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Can Mann-Kejriwal Tackle Punjab's Many Challenges?

By SANJEEV NAYYAR
March 17, 2022 16:31 IST
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Kejriwal's centralised way of governance might work in Delhi, but Punjab will call for delegation, observes Sanjeev Nayyar.

IMAGE: Bhagwant Mann, who was sworn in as Punjab's chief minister on Wednesday, March 16, embraces Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party National Convenor Arvind Kejriwal as Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia looks on, the day after the AAP triumph in Punjab, March 11, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

The Punjab elections results took all by surprise. Why did the Aam Aadmi Party win and what are the challenges that lie ahead?

The people of Punjab were fed up with the Akalis and Congress as both failed to provide good governance, not to forget their wooing of the Sikh clergy.

The farmers agitation was written in Delhi, but directed by Captain Amarinder Singh.

Life evens out is a popular phrase. Jaise karni waise bharni is another. Both apply to Captain Singh.

Strange are the ways of the Congress high command. Till about a year ago, it seemed like the Congress, under Captain Singh's leadership, was going to retain Punjab.

Then the farmers agitation started, Captain's leadership questioned, Navjot Sidhu made state Congress chief and Charanjit Singh Channi replaced Captain Singh.

Why was Sidhu given so much importance when the Congress had not even won an assembly election under his leadership, remains a mystery.

The Congress hoped the farmers agitation would dislodge the Modi government, but!

AAP supported the farmers agitation. This got it support in Punjab, but not in western Uttar Pradesh.

This columnist, including many others, said that making Channi (who belongs to the Chamar community of Ramdasia Sikhs) as chief minister was a good move since about 30% of Punjab's population belongs to the Backward Classes.

But the Congress move backfired. After all, since Punjab state was formed in 1966, Channi was probably only the second non-Jat Sikh to become CM, the first being Giani Zail Singh who belonged to the carpenter community (of Ramgariya Sikhs).

At the time of Channi's appointment, I wrote that it is not known how the Jat Sikhs would respond to this downgrading of their political status.

AAP realised the importance of having a Jat Sikh as CM so Bhagwant Mann was declared its candidate. Also, the backward classes votes probably got split which benefited AAP.

In a sense, the Jat Sikhs have hit back. With Mann as CM, their stranglehold over Punjab's politics continues.

Mann's speech in Sangrur after the election victory on Thursday, March 10, referred to Bhagat Singh (a Jat) and B R Ambedkar. Clearly, Jat Sikhs and Backward Classes are AAP's vote bank.

As we have seen in Delhi, Kejriwal is clear who his vote bank is (Muslims and auto drivers) and does not really care about what the rest think.

Having said that, AAP must know that Bhagat Singh (son of Kishan Singh and Vidyavati) had printed 2,000 copies of the famous book The Indian War of Independence of 1857 to raise funds for his revolutionary society. As a mark of respect, Bhagat Singh sent the first two copies to its author Veer Savarkar (Source: Veer Savarkar by Dhananjay Keer, Pg. 216).

AAP must also read Ambedkar's book Thoughts on Pakistan (external link). Written in 1941, it is an outstanding understanding of the subcontinental Muslim mind, as relevant then as it is today.

A failed farmers agitation increased the disillusionment among Punjab's farmers and enhanced the need to give an outside party a chance.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's Punjab unit needs to be united. Newcomers must not be favoured over loyalists.

The BJP needs to build a party in Punjab. It can make its presence felt by being an effective Opposition.

Hope the Punjab BJP will not emulate its Delhi unit and give AAP a free pass on its shortcomings. Both need to take tutorials from Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra.

Since many believe that the source of pollution in Delhi is stubble burning in Punjab these results are good because the same party now rules Delhi and Punjab.

Unlike in 2017, where AAP wooed Khalistani sympathisers, this time it had not done so, publicly at least.

Sidhu was a votary for better relations with Pakistan. It appears that AAP will take a similar line especially if it is unable to deliver on its promise.

It is unlikely that the Centre or the people of India will give AAP a veto on India-Pakistan relations.

The media and the learned shall now project Kejriwal as the chosen one to take on Modi in 2024. The BJP will do well not to underestimate Kejriwal.

AAP will now have two state budgets to fund its advertisements so expect a surge. That's good news, no doubt, for print and electronic media.

IMAGE: Bhagwant Mann, left, and Arvind Kejriwal during a victory road show in Amritsar, March 13, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

However, AAP will face challenges in Punjab.

Delhi is not a state government in the true sense of the term. Running a big state where religion and politics are intertwined (external link), will not be easy.

Kejriwal's centralised way of governance might work in Delhi, but Punjab will call for delegation. AAP needs a new organisational structure.

AAP can no longer blame the central government. It now has the powers that other state governments do. Like others, it will petition the Centre to increase the share of central revenues and demand a special package since it is a border state.

Importantly, AAP now has two votes in the GST Council and more Rajya Sabha seats.

In Delhi, Kejriwal has an able deputy in Manish Sisodia who takes care of governance. Who will be Mann's Sisodia?

Parts of Punjab (Malwa) are badly affected by cancer (external link). Importantly, the cause of cancer (over-use of pesticides etc) need to be addressed. Punjab needs more hospitals, not only free medical care.

It is fine to say that lack of medical colleges is forcing students to study abroad. The real problem lies in excessive reservations.

According to this article in The Hindu newspaper (external link), 'The party's key election promises so far include free education for every child born in Punjab in government schools; free medical treatment at government hospitals; free electricity upto 300 units to every household; a monthly stipend of ₹1,000 for women (above the age of 18) and providing ₹1 crore for Army and police personnel killed in the line of duty.'

As per Census 2011 (external link), there were 13.1 million women in Punjab of which about 44 are less 18. That leaves 8.7 million women. At Rs 1,000 per month annual cost is at least Rs 10,400 crores (Rs 104 billion). Execution of this scheme is key to its success. This is in addition to the existing scheme of free power to farmers. Cost: Approximately Rs 8,000 crores (Rs 80- billion) per annum.

AAP can raise revenues by stopping illegal sand and gravel mining, efficiencies and taking the lead in taxing agricultural income.

Punjab tops in over-exploitation of ground water (external link). Free power means groundwater is found deeper. This affects water quality, crops and their yields often.

After the 2021 farmers agitation, India Inc might refrain from making fresh investments in Punjab. AAP must create a conducive environment for business.

If AAP fails to improve the condition of farmers, it might blame the Centre and also realise that the Centre and states have to work in tandem.

It remains to be seen how AAP deals with the Akali Dal controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.

Unless AAP stops threats to Bihari and UP labour, they will prefer to work in their home states. If they do, family members of rich Jat Sikh farmers will have to start working on fields in large numbers.

AAP has to transition Punjab from a wheat-rice MSP economy to a multi-grain MSP/free market economy.

Sanjeev Nayyar is a chartered accountant, founder www.esamskriti.com and a Punjabi by birth.

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