As Punjab goes to polls on Sunday, ET’s political team catches up with Petroleum & Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, BJP co-incharge for the state. The alliance with Shiromani Akali Dal, he feels, did more harm than good to BJP.
Was withdrawal of farm laws more of a national security move than a political move?
It was both. The process of enactment of the laws was preceded by consultation and a clear evaluation of the tangible benefits that would accrue to the farming community. Our then allies (Shiromani Akali Dal) were present in the Cabinet meeting. They made very positive statements about the laws after the passage of the legislation. The allies expressed apprehension that minimum support price (MSP) will be withdrawn or mandis will cease to exist. They were provided an assurance when the PM himself made a statement. They said they would want something in writing. Then, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar issued a letter… The prime minister felt that he had done something for the benefit of farmers. He wanted the benefits to accrue to the farmers directly. We looked at some surveys where more than 50% of agrarian households were in debt of more than Rs 2 lakh. But the agitation slowly acquired a different complexion and became a political virodh (protest). A lot of people who were at the forefront of the agitation are now supporting the BJP. The PM said what is the point if you are trying to do well but it is spiralling out of control into an agitation that could cause a fairly serious security damage.
What are the main issues in Punjab?
Here is a state that prided itself on being one of the premier states in terms of economic development in the eighties. Then came the infamous attack on Darbar sahab from June 1 to 10, 1984. Then, there were those days in the end of October when there was ‘katle-aam’ (murder) of Sikhs in Delhi. From the 1980s, when it was in a premier position, Punjab is now down to number 14 in overall standing.
We want a ‘nasha mukt’ Punjab and to our amazement the man who has opened liquor vends in every street of Delhi is promising ‘nasha mukti’ in Punjab. We need freedom from the land and sand mafia. Governance is not an easy thing. There are people who are serious and have commitment to govern.
Why hasn’t BJP declared a chief ministerial candidate?
The decision is taken by the parliamentary board… There are three well-known faces who have been cited as possible chief ministerial candidates. First is Charanjit Singh Channi. His administrative experience and acumen, I would say, is zero. Second is Bhagwant Mann. I don’t want to go into his level of intoxication. I am not interested in it. You need to govern this state.
Third is Navjot Singh Sidhu. I can tell you that during the time when he was holding a ministry in the state, which has to deal with my work as housing and urban affairs minister, he did not sign a single file. These are the three people. Punjab is reeling under a debt of `2.81 lakh crore. According to Captain Amarinder Singh, this is not the correct picture as there are other bodies that have a debt of `1 lakh crore. All these parties do not have anything in their manifesto on economic revival.
Will BJP be open to a post-poll alliance with Shiromani Akali Dal?
You can be in alliance with people like Dhindsa. But if you think you can be in alliance with somebody who is in the drug trade –– No. This is an alliance which cost us an entire generation. But more than that, Shiromani Akali Dal did not allow any Hindu face or a Sikh face to rise. There is revulsion in our system against them. It is impossible. There is no question that an alliance with those Akalis, the Majithias (Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia) of the world, is possible. The Modi government does not align with such people.
How do you plan to solve Punjab’s drug problem?
The BJP has governments in so many states. Have you heard of drug problem in any other state? I am not saying that there is no cross-border supply of drugs. But the real problem is that you have synthetic drug manufacturing units inside cities in Punjab. The addict gets his drugs from the supplier, who gets it from the producer but the producer has no problem as he is getting protection from the system. You get a BJP government in Punjab and with Narendra Modi’s zero tolerance against drugs, you will be able to solve the drug menace not in two years but in two months.
In the long term, can BJP go it alone in Punjab?
In a 117-seat assembly, BJP fought only 22-23 seats, Akalis fought the rest. We got only 2 MLAs. I am making a very strong statement –– Akali Dal used to win its seats on the basis of BJP’s urban vote which in effect meant that they did the ‘thekedaari’ of the Sikh community. This meant that they did not want someone like Arun (Arun Jaitley who lost 2014 election from Amritsar Lok Sabha seat) and me (Hardeep Puri lost 2019 parliamentary elections from the same seat) to win. I got 41% of the votes. Had it not been for sabotage, I would have been an MP from Amritsar. The Akalis would have never allowed the BJP to be what it is. Bharatiya Jan Sangh has a major contribution in Punjab. Today, out of the 73 seats we are fighting in Punjab, 65 were originally what the BJP was fighting and 8 people came to us and wanted to fight on the BJP symbol.
The prime minister said there were many occasions over the years when we would have gone our way but we did this for the sake of Punjab. He gave the example –– we had seats but they (Akalis) got the chief minister. He said –– kaayede se deputy chief minister hamaraa hona chahiye tha (in all fairness, the deputy chief minister should have been from BJP). In 2014, when we formed the government, we offered them three ministerships but they said we want only the daughter-in-law (Harsimrat Badal).
There have been over 100 incidents of sacrilege since 2015. What is BJP planning to do?
There is nothing that can’t be investigated. There is nothing that can be investigated when the state apparatus doesn’t want it to be… Somebody has deliberately tried to inflame the place. If the state wants, it can find out provided there is a message that the state is serious about finding out.
Is conversion a major issue in Punjab?
Absolutely, it is a major issue. There have been forcible conversions and it is taking a form and shape which can endanger the social fabric of Punjab. That is why we have taken an upfront position on this that we need to bring a law.
What is BJP’s plan to address Punjab’s economic debt?
Our plan first is to revive economic growth in Punjab. For this, we have to see how much debt is from where and how much of it can be restructured. You have to instil discipline.
How do you rate BJP’s chances?
It is one of the most difficult battles. We started at 5% vote share but now successive surveys are showing increasing seats. My own sense is that we will do well.
What is your assessment of inflation?
This is controlled mischief. There is a feeling that everything that banks and oil marketing companies do, comes through our directives. The oil marketing companies decide whether they have the margin or not. We reduced our excise duty to control prices. The impact of hike in petrol prices on India’s inflation is being overstated for political reasons. According to a report by CARE ratings, petrol and diesel contribute only 2.19% and 0.15% weightage, respectively, to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and 1.6% and 3.1% weightage, respectively, to the Wholesale Price Index (WPI).
What is the status of the new Parliament building and Central Vista?
We are not opening Central Vista to the public as there are some underpasses to be completed. We will open it by March-end. The Winter session, as planned, will take place in the new Parliament. We are on track.