In an interview with The Wire, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Navjyot Singh Sidhu discussed a range of issues related to the state’s upcoming assembly elections, the political undercurrents in the state, the alleged ‘threat’ that Narendra Modi faced in Punjab and the reported rift between him and chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
He was questioned about announcing his own ‘model’ for the state, even before the Congress manifesto was launched. His act also was seen by some political observers as an attempt to sideline Channi. In response, he said that the real issues of the people are being sidelined in the state. He added, “The issue for us is that Punjab is currently in debt. We are facing an enormous debt of over Rs 5 lakh crore. The rich are paying only Rs 220 crore in tax while the poor and the middle classes pay 99% of the tax, which is a whopping Rs 51,000 crore. We want to take them out of this misery. This fight for us is a fight for our identities.”
Among Sidhu’s ideas are the proposal to establish a Punjab liquor corporation and a sand mining corporation, the state’s own cable regulation commission and a slew of other such bodies. These ideas received opposition from within the party.
Responding to the internal politics that rocked his party, he said that his stance over liquor, sand mining and controlling finances of the state have remained the same from the beginning. “I even sat home for a year because I did not agree with the policies. I wanted our liquor to be taxed and a crackdown on the sand mafia. Our MLAs showed that they had faith in me, they wanted me back. The same Amrinder Singh who had shown me the door is now sitting at home,” Sidhu said.
With some sections of the media describing Sidhu as a TV personality and former cricket commentator, rather than a non-serious politician, The Wire asked him what he felt about these descroptions.
In response, he said, “What needs to be proven is not worth the toss. There is no chance that someone who is a celebrity would continue to win the polls again and again.” He said a celebrity may win polls perhaps once or twice but not multiple times. “I have the power to say no and I don’t compromise. A celebrity may rake in votes the first time but the second time, people voted for my work the third time they voted for my character and the fourth and the fifth time they saw my commitment and my behaviour. I am the president of the PPCC. I don’t think that I need to prove anything,” he said.
Sidhu also said that three generations of Punjab have “suffered”: the first generation grappled with political instability and terrorism, the second suffered because of unprecedented drug abuse and the current generation suffers because it has no avenues and opportunities, fuelling the youth to “leave the state”.
While Channi was chosen to replace Amarinder Singh, the Congress party has not yet declared him as the chief ministerial candidate before the polls. With Channi proving to have mass appeal, The Wire asked Sidhu who is likely to be the chief minister after the polls. “The question is not who becomes the CM. The key question is who will take Punjab out of its miseries and the problems that face us. This is the question on every Punjabi’s mind today. This is not something which can be easily decided in the next two months. Our next five years are full of challenges.”
He also dismissed reports of a “rift” between him and Channi as “rumours” that are trying to “fool” voters.
Sidhu was also asked about the “security threat” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced in Punjab recently, forcing his visit to be cancelled. Sidhu stated that the prime minister’s actions were an attempt to “discredit” Punjab. “If the prime minister wanted, he could have just landed at the podium with a helicopter. What Modi did was a staged act to leave and protect himself because they had no audience. This move is intended towards polarising the voters.”
With the Aam Aadmi Party seemingly gravitating towards nationalism and security ahead of the polls, Sidhu was asked about his opinion on the challenge that the party poses to the Congress. Targeting Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal he said, “Why is Kejriwal showing this bravery in Punjab? What happened when riots broke out in Delhi? Why did he not speak of the tricolour then? Kejriwal has shown cowardice and nothing else.”