Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh is spearheading the Congress’s electoral challenge in the state against the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) combine. He spoke to Vinod Sharma on Wednesday, a day after Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi’s large roadshow in Pathankot. Edited excerpts:
What is the gist of your campaign in Punjab?
Our objective is to defeat the BJP-Akali Dal combine. We’re mobilising people in agreement with our views, and are convincing those who are not of our view that we need to change the government [at the Centre] in the interest of the country and Punjab.
No, it isn’t. We’ve chosen our candidates well; we have fought a very good election. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is down after the sacrilege incidents and all that happened during their 10-year-rule. That has put us right on top. While everybody was saying that Sunny Deol is going to sweep Gurdaspur, we went to Pathankot and had a roadshow where there was no place to move. The trend in Punjab has changed. I see on the social media the response that the people, the youngsters, are giving.
How strong is the Narendra Modi factor?
There is no Modi factor in Punjab. Maybe in other states, I don’t know, but here there’s no Modi factor. [Despite] the things he is trying to project, Balakot and all, Punjab doesn’t want a war. I have a 540km border with Pakistan that gets to face [the consequences of war]. Amritsar gets it, Gurdaspur gets it, Tarn Taran gets it. Who wants to have anything like it? We support the retaliatory action after Pulwama because they [Pakistan-backed militants] can’t go around killing our soldiers. But Modi’s muscle flexing is not paying off here.
So peace on the borders is an issue?
Yes, absolutely. It was always our people who got caught when a war took place. In 1965, places from Khalra [in Khemkaran sector] up to Wagah were shelled. Today, guns can fire up to 35km; you can shell Amritsar if you want. Nobody wants this sort of thing. Warfare technology has advanced so much that you can hit any target with anything. We don’t want any of our people being killed in that.
But peace is difficult between India and Pakistan. Short of that, what solutions do you have for the border people’s problems? Some people in Attari said they consider Balakot a strike on their livelihood because higher Customs tariffs have killed Pakistani imports.
That’s it. When you do such things, the retaliation comes to those along the border. They’re not going to go across and bomb Delhi. They’re going to open fire with their artillery or mortars and hit our villages. I go a step further. After 70 years of wars and instability with Pakistan, I think the time has come to seriously pursue economic cooperation… I know the problem with Pakistan is that no government there can function without the military, which has a vested interest in not allowing these things to happen. But their army must understand that Pakistan’s economy is in the doldrums. They’ve just had to go begging to the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. They are in serious financial trouble. For how long can the military call the shots [in the face of such crises]? Somebody has to take the bull by the horns.
Sam Pitroda made a controversial comment about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. As one who quit the Congress during the period, what do you have to say about Pitroda’s remarks?
I resigned from my party and my membership of Parliament after Operation Bluestar. The riots were in response to the assassination [later] of Mrs Indira Gandhi. I was there for the first four days and went around the camps at places where the riots happened. Pitroda’s comments were completely irresponsible; everybody accepts that now.
You went to Bhatinda and Pathankot (Gurdaspur seat) with Priyanka Gandhi. What’s your prognosis about Gurdaspur, which is considered a difficult seat for your party’s state unit chief Sunil Jakhar?
It is not a difficult seat. There are two sections in Gurdaspur. One is the lower section comprising six [assembly] segments and then there are three upper segments: Bhoa, Sujanpur and Pathankot. People thought there will be problems in these three areas comprising the Rajput belt. But these segments were won by Jakhar in his by-election [caused by the death of BJP MP Vinod Khanna] and earlier on by our candidates in the assembly polls. The Pathankot roadshow put a lie to all that…There was such a massive crowd that vehicles couldn’t move, people couldn’t move. I’ve seen many roadshows but not like the one I saw yesterday.
What about your home seat, Patiala? Is your wife Preneet Kaur winning? Have you gone campaigning there?
I think she’s winning. I am going there to campaign.
Why are you going to Patiala so late?
Normally I go for filing of nomination papers — and on the last evening of the campaign period, for a public meeting at the Qila Chowk. This time I’ve already addressed a meeting in the constituency.
Will Sukhbir Badal’s wife, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur, win in Bhatinda?
I am telling you, we’ll win all the 13 seats. I’m asking because people say you’ve a soft corner for the Badals.
I don’t have any soft corner for the Badals, who have ruined the state. But I do not believe in violating the Indian Constitution and the law. There is a law and we go by the law. We don’t push people in jail simply because we don’t like them. Last time, I didn’t put them behind bars. It was the law that put them behind bars.
Who is the Congress’s main rival in Punjab: the SAD, the People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA), or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)?
The PDA [formed by AAP rebel Sukhpal Khaira] and the AAP do not exist. The Akali Dal is on the margins as there’s the Taksali Akali Dal, the main Akali Dal, and the fringe elements going around.
Likewise, there are two AAP factions and Khaira’s PDA. They split between them the anti-Congress constituency in Punjab. That’s why I say we’ll win all 13 seats. Nobody seems to listen to me. Even Sukhbir Badal is going to lose the Firozpur seat.