Unique Flavour Of Punjab's Political Broth
The AAP government certainly has a lot to answer for
As the country gradually moves towards the next parliamentary polls, the political scenario in Punjab stands at an interesting juncture. Punjab politics has always maintained certain unique characteristics given the people’s approach towards pushing the governments whether in the state or the centre towards accountability and the dynamics vis-à-vis the state and central elections also have a distinct flavour.
With an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government under Bhagwant Singh Mann in power for the last one-and-a-half years, the scenario in Punjab ahead of the 2024 polls is a paradox of sorts. On one hand the government stands pushed on the back foot on certain issues by its political opponents, and obviously their cadres and supporters.
On the other hand a large section of the population still has a soft corner for the new party in power. Why do the people continue to give a long rope to the government is something the political observers continue to ponder over.
When it comes to the parameters of the functioning, the government certainly has a lot to answer for. Punjab continues to be a state where the people have been demonstrating that they do not spare anyone. This is visible with one section or the other constantly engaged in democratic fights with the power.
There have been some developments in the recent past that have landed the government in an embarrassing situation. The foremost has been the government being ‘compelled’ to do a ‘U’ turn on its decision to dissolve all the Panchayats in the almost state six months before their tenure was to be completed.
The government had reportedly claimed that its notification on August 10 in this regard was according to the constitutional provisions.
The matter was taken up before the Punjab and Haryana High Court through petitions including public interest litigation (PIL) by Gurjeet Singh Talwandi of Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal). It was questioned what public good would come of the decision besides it being unconstitutional and arbitrary.
As the pressure increased the government announced before the High Court that it would withdraw the notification. This opened a Pandora’s Box on expected lines with the opposition parties gunning for the Chief Minister and the Panchayat Minister Laljit Singh Bhullar.
Things accelerated further when the government went in for suspension of two bureaucrats for taking a technically flawed situation. The Panchayat elections are scheduled for December end while those of Zilla Parishad and Panchayat Samiti are due in late November.
This gave more ammunition to the opposition as it questioned how the government could transfer the blame on mere bureaucrats while absolving itself with the responsibility. To make matters worse stories started appearing in the regional papers that the file pertaining to the decision bore the signatures of both Mann and Bhullar.
The party is trying to convey that the omission was on the part of the erring bureaucrats and the government was quick to go in for course correction.
But no soft words could be expected from the opposition. The Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring hit out at the Bhagwant Mann led AAP government for the ‘dictatorial decision’. He said that the autocratic decision had exposed the double standards of the AAP leadership and the verdict was a tight slap on the face of the leadership hell bent on snatching away the rights of the elected representatives of the people.
Warring said the decision of the government was a direct attack on the federal structure of the country besides being a violation of the Constitution. “The government’s vicious attempts to snatch away the rights of Panchayats on self-governance was exposed by the Congress and it would continue to expose their anti-people and anti-Punjab decisions,” he said.
The Congress had filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court challenging the ‘lop-sided’ decision. Warring further attacked AAP saying the party had raised hue and cry over the dissolution of powers in Delhi through the Delhi ordinance and went across the country to garner support, while its own leadership in Punjab was replicating the experiment in state. This exposed the evil design of the incompetent dispensation in the saddle, he added.
In a scathing attack senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia said, "It is a case not of technically flawed orders but of brazen lies of the head of government in Punjab who openly denies his own signed instructions. This is truly unbelievable, disgraceful and shocking.”
Majithia had produced facsimile copies of the on-file orders signed by Bhagwant Mann as Chief Minister to dissolve the Panchayats and order fresh elections.
“Now, Bhagwant Mann passes the buck to IAS officers, in the true absurd theatre style of the AAP circus ringleader, Arvind Kejriwal. These outrageous falsehoods expose Bhagwant Mann as either a compulsive liar or a man with an unsound mind. Either way, it is an extremely worrying prospect for Punjab,” the Akali leader said.
Meanwhile, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal went on to say, “The Chief Minister is now acting like a coward and by trying to hide by officers as scapegoats. The fact is that the entire process of dissolution of Panchayats to be followed by election was initiated, piloted and signed by Bhagwant Mann through the concerned minister Laljit Singh Bhullar.
“The IAS officers had merely presented the concerned file for ‘perusal’ and necessary orders by the Chief Minister. The officers had specifically noted on the file itself that it was being sent ‘as desired’ by the Chief Minister.”
To make matters worse the government’s reported decision on invoking East Punjab Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) against striking employees of revenue department drew further brickbats.
Reports stated the government has desisted from taking action under the Act and has gone in for filling the vacant posts of Qataris while ensuring biometric attendance in offices.
“This is the government of the people and the common man will not face any harassment due to whims and fancies of any agitation of the government officials” Mann said.
Sukhbir Badal went to the extent of saying that ESMA should be invoked against Mann for abandoning Punjab when the state was in the grip of floods to accompany his boss Arvind Kejriwal to poll bound states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
“The Chief Minister should apply the same yardsticks he is applying to employees on himself. He should also apply these yardsticks on ministers and legislators who had failed to come to the aid of the farmers who were ravaged by floods last month,” Sukhbir said.
Mann’s frequent trips to poll bound states along with his party’s national convener Kejriwal are also an issue that the AAP is finding difficult to defend. These trips along with the advertising campaigns of Mann promoting Punjab as a model of governance have become a butt of jokes in rural Punjab with people having a hearty laugh over them.
Recently Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill while hitting out at Mann’s absence from the state when 19 districts were ravaged by floods had gone to the extent of saying that Punjab needs a ‘Chief Minister ‘ and not a ‘Campaign Minister’.
“Mann has only one agenda, to fulfil the political ambitions of Kejriwal, who takes him (Mann) along with him to poll-bound states to showcase the ‘fake’ Punjab model to get political mileage. Unfortunately, Mann himself is also more than willing to be just an assistant of Kejriwal and thus conceding to all his unjust demands,” he said.
“In the wake of the fact that on July 17, when 19 out of 23 districts of Punjab were reeling under floods, showing scant regard towards the plight of the people, Mann was enjoying a dinner of Opposition leaders in Bengaluru. The very next day, he was present at the opposition parties meeting in Bengaluru,” Shergill added.
Another interesting dimension to the current political scenario in Punjab is the frequent face offs between the state government and the Governor Banwarilal Purohit. In the recent round the Governor had gone to the extent of threatening the government that he would write to the President about the failure of constitutional mechanism in the state under Article 356 if the government failed to reply to his queries.
Purohit had also raised the issue of rampant drug abuse in the letter that he had shot off to Mann. “Before I take final decision regarding sending a report to the President of India under Article 356 about the failure of the constitutional mechanism and take a decision about initiating criminal proceedings under section 124 of the IPC, I ask you to send me the requisite information sought for in my letters referred to above, as also in the matter of the steps taken by you concerning the problem of drugs in the State, failing which I would have no choice but to take action according to law and the Constitution,” Purohit reportedly said.
This drew a strong reaction from the government with Mann terming Purohit's threat to recommend the imposition of President's rule in the state as an insult to 3.5 crore Punjabis that had bruised the psyche of peaceful and hardworking Punjabis, who made unprecedented sacrifices for preserving the unity and integrity of the country besides making nation surplus food grain production.
Saying that he was not going to bow down to such threats and will not compromise with the interests of the state and its people, Mann said the ‘selected’ Governor does not have any moral right to threaten elected representatives of people and make malicious attempts to topple this democratically elected government.
He added that according to the Constitution the people have the full right to elect the government of their choice, but the Governors are acting as puppets of the union government to create unwanted hindrances in the functioning of non-BJP governments in states like Delhi, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
He claimed that he had been consistently responding to the Governor's correspondence, having already replied to nine out of 16 letters and the responses to the remaining would be dispatched shortly.
Mann said that his government had passed six bills in the Vidhan Sabha over the past year and a half but the Governor has yet to endorse these bills, leaving them pending. Questioning the Governor's silence on unresolved issues, the Chief Minister pointed out that the Centre has withheld crores of rupees of Rural Development Fund (RDF) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) allocations, yet the Governor has remained silent on these significant matters.
He further noted that the Centre has not paid any attention to the concerns of Punjab's farmers and it is further alarming that the Governor has not written a single letter to the central government addressing the real issues of Punjab.
“It is astonishing that while the state government is working round the clock on the agenda of providing free electricity, quality education, state-of-the-art healthcare services and employment to the youth, the Governor of that state is trying to destabilise it,’’ Mann said.
Mann countered Purohit’s concerns over the drug menace by citing statistics saying that by August 26 more than 23,518 drug smugglers had been arrested, 17,623 FIRs registered and 1,627 kg of heroin recovered.
Sukhbir Badal in his response to the ‘constitutional crisis’ that had occurred in the state after the chief minister’s refusal to reply to letters of the Governor, said “This is happening for the first time and is a result of immaturity and lack of decency on the part of the chief minister. We are against the imposition of President’s Rule in the state.
“Our party was behind the Anandpur Sahib resolution which stands for granting more powers to the states. However the issue is not this alone. The issue is the Governor’s query about action taken in the case of 66 liquor vends which were found to be selling drugs during a raid by the National Narcotics Bureau.
“These vends have since reopened. The chief minister should give a detailed answer to the Governor and Punjabis on this issue or else it would be surmised that the AAP government is hand in glove with drug traffickers.”
Warring on the other hand was of the view that the Governor must take action against the Chief Minister but the Congress will never support Governor’s rule in the state. He also dismissed the war of words between the Governor and Mann as a ‘mere tactic to kill time’.
Earlier in the first week of August the AAP leadership had expressed strong displeasure over the Chandigarh administration not allotting land to the party for its office in Chandigarh. The AAP's chief spokesperson in Punjab Malvinder Singh Kang had accused the Punjab Governor (who is also the administrator of union territory of Chandigarh) of deliberately not allotting land to the party and acting ‘capriciously’.
Kang said that despite being the national party and the ruling party of the state, the Governor was not giving office space to the party in Chandigarh. He accused the BJP of conspiring to end Punjab's authority over Chandigarh through the Governor. There have been reports saying that the AAP does not fulfil the condition of having an elected parliamentarian in the last two decades.
Then it was Purohit’s turn to take a dig at Mann for his absence in the ceremonial ‘At-Home’ reception hosted by the Governor on August 15. The Governor in an informal chat with the media said invitations were extended to various dignitaries, including the Chief Minister of Punjab which the latter duly acknowledged.
He made a light remark saying Mann’s decision was in line with his own discernment; the Chief Minister might have decided to forgo the event perhaps being afraid of the ceremonial cannons placed outside the Raj Bhawan. This was construed by many in context of Mann’s speech in the Vidhan Sabha in June where he had mentioned that canons are installed outside Raj Bhawan to scare people away.
But despite all these fights at the political level, observers say that the takeaway remains that the common man still has a soft corner for the new party.
“One of the reasons for this phenomenon remains that the people have not forgiven the Akalis and the Congress for heaping misery on them during their tenures. These two traditional parties continue to carry the baggage of their past and are yet to be buried in the court of the people.
“When one points at the deteriorating law and order or the continuing menace of drugs, the people counter by saying that even the two traditional parties did nothing to curtail them. Secondly they say that the new government has been in power for not even two years. It should be given some more time to act,” explained Vijay Bombeli who is a chronicler of Punjab politics for several decades.
He explained that the people broadly felt that the corrupt bureaucrats or those acting at the behest of the Congress and the Akalis need to be cornered while new officers should be given an opportunity to act. Also Mann needs to come out of the shadows of Kejriwal and work keeping interests of Punjab at the forefront.