A soldier-turned-politician, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh is the face of the Congress in the border state. Known for his forthright opinions on political matters and issues of national interest, he commands respect across party lines. In his second stint as CM, Amarinder, 77, has implemented loan waiver for small and marginal farmers, worked to curb the drug menace and given a free hand to the police to deal with gangsters. In this interview ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Amarinder asserted that the Narendra Modi government has “failed” to deliver and that the Congress will return to power under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Excerpts:
Q: As one of the senior-most Congress leaders in the country, how do you assess your party’s prospects in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls?
A: I would say the prospects for the Congress are excellent. You just have to see the party’s performance in the recent Assembly elections and byelections. The party has been rejuvenated under Rahul Gandhi, who is fully geared to lead the nation. And Priyanka Gandhi’s formal entry into politics has further energised the party rank and file. The people of India are feeling cheated by the BJP-led government, which has failed to deliver on any of its promises. The country has actually lost jobs instead of generating new ones, causing unemployment to emerge as a big problem. Prices of essentials, particularly petrol and diesel, are escalating beyond control. Farmers are committing suicide and the government, instead of helping them, is busy filling the pockets of big industrialists. Law and order are in a mess and the harmony that is the cornerstone of India’s secular fabric is being destroyed. Justice remains elusive for the ordinary people of the country. So Indian voters are realising their future, and that of their children, is not secure in the hands of the BJP-led NDA. The youth, in particular, can see hope in the Congress leadership under Rahul. All these factors will cumulatively decide the vote in favour of the Congress, in my opinion.
Q: The BJP is projecting the Lok Sabha polls as Modi versus others. Is it the case?
A: I cannot comment on what the BJP has planned as its key plank. But going by some recent statements of its leadership, including Amit Shah, that does seem to be the case. And their election slogan, from what I have read in the papers, is also aligned to that game plan.
Q: How do you see Rahul Gandhi as a Prime Ministerial candidate?
A: He’s the ideal candidate for Prime Minister. He is mature, intelligent, and farsighted and genuinely cares for the people. Also, he has the ability to carry other political parties with him as he believes in consensus. He truly believes in democracy and has a very open style of functioning. His evolution as a leader is manifest in the recent successes of the Congress in various elections and by-elections.
Q: You have supported the surgical strikes against Pakistan but at the same time called for an end to politicisation of the armed forces for political gains. What made you say this?
A: As an ex-army man myself, I cannot condone the way the BJP has sought to take credit for an act which was undertaken by the armed forces. To go for the retaliatory air strikes was a government decision, which any government of the day would have taken after the Pulwama attack. But that does not mean the BJP can or should take credit for the brave acts of our valiant defence personnel. Also, the manner in which photographs of the soldiers with BJP leaders were being used in electioneering was abominable, to say the least. That kind of politicisation of the armed forces has never happened before, not even during the 1965 and 1971 wars. You cannot use the soldiers to propel your party or seize political gains.
Q: Your government implemented farm loan waiver. In what way has it worked to help the debt-ridden farmers? What other steps are required to solve the problem?
A: Our scheme has brought immediate relief to the worst-suffering small and marginal farmers of the state. As of 15 March 2019, we had waived farm debts up to Rs 2 lakh each of 5.8 lakh farmers, translating into total debt relief of Rs 4,678 crore. In addition, we have expanded the scope of the scheme to cover 2.85 lakh farm labourers and landless farming members of cooperative societies, to the tune of Rs 520 crore. These are the most stressed sections of the farming community, who needed urgent relief. But as I have consistently maintained, a lot more needs to be done to ensure a permanent and impactful solution to the problem. For one, the central government needs to step in with a national debt waiver scheme to help the beleaguered farming community around the country. Further, the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Committee have to be implemented in toto, rather than piecemeal, to create the necessary enabling environment for the farmers to make agriculture remunerative. Also, farmers need to be moved away from the traditional wheat-rice cycle to diversified farming, for which, again, the central government needs to intervene through a fixed MSP for cash crops, smooth procurement, etc. Let us not forget the nation cannot survive without the farmers, so they deserve to get all the support possible to make agriculture worth their while.
Q: You have blamed Pakistan for its attempts to cause trouble in Punjab. At the same time, work is on for Kartarpur Corridor. How hopeful are you of it becoming a reality soon despite the tensions between the two countries?
A: I think both sides are keen to have the Corridor operational at the earliest, albeit for different reasons. And the fact that talks on the issue were not scuttled despite the Pulwama attack and the subsequent IAF air strikes endorses my belief. As I have been maintaining all along, the Corridor will fulfill a long-cherished desire of devotees of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji. At the same time, however, I feel we should remain cautious and ensure fool-proof security for the Corridor since we are fully aware of Pakistan’s nefarious intentions against India.
Q: Are you satisfied with the work done by your government to curb the drug menace in Punjab?
A: Yes, more than satisfied. In less than two years, we were able to break the backbone of the drug mafia. The SIT established with zero tolerance policy had, as of 15 March 2019, led to the registration of 19443 NDPS cases, with 22933 persons arrested and 469 kg heroin recovered. Most drug traffickers have either left the state or have become dormant due to strong and decisive action by the government. The people’s campaign we have built is also working wonders in helping wean youth away from drugs. Our focus now is on rehabilitation and cure, which is being managed aggressively through the Out Patient Opioid Assisted Treatment (OOAT) clinics we have set up.