CHANDIGARH: Usually, it takes longer, but in Punjab, the race to be the next Chief Minister has started before the Amarinder Singh government had even completed 100 days!
Since the Patiala royal announced even before the hustings that 2017 was to be his last election, the game is wide open right at the beginning.
And given Captain's history and luggage with the top Congress leadership, particularly with the party’s number two (one?) Rahul Gandhi, a minor skirmish can any day turn into a public spat, or an eyeball to eyeball situation, and one will have to blink. You know who it will be. Ambitious young leaders in the party want to position themselves as the next best choice, so it is game on!
And it is being played on turfs other than that of a leadership competition. Manpreet Singh Badal's frequent statements on one or the other issue, clearly made without pre-consultation with the party or the Chief Minister, are calculated moves to establish himself as a leader in his own reckoning. These are also in keeping with his quintessential mode of politics.
Afraid that his profile is being overshadowed by the Finance Minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu is on a roll these days, trying to emerge as the man who can directly take on not just the Akalis but the Badal Parivar itself.
In this pursuit for a special and taller pedestal has emerged the latest hot-button issue of Fastway Cable. After a gap of every 24 hours, Sidhu, the Minister for Local Bodies, issues one or the other statement against the so called cable mafia, but his singular target remains Fastway, and by proxy Sukhbir Singh Badal and family, and by another proxy – it is time to say it – Amarinder Singh.
Sidhu is on a roll, projecting himself as the man fighting to extract hundreds of crores of taxes that cable mafia evaded, as the man taking on the House of Badals, as someone who is available, accessible to the media. Amarinder is coming across as the exact opposite.
Every few hours, journalists manage to buttonhole CM Amarinder Singh and reference a Sidhu comment, reducing him to offer soundbytes that hardly seem to have the kind of sting that Sidhu packs in.
We will end the cable mafia, says Sidhu. We will welcome all kinds of media to ensure a competitive environment in cable domain, says Amarinder Singh.
We are not into vendetta politics, says Amarinder Singh. We will make Fastway pay the state hundreds of crores in taxes that it evaded, says Sidhu. There is no plan to censor Fastway or PTC, says Amarinder. Fastway will have to pay taxes in the next five days, says Sidhu.
Amarinder is limiting himself to saying that if there is an irregularity and if tax is evaded, his government will take action. Sidhu ensures that he is seen in the action mode every day.
Rather, in super-action mode. At a press conference on July 6, he tagged along a former tax officer CL Goel to buttress his claim that taxes worth Rs 2,618 crore have been evaded, that undue CENVAT refund was availed, that Fastway did not refund security amount on set-top boxes, that it cancelled invoices worth crores, that it used local government department's properties to string cables and dug roads etc but did not pay the required fee to the state government.
With every statement, with every press conference, Navjot Singh Sidhu is seen fighting for more hundreds of crores. He is seen as fighting more passionately to bring back the money from the House of Badals. He is seen as a man in action. He is available, he is accessible to the media, he takes questions, he gives pointed replies, and he makes headlines.
The Chief Minister is seen as the guy who is not doing even a fraction of what Sidhu is doing when it comes to fixing the Badals. Or fixing the cable mafia, sand mafia, liquor mafia. Amarinder is seen as the guy who did not fire Rana Gurjit Singh after an employee of the minister walked away with crores worth of sand mining bids. Neither Manpreet, nor state Congress president Sunil Jakhar nor headline maker Sidhu defended the CM.
Instead, Sidhu underlines the difference by saying there is none. Invariably, he refers to the CM in these press interactions to reiterate that he has spoken to the CM and the CM has given him a free hand to pursue this noble cause. That keeps him safe from allegations that he is dragging the CM into mud. In fact, he gives CM the credit.
We will end the cable mafia, says Sidhu. We will welcome all kinds of media to ensure competition, says Amarinder. We are not into vendetta politics, says Amarinder. We will make Fastway pay up hundreds of crores, says Sidhu. There is no plan to censor Fastway or PTC, says Amarinder. Fastway will have to pay taxes in the next five days, says Sidhu.
It is just that the CM is simply not seen leading the good fight. He is seen as a helpless leader condemned to watch his junior walking away with the glory.
Sample this latest from Sidhu: "I have suspended four executive engineer rank officers for executing development works worth Rs 500 crore without sanction and proper procedures, and I have recommended that three IAS Commissioners of Municipal Corporations in Punjab be issued chargesheets. Only the CM can issue these chargesheets. I have written to the CM."
So far, Amarinder has not said a word, and no one in the CMO plans to rush to issue chargesheets to senior IAS officials. You know how Sidhu wants people to interpret this. From the sidelines, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) headline makers Sukhpal Singh Khaira and Bhagwant Mann will incessantly keep interjecting that Amarinder was hand in glove with the Badals. Sidhu’s strategy plugs into that conspiracy plot.
As Amarinder is taking his time, Sidhu is projecting himself as a man impatient to implement his agenda, even if it is Fastway centric. Now he has directed his Local Bodies' officials to recover the evaded tax from Fastway "within five days."
Five days? That is much faster than the promise to bring back black money from abroad in 100 days. But that promise hurt Modi less. This one will hurt Amarinder more. After all, if the government fails to make Fastway pay up crores of taxes it evaded, whose fault will it be? "Blame the silent," will be Sidhu's war cry, and you can be sure he has several Urdu couplets up his sleeve already to make his point.
Manpreet Singh Badal will have his own Urdu couplets, of course. His budget has not really painted Amarinder Singh in glowing hues. Amarinder's farm loan waiver claim fell flat when Manpreet reeled out the figure of Rs 1,500 crore he has kept aside to fulfil Amarinder Singh's most famous promise to farmers.
In a few weeks, Amarinder Singh is set to emerge as the CM who is seen going back on his word, time and again. He said he will waive off farm debts. Now he is reduced to saying he has waived off crop loan debt of up to Rs 2 lakh of farmers with up to 5 acres of land. He said he will waive off Aarhtiya debt. Now he is appealing to the Aarhtiyas not to loot the farmers. He said sand prices will come down crashing. These did not. He said every family is going to get a job. Well, as of now, even those on the water tank tops have not got one.
Farmers are planning protests. Aarhtiyas are honouring the CM as Fakhr-e-Quom. By accepting the honour, the CM is sending signals that are likely to gladden the hearts of his rivals within the party.
Sunil Jakhar is biding his time. He has a most coveted post in Punjab, and he knows when to make his move. More importantly, he is not making any move to make Amarinder Singh look good.
Every passing day is giving racers a new lap to run. The latest is an Adventure Drive in an eco-sensitive zone on the outskirts of Chandigarh, a tourism ministry’s venture.
When every piece of wisdom said it was a foolish idea, amounted to a violation of environmental norms, was clearly against the law and one seemed designed to bring in more visitors to a Sukhbir Singh Badal-owned resort near the adventure venue, Navjot Singh Sidhu, also Punjab's Tourism Minister, quipped – My department is doing it because the CM gave directions to do it.
"Captain Amarinder Singh sent me the file and also asked me to attend the rally...I am just following orders."
Translation: If I am doing something pertinently illegal, you should know that the CM asked me to. When I am trying to implement the law against Fastway even when CM is going slow, you should know that I am proactive than my leader in fighting the Badals.
But will Sidhu find his way along the Fastway super highway to his dream job in Punjab? Remember that there are others, too, who had the same dream. And they all know a few Urdu couplets.
*(Kamjaat Singh is an academic activist who also dabbles in journalism and writes under this pseudonym. The author, whose interests encompass politics, media, communication, academics, law, cinema etc., will be writing regularly for Punjab Today, and can be reached at email@example.com.)
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