As a high-voltage campaign for 117 assembly seats in Punjab reaches a crescendo, the poll landscape has thrown up two distinct features never seen before since 1966 when the state’s political map was last redrawn: multipolar contests and three chief ministerial choices. With the contests turning tight, the CM faces — Charanjit Singh Channi (Congress), Bhagwant Mann (Aam Aadmi Party) and Sukhbir Singh Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal) — have emerged as the crucial swingers in poll sweepstakes. Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Associate Editor Navneet Sharma caught up with the trio in the midst of their intense electioneering in different parts of Punjab, with ten identical questions to elicit their views and vision on top-of-the-mind issues that hold the key to their electoral fate and Punjab’s future. Edited excerpts:
Why should people vote for your party?
Bhagwant Mann: Two parties have been taking turns to rule the state. People had no option, but they have now got the third alternative. They want a change this time. In 2017, people trusted Capt Amarinder Singh but he miserably failed on his promises such as Ghar Ghar Naukri, loan waiver, five-marla plots, ₹2,500 old-age pension and ₹51,000 shagan. Then came Charanjit Singh Channi, and in his 111 days as CM, they did nothing except fight with each other. Congress ne sarkar mohalla di cricket team wangu chalai hai, jisda koi captain nahin haunda (The Congress has run the government like a street cricket team, which doesn’t have a captain) Channi has the ball, but he does not give it to anyone else. Navjot Singh Sidhu is holding the bat alone. Sunil Jakhar went home with the wickets. Partap Singh Bajwa is sitting in the pavilion and will come to the pitch only if he is given the chance to bat. They will keep fighting and go back home. AAP’s works in Delhi are visible to everyone. We will do the same here.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: One, we are the only Punjabi party; the rest are national. The second is our track record as harbingers of big-ticket development from highways and airports to making Punjab power surplus. Today, every 100km, there is an airport. For us, passion is Punjab, building our own state. National parties don’t build a state. Sukhbir has to show results to become a chief minister. Other parties’ CMs will be picked by their high commands and they will just look after their own constituency, not the state. What we have done for Punjab, nobody else has. If you ask Charanjit Singh Channi what the Congress has done in the last five years, he can’t name one big initiative. That is the difference
Charanjit Singh Channi: I wouldn’t talk about the first four-and-a-half-year tenure (under Capt Amarinder Singh). But in the 111 days that I got as CM, we were successful to a large extent in matching people’s expectations and mitigating their pain. Our decisions went down well with all sections. The Congress is seeking a mandate for another five years so that we can take Punjab forward.
Who is your main challenger in this election?
Bhagwant Mann: People do not trust the Shiromani Akali Dal because of the sacrilege incidents and the U-turn on the farm laws. The BJP used to get one or two seats earlier and is now nowhere due to the farm laws. The Congress is struggling with infighting. We will give a stable government. It is a border state. We will maintain peace and not allow social bonding to break. Our fight is against unemployment, poverty, inflation and mafia raj.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: We are the finalists in 105 out of 117 seats. In Majha and Doaba, we are in direct contest against the Congress, while in Malwa, it is the Akalis versus the Aam Aadmi Party
Charanjit Singh Channi: I don’t consider other parties a challenge. I’m fighting the election at my own rhythm. Our party is in a strong position. Unfortunately, standards of political discourse are falling by the day. Arvind Kejriwal and Raghav Chadha, who come from Delhi, are telling lies daily. First, they claimed to have exposed illegal mining in my constituency of Chamkaur Sahib. The governor sought an inquiry that has given me a clean chit. Now, I have filed an election affidavit showing assets of ₹1.16 crore. The Aam Aadmi Party is saying that I have assets worth ₹169 crore. I have told Bhagwant Mann to swap his property with mine. Another bigger lie they are spreading is that the ₹10 crore allegedly recovered from my nephew by the Enforcement Directorate belongs to me. This is a height of lies. Had there been even a shred of my link, the ED would have hung me. Actually, all this is being done to falsely implicate me. But I’m safe because of the Almighty. ‘Jisko raakhe saayian use maar sake na koye’. Kejriwal is in the habit of first making false allegations and then apologising in writing. Tomorrow, he will apologise to me as well, but it is an attempt to smear my campaign. He is pursuing the politics of conspiracies and has no right to be chief minister.
What are the key challenges facing Punjab?
Bhagwant Mann: Unemployment is the biggest issue. We are facing brain drain because youngsters are not getting jobs here. Agriculture and industry are the second issue. Both are stagnant and creating no employment opportunities. Today, someone with PhD applies for the post of peon. The drugs issue is also related to unemployment. Those who have ancestral land, sell it and go abroad, whereas others stay back and get into drugs. We will have to keep them busy. Teeke kho ke tiffin deyange unhade haathan wich (We will take away drug syringes and give them the tiffin in their hands).”
Sukhbir Singh Badal: One is restoring Punjab’s damaged image. Other parties have brought down the state’s reputation, calling it a land of drug addicts. The drug problem in Punjab is a thousand times less than what it is in Goa or Maharashtra. Nobody talks about it. That is impacting our state’s credibility and people’s perception of the Sikh community. We have to change that. Second, Punjab is not financially as weak as it is made out to be. We need to manage our finances better. When in power, we generated income and invested it. The Congress government did neither. Today, you need ideas, not money. You have the ideas; money shall follow you. You have to think big. Three, we have to raise the level of our education. My thrust will be on quality. Instead of two or three-room schools in every village, we would rather have a high-quality school for every cluster of villages. I am going to spend ₹12,000 crore for five years. The other focus area will be the health system
Charanjit Singh Channi: One is people like Kejriwal, an outsider trying to wrest power in Punjab. He belongs to Haryana and is the Delhi CM. Punjab’s interests clash with both the states. He gave an affidavit to the Supreme Court for the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal to carry Punjab’s river waters to Haryana and Delhi. This is against our interests. We have long-pending inter-state disputes of Chandigarh and transfer of Punjabi-speaking areas in Haryana. If AAP gets power in Punjab, Punjab’s interests will be compromised. The second issue is drugs. We registered a case against Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia and are committed to ending the drug mafia. I have taken the initiative to end all kinds of mafias. Improving the quality of education and health care in the government sector are other issues that I am committed to addressing. We will provide free education in government schools and colleges. Unemployment is a big issue with the youth in this election. If I become CM again, my first order will be the creation of one lakh jobs.
What will be your solution to Punjab’s agrarian crisis?
Bhagwant Mann: We will have to diversify and set up processing plants. If a farmer is told to shift from paddy to maize, he is reluctant because his earnings drop. So, he can be paid the difference or should be given the minimum support price (MSP). If this happens, no one will grow paddy. We can grow bajra (pearl millet), maize, mustard, sunflower or groundnut instead. We will procure crops, give MSP and improve marketing. We will revive cooperative societies and bring Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) back to life. If PAU can’t even pay salaries, how will it develop new varieties? We will employ agriculture graduates as farm teachers and create 40,000 jobs.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: You have to get the processing industry here. We are not processing 1% of what we produce. Even if we take it up to 15% in five years, it will be a big achievement and a much-needed boost for the farm economy and farmers’ income.
Charanjit Singh Channi: Our agriculture has reached a peak. Productivity is stagnant and farmers’ income is declining. We will reorient agriculture towards diversification and organic farming. Our focus will be to boost agro-processing to help farmers raise their income and generate jobs in rural areas.
What is your roadmap for the revival of industry?
Bhagwant Mann: The industry went out of Punjab because they (the rulers) want money, partnerships and share in profit. Mandi Gobindgarh, Batala, Dhariwal and Rajpura have been destroyed. We will change the culture and revive industry by providing subsidy and simplify procedures.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: Industry runs on its own. You have to remove the shackles around it and let people grow. We will have to end the practice of inspectors going to industries and extorting money in the name of certification. Today, if you buy a world-class Mercedes Benz car, its roadworthiness has to be certified by the motor vehicle inspector (MVI), who has never sat in that car. Why do you need an MVI? I shall do away with all that and introduce self-certification. Put the onus on the industrialist. If he is found at fault, penalise him.
Charanjit Singh Channi: Punjab has ceased to be industry-friendly. The ruling politicians started harassing private industries for a share. That’s why homegrown industrial houses left the state, and not many investors came here. Inspector raj remains an impediment. The government at the Centre didn’t pay much attention to Punjab’s industrialization. Instead, it gave tax benefits to neighbouring Haryana and J&K, making our industries unviable. The claim of a single-window system for clearance is a sham because there are 50 windows behind it. We will change all that and put in place industry-friendly policies.
What is your fix for Punjab’s sputtering economy and poor fiscal health with debt burden of ₹3 lakh crore?
Bhagwant Mann: All sources of income of Punjab are owned by politicians. Be it sand, excise and transport, all are with politicians, so where will the money come from? Where was this ₹3 lakh crore spent? In 20 years, they have not constructed any school, college or toll-free road. Only their palaces have got bigger and they have set up seven-star hotels. We will make them accountable. Once the funds from these sources of income start flowing into the state exchequer, the treasury will be full and we will return the loans and give facilities to people just like we have done in Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal is a former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer and knows how to generate funds and spend them.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: Do you know what is the debt of the Ambanis? Without debt, no state or company grows. All my hotels are under debt. The debt is linked to State Gross Domestic Product (SGDP). Today, it is 42% of state SGDP. The Government of India’s debt is 68% of the national GDP. You have to borrow money to stimulate the economy. The media has played a negative role by portraying Punjab as a debt-trapped state. According to Reserve Bank of India figures, Punjab is number 13 in the growth of debt, while Haryana is number one. I don’t believe that Punjab’s economy is on a downslide. We are an agricultural economy. Punjab did miss the bus on industrialisation and IT due to the terrorism of the 1980s, but it is catching up.
Charanjit Singh Channi: Making Punjab economically sound is a challenge. The state has been on a downhill journey for three decades. Even after 70 years, the poor don’t have access to quality education and healthcare. Many people still live in kutcha houses. I was born in such a house. If I get the opportunity to be CM again, we will convert all houses into pucca dwellings within six months. We have a roadmap to make Punjab revenue surplus by cutting expenditure and generating resources. As a student of economics, I know the demand-supply logic. We have resources that need to be tapped. Once politicians and bureaucrats shun vested interests in stealing the state’s resources, Punjab will bounce back financially.
What is your take on the race among parties to announce freebies?
Bhagwant Mann: You can call them freebies only if we are borrowing money to fund it. People want their tax money to be returned to them in some form such as infrastructure, power or good schools. This is the job of the government – collect tax and use it in a manner that it flows back to the people. Our promise on the ₹1,000 monthly transfer to women will cost ₹8,200 crore annually. By eliminating illegal sand mining alone, ₹20,000 can be raised. We have done our calculations. We are not like (Shiromani Akali Dal chief) Sukhbir Singh Badal and do not run a samundri jahaaz (a reference to the amphibious bus launched by him at Harike lake).
Sukhbir Singh Badal: The state has to divide its resources between welfare of the poor and infra spend. In welfare, you have to see what is required. For instance, what I have promised in the freebies is ₹10 lakh education loan for students going abroad for studies. The more our youth go to foreign shores, the more we control their economies and cultivate political influence. Today, the Prime Minister of Canada visiting India cannot skip a trip to Amritsar and ‘teko matha (pay obeisance)’. We should build on our strength. I am going to save on power freebies. Today, ₹14,000 crore is the state’s annual free power subsidy bill footed by the Punjab government. Instead, I would set up solar plants with 90% private funding in a year. That will cost us ₹30,000 crore, which is equal to a two-year subsidy. That way, our annual subsidy flow will come down to ₹2,000 crore. This is doable. I am for innovative solutions to manage freebies, not Arvind Kejriwal’s way of announcing ₹1,000 monthly dole to all women above 18 years in Punjab. He has not given a single rupee to women in Delhi. We are for targeted sops that help the deserving and also stimulate the economy. You have to run the state as if it is your house or business.
Charanjit Singh Channi: I’m not in favour of this race, though our party also had to make such promises. Welfare of the underprivileged is a core responsibility of any government.
If I am chief minister, it is because of the Scheduled Caste scholarship that I got as a student. Free atta-dal can only fill the stomach. To lift the poor from both SCs and general categories, we will provide free quality education in government schools and colleges.
Why do you deserve to be chief minister?
Bhagwant Mann: I have no greed for power. I left my career. I was not a flop artiste who joined politics to make his career. I am here for Punjab. Flanked by Mohammad Sadique and Navjot Singh Sidhu, Channi says, “Stage chalauna te state chalauna different galan hain (Running a stage and a state are different matters).” I want to ask him, has Sadique been the governor of Meghalaya? Both Channi and Sukhbir call the AAP a party of outsiders, saying we will barter the interests of Punjab. I was born in Satoj village and studied in Sunam. Sukhbir studied in Sanawar (Himachal Pradesh) and then went to America. Who is an outsider? Punjab kolen paani hai hi nahin, aankhan toh mukk gaya sadda taan (We don’t have water and can’t give it to anyone).
Sukhbir Singh Badal: Credibility is my biggest asset. You need a stable person to helm a state as sensitive and aspirational as Punjab. The one who thinks big and out-of-the-box and acts like the CEO of the state ushers in change.
Charanjit Singh Channi: The fact that I implemented 150 decisions at the fag-end of our government’s tenure when the bureaucracy gets wary shows my administrative skills. Coming from a poor family, I have risen from the grassroots as municipal councillor and then as MC president, three-time MLA and leader of opposition. If I get another term, I will only do better as the aam aadmi’s representative in the CM chair.
What is your take on your rival CM faces?
Bhagwant Mann: Sukhbir is discredited and is in politics to promote his business interests. Channi proved to be disaster in his 111 days at the helm. Punjab needs an honest person at the top to steer the state out of the mess that traditional parties have left it in.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: Bhagwant Mann is a drunkard to the core. Just because you are a stand-up comedian doesn’t mean you can be an administrator, too. Charanjit Singh Channi has no experience and is tainted by his collusion with the sand mining mafia. Rahul Gandhi handpicked him and he went berserk with theatrics to show himself as an ‘aam aadmi’.
Charanjit Singh Channi: Sukhbir Badal brazenly misused power from 2007-17 and created conflict between deras and Sikhs for political ends. The drug mafia flourished under political patronage. People have not forgotten his anarchic and self-serving rule. Bhagwant Mann is not even a graduate. He is known to have entered Parliament and gurdwaras in an inebriated state. He knows nothing except cracking jokes. Kejriwal wants to rule Punjab by proxy. Punjab needs a good administrator, an educated and an honest person as CM.
What is your sense of the electoral mood of Punjab?
Bhagwant Mann: People say jharoo pherange. Anything can happen. There could be a landslide victory also. Surveys are giving 58 to 60 seats, and the number is going up day by day. There will not be a hung House. People have changed the way they vote. They give a clear majority. It is an election of hope. People have hope from the AAP and the trend will remain the same in all three regions.
Sukhbir Singh Badal: Election is all about the fighting spirit of your cadre. An active cadre can make the difference of 10% vote. Our cadre is all charged up. There is a Congress meltdown and a chunk of its cadre is shifting to others, mostly the AAP, which, however, lacks a pan-Punjab base.
The Akalis retained their core vote of 30% even in the worst-ever performance in 2017. The Congress got 35%, while the AAP was at 21%, which fell to 6% in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
Charanjit Singh Channi: It’s the last stretch of the campaign and I can see people are realising that supporting the Aam Aadmi Party can compromise Punjab’s interests. Voters are fed up with the Akali Dal and the BJP. Capt Amarinder Singh is a liability for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Thanks to his ouster, the Congress is in the reckoning and is heading towards a two-thirds majority. The opinion survey showing a hung House is bunkum and influenced by the BJP that wants to rule through the governor’s rule. The Congress is seen as a better a choice. Punjab will vote decisively.