New Delhi: Manpreet Singh Badal (53), the former finance minister in the Parkash Singh Badal’s cabinet in Punjab, has recently been in the news for joining the Congress, following a merger with his own People’s Party of Punjab (PPP). By his own admission, he resigned from SAD-BJP when he found that the coalition government wasn’t ready to reduce the revenue deficit by taking tough measures and complying with the UPA government’s conditions for a debt waiver of Rs 35,000 crore. Now, Badal’s only aim is to bring the Congress party back to power in Punjab and work towards long-term sustainable development, so that the state can regain its lost glory.
In an exclusive e-mail interview to Firstpost, he discussed various issues:
Since you were the finance minister in the SAD-BJP government, let's begin with the economy of Punjab. The general impression is that it is going from bad to worse. What's wrong exactly?
Badal: The state is deeply indebted. The total debt of Punjab is close to Rs 1.30 lakh crore, which is monstrous. There is a huge revenue deficit as well. It is a vicious circle because the debt size ensures that a large portion of the state's revenue goes towards servicing it. As a former finance minister, I can tell that around 25 percent of the total earnings go towards servicing debt. Add to it the other committed expenditure of salaries, pensions etc, and you have precious little left for the development of the state. The present state government was not ready to take tough measures and continued with crass populism.
Today, Punjab lacks quality political leadership.
Let's discuss industries and agriculture.
Badal: If someone describes Punjab as ‘Granary of India’ today, it provokes more smirks than smiles. The quality of Punjab's produce of wheat and rice is inferior, simply because the government has made no effort to improve the quality of cultivation. The land-holdings are becoming progressively smaller. Close to three-quarters of Punjab's land holdings are less than four acres in size. Such small land holding means that crop diversification, especially in horticulture, is not feasible. Moreover, there is no supporting infrastructure in the form of modern warehousing, transport, food processing industry etc. The irrigation system is in a state of disrepair. Water and soil pollution exacerbate the problem. It is a hopeless situation. Punjab's produce pales in comparison to Haryana's rice, Madhya Pradesh's wheat, Maharashtra's (Baramati-Nashik belt) horticulture.
Punjab's once famous industry clusters of hosiery at Ludhiana, sports equipment at Jalandhar, steel in Mandi Gobindgarh, the cottage industries in Amritsar are moribund today because of poor infrastructure and restrictive government policies. No major industrial investment has come to Punjab in the last many years. The only investment that has come is in real estate, which to be honest beyond a point does more harm than good — as it artificially jacks up the prices and locks up the funds.
What's the youth and employment scenario? Do you find the youth frustrated under the present regime?
Badal: Punjab's youth were famous for their fortitude and vigour. Today, when we talk about them, it’s about the drug menace. There are no employment opportunities. Most of them have to leave their state to eke out a living. But that is the beginning of despair, because once they go out of their state, they realise that the education of their state, hasn't equipped them for the modern world. When I travel abroad, as an Indian I feel immense pride to see youngsters from India doing well in technological fields. But as a Punjabi, I feel disheartened to see that while youngsters from other states are employed in top companies, boys from Punjab are driving taxis. There is nothing dishonourable in driving a taxi, it is just that the youth of Punjab have to undergo a struggle that can be entirely attributed to the failure of successive governments.
Recently there was news that the state government had mortaged jails, widows home etc to get over its financial worries. Your view?
Badal: As I said, the state is in deep debt. The total debt is approximately a third of the state's GDP. There are delays in paying salaries, pensions etc. What makes it unconscionable is that the state government shows the most reckless tendencies when it comes to spending taxpayer money. The ministers and pseudo government-appointees live like feudal lords benefiting from exchequer's money, while the state continues to slide. They are auctioning and selling-off public properties.
How has the drugs menace hit the state's economy?
Badal: It’s a Rs 10,000-crore drug racket, an organised mafia, in which a few rogue elements from the police and a section of politicians are involved. It’s a termite that has eaten into the innards of the state. The degradation is visible everywhere. Our youth was famous for excelling in army and sports. Today, we hardly see any significant representation of Punjab in sports or armed forces. Lack of career progression ensures that youths are frustrated and drawn towards narcotics that are easily available, largely through collusion between authorities and anti-social elements.
What is the Congress' blueprint for the state's economic revival?
Badal: PPP had always articulated an 11-point agenda for the reform of Punjab. The Congress fully appreciates that and it is in sync with their vision of Punjab, which is the reason that we have come together. If Punjab could end terrorism in the state, this drug menace can be done away with. Our emphasis is on economic development and good governance. Congress is the only party with strong central leadership that can bring a turnaround through long-term planning. The need is to apply the basic law of science in statecraft, reduce debt considerably, check corruption and build infrastructure of international specifications.
Initially the PPP was in talks with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab for an alliance. Now the AAP has criticised you for joining hands with a 'corrupt' Congress. What is your response to it?
Badal: The AAP believes that they are the custodians of honesty and uprightness. Far from it! It was AAP’s NRI supporters who wanted to be a part of PPP. In fact, AAP is a small pawn in a larger chess game. The Congress is a big player with clear blueprint that can tackle multiple issues. It’s not just about winning the election; the need is to run the government successfully to bring change.
The AAP's message is getting good resonance among the masses. How do you see AAP faring in the election?
Badal: Time will tell. Harold Wilson once said: “A week is a long time in politics”. By that token, a year (Punjab goes to polls in 2017) is an eternity.
Why did PPP fail to make it big on its own?
Badal: It is wrong to say that PPP did not make it big big. In fact, PPP was a precursor to AAP. We espoused causes and raised issues much before they were discussed by AAP at the national level. Ours was a young party, and the ruling establishment tried to annihilate us by using its money and muscle power. They systematically targeted our cadre, persecuted us and used all sorts of unfair means to nip us in the bud. We were the first to have opposed VVIP culture, cars with beacon lights etc. I used to travel to Delhi for official work by train on my own expenses.
Do you expect the finance portfolio, if the Congress comes to power?
Badal: It would be presumptuous and to be honest, a bit silly to talk about portfolios right now. We joined the Congress party without any precondition. Despite the PPP being a small party, the Congress top leadership showed generosity and respect to us while we were in talks prior to the merger. The purpose right now is to end the decade-long misrule that has taken Punjab to its nadir.