The Hindustan Times – Punjab: ‘Conflict of interest’ between Congress manifesto, realpolitik?

Sukhdeep Kaur

Chandigarh, 9 April 2017. No money for populism and no room for idealism. Less than a month into power, the Congress is already watering down promises it made in its poll manifesto that was a curious mix of both, populism and idealism.

On ending VIP culture, the party has walked the talk by doing away with beacons on government cars despite opposition from some of its ministers and MLAs. But resentment is brewing among party legislators over ministerial berths and control over businesses earlier under the Akalis.

Share in spoils of power

Though the constitutional cap allows a 18-member cabinet in Punjab, CM Captain Amarinder Singh has nine ministers as of now. He has kept most of the plum departments to himself for “firm administrative control” over the state. He has also declared that MLAs will not be adjusted in chairmanships of boards and corporations.

Out of power for 10 years, restless MLAs and party leaders want a share in the spoils of power. The senior MLAs are lobbying for posts in cabinet or chairmanships.

Captain Amarinder would have to choose between bringing in a CPS legislation that is likely to run into conflict with law or expanding his cabinet and adjusting the many hopefuls, some not his loyalists.

Like the Akalis, Congress MLAs too want to call the shots over police postings in their areas. But the Congress manifesto and later cabinet promised an end to halqa in-charge system brought in by the Badals.

The diktat of “depoliticising” the police and no political interference in administrative matters, a laudable step, too, is not going down well with party leaders who complain of a “disconnect” within the party and the government.

Business as usual

The party MLAs and leaders are also eyeing a larger share in businesses earlier under the stranglehold of Akalis, such as liquor, mining, cable and transport.

After the new excise policy has edged out Akali henchmen, the Congress government has declared to auction new mines, “demonopolise” bus permits and cable business. Many Congressmen are lining up for the new contracts, the “legal” way.

“The Akalis nearly starved us by monopolising all trades in the state. They minted money through liquor, sand mining, cable, truck unions, solar power plants and buses.

Now that Congress is in power, should we still be starving? We are applying for the contracts through tenders,” a party leader said, requesting anonymity.

The simmering discontent among MLAs is also why the manifesto promise of ‘conflict of interest’ law to end the monopoly of the ruling elite on state businesses has been diluted. Though the party’s poll manifesto stated that MLAs will also fall under the law’s ambit, Amarinder has stated recently that it will not apply to MLAs.

Where is the money?

On populist poll promises too, the new government is finding its hands tied. A near-empty treasury, finance minister Manpreet Badal describes the situation as “no runway for an airplane to take off”, has ruled out any immediate roll out of debt waiver.

The Yogi Adityanath government has already announced a debt waiver for Uttar Pradesh farmers but the Punjab government is buying time by announcing to set up a committee of experts to study and assess the amount of farm debt. It is still hunting for experts who can be a part of the panel.

While the government has got a breather by delaying the budget to June, it will have to factor in some of its bold promises which the opposition will also be gunning after, such as Rs 2,500 for jobless youth, smart phones with one-year free data and calling and debt waiver for farmers.

As it walks the tightrope on poor finances, populist promises and idealism, the biggest challenge for the Amarinder government will be to meet the aspirations of its MLAs and party leaders used to revolving-door history of winning elections which ensured business as usual between the alternating Akali and Congress governments.


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