secretary was not available for comment.