In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor (Legal Affairs) Maneesh Chhibber, deputy leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Amarinder Singh explains why he thinks Modi won’t be able to fulfil his promises, why Rahul and Priyanka make a good team, and why he still prefers Sonia
Maneesh Chhibber: Everyone was under the impression that you were reluctant to contest the elections this time.
I was asked by the Congress president whether I would like to contest from Bathinda. I said no, because Bathinda used to have two sub-divisions, one of them was where our ancestral village was located, and Parkash Singh Badal very conveniently pushed that division out and brought his own in during the last delimitation process. Hence, I wasn’t interested in fighting polls from there. So she said, ‘What about Amritsar?’ I said, ‘I don’t know Amritsar’. So she said, ‘But you’ve been a chief minister’. I replied, ‘It’s a very different situation when you’re fighting an election. For 16 years I’ve been your number one man in the state and it might help more if I move around and campaign for you’. A couple of weeks later, she called and said, ‘Will you fight for me?’ I had forgotten all about Amritsar and said, ‘Of course’, because I didn’t know what fight she was referring to. And she said, ‘I want you to fight from Amritsar’. That’s how I came to Amritsar. It was a very good fight. I got a lot of love and affection from the people there.
Vandita Mishra: Do you think the strategy that Sonia Gandhi tried in Punjab — asking you and Ambika Soni to contest, pulling out her big leaders to step into the arena — would have worked in other states as well? It sent out a message of seriousness.
I can’t speak for other states. Here, it was apparent that the Aam Aadmi Party was becoming very strong and she wanted to put in her first XI. I thought Ambika would win. I went for three of her large rallies. But AAP defeated her. In Patiala, I never thought that the AAP candidate would get more than 1,50,000 votes, but he got 3,80,000 votes and Preneet (Singh’s wife) lost by 19,000 votes. AAP cut more into the Akalis’ vote than ours.
Vandita Mishra: Was the vote a response to AAP or was there another message?
It was a negative response. People were fed up with 2G, coal and other scams. They were also fed up with the Akalis due to the problem of drug abuse, high-handedness and police raids. They had no option but the third party. But now things will change. If you look at the history of Punjab, starting from the early 1900s, in every movement, Punjab led. When I went to the Andaman Cellular Jail, half of the recorded names were those of Punjabis. I think, after Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party felt this was an opportunity. But now after the national elections, the AAP has been wiped out and you will find a change.
Rakesh Sinha: Do you think your candidature surprised Arun Jaitley?
I don’t know if it surprised him because he had come to know that I had said no to the Congress president the first time. I think he was taken in by the Akalis. They told him, ‘Come, file your papers, then go away and come back when you’re elected to thank people’. He shouldn’t have listened to them and gone somewhere else. Look at Amritsar’s history. It’s a border town, a few miles away from Pakistan and people want someone who’s available to them in case there’s a trouble. I don’t think anyone ever thought that Jaitley would show his face there again.
Manoj C G: Don’t you think that Rahul Gandhi, who led the party in the elections, should have led the Congress in the House as well? It might have raised the party’s morale.
I had said that he should be the leader of Opposition. I have been a leader of Opposition as well as a CM; you are alone as the leader of Opposition. As the CM you have a whole team to give you information. Here you have to collect everything yourself. He would have learned more had he taken up this role. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. I have never asked him.
D K Singh: Why do you think he runs away from responsibility?
I don’t think he runs away from responsibility. I too started young and you have doubts at that age. Gradually you learn, and he too will learn. He probably thinks that it’s better to work from outside to develop the party.
D K Singh: A lot of your colleagues are blaming the outcome of the elections on the party’s advisers and their political inexperience.
I have faced similar scenario. When I have won, I was great, when I have lost, everyone said, ‘Throw him out’.
Vandita Mishra: The inner-party experiments Rahul has been doing — direct elections in Youth Congress, NSUI — much of that happened in Punjab as well. Why didn’t it benefit the party?
I tried my best at that stage to tell him that do not do these elections. I spoke to the Congress president, who, too, spoke to him. But he had made up his mind that something had to be put in place and shouldn’t be interfered with. I told him pre-2012 that ‘You will divide each village, which will have its own Youth Congress, and that means it will get divided right to the top; even parents take sides in such a situation, we will have problem’. He didn’t listen and that is exactly what happened.
Manoj C G: Does he listen now?
He has his own ideas. His father was the president and general secretary of the Youth Congress and he, too, had his own ideas; Sanjay Gandhi had his own ideas. Everyone has his own ideas about how things should be fixed.
Maneesh Chhibber: Do you think it’s time for the Congress to look beyond the family?
It’s not for me to say, it’s for the people of India to say. If all these years they have voted for them, that means the people want them. I can tell you that personally I would prefer Mrs Gandhi. I have worked with her for many years. She came in 1997, I came in 1998. She is a very good manager. She has modern concepts, she delegates. Once she gives you charge, she backs you, never mind what the opposition says. That’s important for a person like me. I would like to know that my president is standing behind me. Even if there’s a crisis in Punjab, like there was the issue of water and I took a decision about which she was upset, she still stood by me. I wouldn’t like somebody over my head who keeps changing her mind or gets pressured and you don’t know where you stand.
Maneesh Chhibber: Down to 44 seats, where does the Congress go now?
In 1969, the BJP had only two seats. I lost mine in 1977, Mrs Gandhi lost, Sanjay lost, except for Dr Karan Singh, we lost the entire north India. These things happen and I am sure we will bounce back.
Maneesh Chhibber: But what is the way forward now?
First, I don’t think Narendra Modi, with all the promises that he has made, will be able to keep them. I was just going through them today, it’s impossible. He is saying that there will be a toilet and a television in every home by the 75th year of Independence. How can that be? Can he create 75 towns in the next five years? These are absurd things to say. I’ll give you an example from when I was the Punjab Chief Minister. Our SC residents, who didn’t have land, couldn’t go to toilet in the mornings because they had to go through land owned by Jats. I said, there’s only one solution, let’s build toilets in the SC mohallas. I had some 26,000 villages and in five years we could only complete eight-nine toilets. How can he cover the whole of India with toilets? This will bring him down. He has made too many promises and he doesn’t have the resources or the time to do it.
Manu Pubby: Regarding foreign policy, without a strong Opposition, there’s a fear that any provocation or terror attack, by say Pakistan, would lead to full retaliation or at least an escalation of tension by this government.
Keeping Pakistan strong is in the interests of our security. I wouldn’t want the Taliban sitting in J&K, Punjab or Gujarat borders and the only way to ensure it is to see to it that Pakistan remains the way it is. Secondly, what is critically important to Punjab as a border-state and Amritsar as a border own is that stability is maintained and the Government of India does everything to foster good relations so that we can start opening all these towns for trade. I started it in 2002; I went to Pakistan and met the President and ministers there, and we got things moving really fast. In three years we had signed a trade agreement. Of course, there was a negative list and a positive list and we only had five items in the beginning as Pakistan was a bit nervous of our industry.
Manu Pubby: In 2011 you had written a long letter to then defence minister A K Antony praising General V K Singh and saying that the government should be favourable to him on the age issue. What is your opinion now?
I and VK are still friends. We had a long hug in Parliament. I wrote that letter saying that if the Chief of Army Staff, who is commanding a force that looks up to him, says he is born on 11th March, then he is born on 11th March, because this is what you expect from your Army Chief. But I didn’t know at that stage that he had twice agreed on a different age on consecutive promotions. Had I known then, I wouldn’t have supported him.
Many Pubby: What do you think of his politics now, his remarks on Kashmir, his blocking the appointment of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag?
I don’t agree with that. Politics should never be there in the Army. The Army has always chosen its senior man as its chief.
Ruhi Tiwari: What is your strategy to keep the Congress relevant and ensure that the BJP doesn’t get to pass every legislation it wants to?
Time will tell. If you expect things to turn in the next month or three, that’s not going to happen. Eventually it will be how the BJP functions as a government. It’s just a matter of time before we return.
Krishna Uppuluri: The Congress’s Sanjay Nirupam had said that had Modi contested on a Congress ticket, even he would have lost. Do you think this election witnessed an anti-Congress sentiment or a Narendra Modi wave?
Every state is different. In the last three-four years, an anti-Congress feeling was built up due to scams. These are still in the judicial process with no judicial decision out on them. However, with massive media campaigns built around them, everyone believes them. These pushed us back.
D K Singh: There is increasing push from the party to bring Priyanka Gandhi into politics. What do you think?
I was one of the first to make this statement. She and Rahul have their own abilities and together they can make a very good team to help the Congress president. I have known them since they were children because they studied with my daughter and son. Priyanka is a very determined young lady, you saw the way she carried herself when her grandmother died and when her father died. Rahul was very inquisitive as a little boy and wanted to know everything that was happening, and that was a very good sign.
Manoj C G: You spoke of the working style of Mrs Gandhi. How do you contrast it with that of Rahul?
I have never worked with Rahul because he takes care of the Youth Congress only, though he has been the vice-president for some time. I have met him a couple of times to discuss politics; he is very open, listens and takes things in, and is ready to speak to the Congress president about these things. I have always found him positive and looking for something; he is just as inquisitive now and wants to know what’s going on, and that is a good thing.
Dilip Bobb: Drug abuse was a big issue this election. How has it become so serious and what can be done about it?
There are various types of drugs — one comes from the Golden Triangle, which the BSF tries to block. Second is our home-grown drugs. I have, in five chief ministerial conferences, twice with A B Vajpayee and thrice with Manmohan Singh, said that unless you have an all-India drug policy, you cannot stop this menace. For instance, in Rajasthan you cannot grow it, but you can sell it. Because Punjab has got the money, we are a lucrative market. Seventy per cent of our children are addicts. We have a mohalla in Amritsar called Maqboolpura where 90 per cent of the women are widows, their husbands have died due to drug addiction. Those drugs are homegrown synthetic drugs. That is done by the Akalis. Now they are locking up 15,000 people. Who are they locking up — those fellows on the streets who are using it. Half of them will die because there is no hospital to treat them. The government is not touching those who make the drugs, supply them.
Vandita Mishra: You had earlier said that perhaps Rahul’s focus in Punjab was on reviving the Youth Congress and organising internal elections, and perhaps it undermined the party’s electoral chances in the state. Would you rather have had Rahul connecting to the voters’ concerns, for instance the drugs problem, and do you think the larger point is about his priorities?
Let’s give Rahul time. We have just suffered a big defeat, he’s been our vice-president. The Congress is doing an exercise on how to revive the party’s chances in each state, including Punjab. When they call us for discussion, we will talk about all these things. He is very much in the know. When he came to Chandigarh to address the university, Rahul said this.
Sandeep Singh: Have you been taken by surprise with the way Modi is operating?
I know Narendra Modi. We have met during chief ministers’ conferences. He will have to change because authoritarian regimes don’t work. For instance, he said that ‘the bureaucracy can come and meet me everyday’. What do you do with your ministers then? Sack them if you don’t need them. I don’t think I would like my chief secretary or secretary to bypass me and meet Modi.
D K Singh: Dr Manmohan Singh was the prime minister for 10 years; why didn’t the Congress think of using him in the state in the polls?
Dr Manmohan Singh is not a politician; he was a professor, an economist. Of course, he came to Amritsar; I took him many times to speak there. He was more interested in doing what he was doing — running the country. Perhaps he didn’t have that political instinct that we had. Earlier, he had campaigned for the party, but this time he had undergone three or four bypass surgeries. Campaigning is not an easy job, particularly in summer. So I didn’t call him.
Rakesh Sinha: What do you make of Modi’s move to invite Nawaz Sharif to his swearing in ceremony?
Why not? I think it’s essential that Pakistan should be brought around for trade and other things. This means you have to have a cordial, one-to-one conversation with them. And why not China? It is becoming one of the biggest economic powers of the world.
Maneesh Chhibber: Can we retaliate in today’s circumstances?
Military action is a thing of the past. Today wars are going to be economic in nature. That is exactly the problem. If there is another Kasab-like incident, then what? How will Modi react — will it be military, will it not be military? It is not going to be an easy decision for a prime minister to take.
Rakesh Sinha: Why do you think Punjab is falling off the map, its growth is below the national average.
Sardar Partap Singh Kairon was perhaps the best CM we ever had. During his time Punjab stretched from the Yamuna to Lahore border. He created industrial corridors in Faridabad, Gurgaon and all that was Punjab then. He felt that if we have a war with Pakistan, we shouldn’t have to shut industries close to the border. Once Haryana came up, there was no industry. What did we fall back on? Agriculture. Agriculture growth is one per cent, so where does Punjab get its money from? Today Punjab has no revenue. This is the first time in the history of Punjab, or the whole of India, where a three-year-old government has not presented a budget. We are having a vote on account. We don’t have money. They can’t have a budget, because that budget has to come to the Planning Commission. What will they send to the Planning Commission, as there is no revenue.
Maneesh Chhibber: Every election, Operation Blue Star and 1984 riots come back to haunt the Congress. Do you think something needs to be done by the Congress leadership to close these chapters?
When do these issues open? Only during polls. What we are saying is, put it aside and look at Punjab’s future. Unfortunately we have people like Simranjit Singh Mann. He is my brother-in-law; I locked him up twice. This man doesn’t understand the damage he is doing. We don’t have industries in Punjab. Our textile industry from Amristsar and Ludhiana has gone to Surat. Bicycle industry has moved to Jharkhand. We have no jobs; there is no power in the state.
D K Singh: Mrs Gandhi has been there for the last 16 years within the party. Do you think it is time for her to pass on the baton?
I don’t think so. Everyone takes time to learn, you can’t jump from a lieutenant to become a general overnight.
D K Singh: So Rahul is still a second lieutenant?
I don’t think he is a second lieutenant, but Mrs Gandhi certainly has to keep the leadership in her hands till her health permits it.
anant goenka: Having lost to you, are you surprised Arun Jaitley still got two ministries?
No. I was surprised when he came to fight me because he is already a Rajya Sabha member. He could have become a minister anyway. So many ministers in our time were also from the Rajya Sabha.
Transcribed by Shantanu David & Vandana Kalra