Settling old scores: Navjot Singh Sidhu and Akalis go on a warpath in Punjab
Punjab is witnessing a war at the moment – between the local bodies minister Navjot Singh Sidhu and the leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
Accusations are flying thick and fast, but the whole episode began when Sidhu's alleged that former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and deputy Sukhbir Badal had siphoned off funds from central schemes.
But for those who’ve watched Punjab politics for years carefully, this is simply the settling of old scores.
Sidhu has alleged that the Badals left the state in such a mess that it is not possible to implement projects like Smart City, Swachh Bharat, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS).
He has alleged that Punjab was sanctioned Rs 200 crore for the Ludhiana Smart City project and that the government released only Rs 32 crore, leaving the project nowhere.
Meanwhile, the Centre has clearly stated that no funds will be released for Amritsar and Jalandhar Smart City projects till the state shows sincerity in releasing its share of matching amount for the Ludhiana project. Similarly, Sidhu has said the state under the Badal regime did not give its share of Rs 120.20 crore under AMRUT projects and Rs 466 crore for the BRTS project in Amritsar.
While the balance amount was not released, the state government also did not give even a penny from its matching share of Rs 200 crore for the project. The funds were diverted,” he said, holding the former CM and his son Sukhbir Badal responsible for the slow progress on these projects.
He further said that the state was to provide its matching share of Rs 253.49 crore to Punjab Municipal Infrastructure Development Company (PMIDC) for these flagship projects of the Centre in 2016-17, but it did not release any money. He has claimed that the present Congress government would bring these stalled projects back on track and give its share of grants by raising funds through alternative sources such as land and mining auctions.
Sidhu has directly blamed the Badals for the mess while challenging them for a debate. He has also alleged large-scale irregularities in award of contracts and land during the previous regime.
A few days ago, Sidhu reportedly said in Ludhiana that the SAD-BJP combine government had failed to properly utilise Rs 1400 core central funds meant for urban development due to which the development in Punjab was put on the back burner.
The Akalis have hit back, reminding Sidhu that he is a cabinet minister also besides being a comedian and that he should ask the state finance department about the whereabouts of various financial grants received from the Centre rather than trying to create a 'roadside tamasha' about the same.
Senior Akali leader Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema took a dig at Sidhu's continuing participation in a television show and said it would be better if Sidhu sits in his office for four days and tries to understand the functioning of the government instead of rushing off to Mumbai every other day.
“If you do this you will come to know that each and every penny received from the Centre under various heads is accounted for. The entire amount received for the Ludhiana smart city project is with the treasury. Similarly, the Rs 114 crore you referred to as received for the AMRUT scheme is also with the finance department. So too is the money received from the finance ministry as part of the incentive fund. Instead of asking us about the money, you should ask the finance department when the money will be released,” he said.
“It is only an outpouring of frustration. He has been dreaming about acquiring the chief minister’s chair since long. He went to various shops with this in mind before being promised the deputy chief minister's post by the Congress. He did not get this post but his wish to become the chief minister is still very strong. That is why he is keen to project himself as someone who is bigger than the chief minister by resorting to big lies,” he continued.
The Akalis had earlier asked Sidhu not to turn governance into a comedy circus and either come out with proof of his embezzlement charges or apologise immediately for resorting to cheap theatrics.
“You are in the habit of telling white lies and making tall claims to earn a few laughs. You ought to change your ways now. Governance is not a Comedy Nights with Kapil show. Here, you will be made accountable for each and every word uttered by you,” said Cheema.
Settling old scores
According to political analysts, the roots of the ongoing feud between the two sides lie in the past.
“Both are trying to get back at each other to settle old scores. One needs to understand the friction between the two parties,” said a senior media person.
The Akalis opposed Sidhu from the very beginning when he left Patiala to contest from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat in 2004 on a BJP ticket. “They saw Sidhu's rise as a challenge to Bikramjit Singh Majithia, their strongest leader in Majha who is also Sukhbir's brother in law. It is a well known fact that while in power they tried to stall him from carrying out developmental works as Amritsar MP. There were occasions when he was not even invited to the state government programmes,” says the media person.
Sidhu went into hibernation after being replaced by Arun Jaitley as BJP's candidate from Amritsar in 2014. He did not campaign for the party in any of the subsequent assembly polls. Jaitley got a sound thrashing from Captain Amarinder Singh in the electoral battle that left the Akalis red faced as they were expecting an easy victory.
While Sidhu was quiet, it was his MLA wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu who went hammer and tongs at the Akalis accusing them of now allowing developmental work in her constituency of Amritsar (East). She also repeatedly called for the BJP calling off its alliance with the Akalis and going out alone in the assembly polls causing a lot of embarrassment to the Badals. The couple eventually left the BJP to join the Congress ahead of the recent state assembly polls.
Now, after taking over as the local bodies and culture minister Sidhu has started talking tough. There have been reports of his going after officials handpicked by his predecessor Anil Joshi of the BJP, who was the former local bodies minister.
A fortnight ago, he removed Hemant Batra, who was appointed as chief town planner by Joshi, on the grounds that he was not qualified. Anil Kumar Kansal, engineer-in-chief and chief vigilance officer was also removed from the post. More recently, Sidhu has suspended around a dozen officials for laxity in performing their duties.