In an e-Adda held this week, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh spoke on why he changed his mind to contest the next elections, the new farm laws and the crisis in the Congress leadership
Singh was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, and Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor
On contesting elections again
Before the election, I had said that this was going to be my last, but it’s not going to be my last term, till I can get Punjab out of the woods, which I think is my duty. And not only my duty, it’s also my love for my state. I resigned twice from the Parliament to be with my state. I have been in politics for 52 years and I take a lot of interest in doing what I can to pull us out of this mess – whether it’s the industrial mess or agricultural mess. If I can even do a little bit, it will be my contribution. So, I intend to stay on, and I intend to fight it and I intend to win it.
When I came, we didn’t have all the facts in front of us. For instance, our finances were in a terrible mess. What the Centre should be contributing to us in the food bill, for instance, they rather added Rs 31,000 crore to it, and our previous government (SAD-BJP government), instead of opposing it, accepted it as a loan. So, my debt has been going up and up. Secondly, they had no industrial policy. In the last two-three years, I have brought in Rs 71,000 crore of industrial investment. And it is important for us to see it through to the top and that it makes its contribution. Agriculture-wise, we’ve done a great job; this year has been a record harvest (wheat and paddy). So everywhere, it seems to be working, but you need time, everything needs time. And I need that time to be able to really say that I have now got to hang up my boots.
On the farm bills
We have a system in Punjab which has worked for 100 years, which is the arhtiya system, where the commission agents are there, farmers are there, and they have a relationship between them. The farmer always goes to the arhtiya men and takes whatever advance he needs – for a wedding, health emergency or other problems. So, it’s a system that has worked. Why are you messing around with this system? Second, when Punjab has contributed since 1967, we’re two percent, and we contribute 40 percent to the nation’s food pool, when you make laws, you must consult the people who are in this. Now in this case, we were not consulted at all, not that we would have agreed to what they wanted us to agree to like they’ve done now, but we have a right to put our views there, and maybe they would have thought our views were correct. Now, they move three farm laws, that have been totally rejected by everybody. In my House, I was the first to bring a bill. And, for the first time, there was unanimity among all parties, and we amended the national Bills, and took it to the Governor so that he could send to the President for his assent. When you take the stakeholders into conference, you must take every stakeholder. I’m the biggest producer and contribute to the food pool, and I’m not even in the discussion stage. I had to write to the Prime Minister in this regard. By that time, they had had a meeting and decided on the policy. Then, after the Prime Minister put Punjab on the board, there was no policy discussed, it was just some financial matter and then they were told: now go back home, the government has taken a decision. That’s not the way you decide on such major issues.
On where the farmers’ protests are headed
I had one farmer union that opted out, then you have two farmers’ unions (Bharatiya Kisan Union), Rajewal and Lakhowal, which belongs to the Badal group. And then there are other groups from various parts, but basically from southern Punjab, which has traditionally had this sort of farmers’ movement – be it the Muzara (tenant-farmers) movement or the Naxal movement or the Khalistani movement – some movement always dominates. So, that is again coming to the forefront. And these farmers are backed by everybody in Punjab. I’ve got 13,000 villages, and every village has contributed. Even today, I saw in the morning papers that a whole lot of people are preparing to go to Singhu border. They’re all sitting there, youngsters are all out in the fields. The others are all sitting there, their mothers are sitting there, children are sitting there. Why? Because they realise that if they are seeing something happen, it’s going to be the end of the farming community’s lucrativeness in Punjab. Why can’t you just allow things to carry on? I don’t understand why the government has been so rigid about this. You have amended the Constitution of India how many times – 111 or 112 – I don’t know how many times. If you withdraw these Bills once, sit with the farmer community and ask them, ‘all right, we withdraw this, now please tell us what do you want. What is wrong with this and what do you want us to replace?’ And then come to some suggestion and do it but here this fait accompli business that you just throw it on somebody and say, it’s done, they are not going to agree. I can tell you that the government may not agree, they’ve talked 12 times, they may talk 15 times in a row or 20 times, that’s not the issue. The issue is unless you can convince the farmer that what we are doing is in his larger interest, only then will he come back. Who are the farmers? I’ve got 13,000 villages, I’ve got nearly 200,000 servicemen who are wearing uniforms, I’ve got people who are maybe even the same number who have retired from the Army, like myself, they are also living in their villages. So if you add up, there are about 30-40 people from the services sitting in the villages. I bet you, at the Singhu border and the other one (Tikri), there would be a whole lot of Army, if you talk to them, every third one will say, I’m ex-Army. So, my point of saying this is that it’s not a Naxal movement as people make it out to be. The fact is that they are people who are looking to the future of their families, and they see a bleak future, that is why they’re doing it.
On whether a middle path is still possible
Well, I have said this before, and I say it again, and the farmers didn’t like it when I said it, but I say it again, that every battle, every war has to end in an agreement, whether it was World War I or II, whether in corporate disagreements or anywhere. So, you have to sit down, you sit down and resolve it. And it is for the government to come to that because they are the ones who created the Bill. And if you sit with them again and continue, and they get the impression that yes, the government is being serious about it, I’m sure you’ll find some solution.
On whether a political calculation is inhibiting the outreach from the Centre
Why just Punjab, you’ve got people from Uttarakhand, UP, Rajasthan and Haryana. When Haryana tried to block the bridge, they picked up all these cranes and threw them over the bridge. Now Punjab is not doing these things. Yes, they wanted me to stop the people from moving, and I said, I can’t, it’s a constitutional right of everyone to go and protest. And if any of my farmers or anybody wishes to go and protest in front of the Capital, they have every right to do so, I’m not going to stop anybody. I believe that we have a Constitution. And I believe that every farmer has the right under that Constitution to say what he wishes to say to his government who’s in power, and the power centre is Delhi, so, they want to go and make their point clear there. And it is Delhi who should sit down and talk to them. Among my farmers from Punjab, 112 have died, till yesterday, I don’t know how many have died from other states. I have given each one Rs 5 lakh, and one of their children I’m taking into government job. So, I know what sort of things are happening here, and how long do you want this to carry on and how many more people do we want to die?
On whether the status quo is sustainable
It’s not a question of status quo. Yes, there is a problem, our glaciers are melting, our river waters are falling, our groundwater is falling, we have to have a change. I became agriculture minister of the state in 1985. And then, I was the agricultural minister of the state from 2002 to 07. When I was the chief minister, I retained that portfolio. Today again, for the last four years, I’ve retained the portfolio, because that is my love, my subject. And I have always maintained this. Now, what is required is diversification. You have to get out of high water-requirement crops like paddy, for instance. Now paddy gives the farmer a very lucrative price. If you want to change it, you have to change the cropping pattern and then you want to arrange a system where the farmer can be assured that this is the price he’s going to get. Now, under the system which exists, the MSP system which is supported by the Food Corporation of India, for both wheat and rice, every farmer knows what he’s going to get. But he doesn’t know what he’s going to get for dal, or for some other crop like maize, etc. They announced support prices but they don’t support it. Now you got to support that. That’s the way we can change it. But I know our principal problem is water. When I was posted for the first time on the Chinese border in 1963, I remember glaciers there, which you couldn’t cross because you had hobnailed boots, and you could slip off, it was black ice all over the place. And I went there some years ago to revive old memories, and there was no glacier, it’s only rock. So, everything is disappearing. So, we know that is happening. And water here, when my father built his house in Patiala, the groundwater was 17 feet, now it’s 350 feet. How is my little farmer who owns one-two acres of land, going to put a tubewell to pump that water? He can’t. The cost of a tubewell for 350 feet will be something like Rs 2.5-3 lakh. That way, I’m in a crisis. River water is in a crisis. So, we have to come to an understanding where the Centre must wake up and tell us that yes, you come up with a proposal for diversification, we’ll back it. Then I can try and get the farmer off those water-intensive crops like sugarcane and paddy. But first, we have to start with some sort of confidence-building measures between our Punjab farmers and the Government of India.
On what the government can do to fix the ecological and economic problem
It’s difficult for me to say because the farmers have very clearly said that we want politicians to be off. So, we have never interfered, I don’t interfere other than ensuring that nobody blocks the road, if they want to go and come, they are free to do so, because that’s our right. So, for me to suggest something that what can possibly bring about some settlement would be encroaching on their territory. And I don’t want to encroach on their territory when they’ve clearly told us to stay out.
On whether the challenge for political parties is to win back people’s trust
As far as the farmer is concerned, they are not representing any particular community. You have Congressmen there, you have Akalis there, you have AAP people there, you have communists there, you have everybody there, it’s across the board. Nobody is making political speeches; they are only talking about agriculture and whatever they want from the Government of India. So, I don’t think that is going to be a problem. Apart from farmers, there’s so many things which we have done. And people are responding to that. Have you ever heard of a situation, for instance, that from a time when children were leaving government schools and going to private schools, the process has reversed? I’m now getting more people from the private schools into government schools, because we’ve got smart schools, we’ve got very good education at this time. The results in Class X have been better than private schools. Now, these are the sort of things that people look at. Then, we are putting wellness clinics in all our villages, there’s so many things going on. So, people are not going to just look at this. This is farmers versus GoI and here it is what we have achieved for the state.
On whether issues like climate change will be central to political campaigning
Now, this is definitely one of our main subjects. You’ve got some 200,000 people sitting there, and coming and going and coming and going, so, this is something which is definitely going to be very much there, but law and order also is a problem that nobody seems to be worried about. I’m worried about it. But because my neighbour seems to always like to mess around with us, and he’s trying to mess around with us again. And he hopes that this farmer agitation, when it heats up, and if the Government of India takes no decision then some of those heated chaps, youngsters, would be game to playing with them. And that is something that I have to watch out for because I have seen ever since October, since this farm agitation started, there has been an increase in weapons coming into Punjab, there are drones coming into Punjab. You know how many weapons I’ve received since October? About 1,900 weapons which we have caught, drones we have picked up, pistol and automatic rifles and all 11,000 rounds of ammunition I’ve picked up. Who are these meant for? There are very few cells here, let’s say, who are Pakistani-oriented cells, but they don’t have that sort of numbers to use these weapons. So, they are waiting for some disgruntlement to build up, so that they can then get recruits for this. We’ve eliminated 32 terrorist gangs; I’ve caught 238 terrorists who are in jail, some had to be shot in the encounters that took place with the police. That sort of thing is going on, so these are chaps from there and they are happy to use any situation and they’ve gotten a good situation now. And, therefore, my mind is on that too, I’ve got to stop that from happening. Lot of grenades and heroin are being flown in. When the Chinese drones come, they carry five pistols with two magazines of 10 rounds each with each pistol. They carry heroin, counterfeit currency, and what we shoot down gets entangled in wire or something and they can’t take off again, so we pick up. What about those that we haven’t picked up? They reach a destination. So, you are also getting that sort of build-up taking place. Heroin is sent for money, they don’t want to send Indian rupees, heroin is much more lucrative to be sold on the streets, so that the terrorism business can get more money. Now that is the thing I’m worried about, because any agitation that starts can contribute to this, not that it’s contributing at the moment. People are not bothered about this; they’re looking at their own stomach and their food and their fields. But you never know when people get into this sort of a thing. I’ve seen it happening in Punjab. I’ve seen Punjab at a time when in that terrorist period, blood of 35,000 Punjabis was spilled on our streets, and I don’t want that to happen again. And as long as I’m here, I won’t let it happen again.
On whether he is worried a hardliner fringe in Punjab could be stoked up
This is something that can always happen. I’ve seen it happening, 52 years is a long time in politics, and I’ve been through the (Operation) Blue Star period, I’ve been through the post-Blue Star period, I’ve been through the period when my chief minister (Beant Singh) was assassinated. I’ve been subsequently into the other period, it nearly started again, had we started digging the SYL (Sutlej-Yamuna Link) Canal again. And I had to risk my own job by refusing to allow finishing of their Bill in the assembly. I’ve got a 600-mile border, right from Akhnoor down to Fazilka, with Punjab, with Pakistan, and they have open access now. Earlier it used to be tunneling under the wire or crossing the river, now you’ve got drones, and these drones will increase in capacity. At the moment, they’re small, they’ll become bigger and bigger, and, then, there’ll be other things. So, that is why I went to the Home Minister (Amit Shah) and spoke to him and I said, you have to find some system of bringing these drones down. There was a time when I asked the Air Force, and the Air Force said that these are too small and fly too low, we can’t deal with it, unless you give your BSF, because the frontline is BSF, unless you give them some sort of weapon which has low-flying radar capability and to shoot them down with some sort of weaponry or small missiles, I’m sure there’s so much advancement in this that there’s bound to be something somewhere. So, that is what I said to him and this was just before this agitation was on. And he said he’s looking at it, so I hope they’re looking at it, because it’s not only us, it’s happening in Kashmir. A lot of the weapons I picked up in the Jammu and Pathankot region were all destined for Kashmir.
On Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s comments
He always says things which he doesn’t mean. It’s all well saying that we should bury the hatchet and move forward together. Is he saying this on his own behalf or on behalf of the Pakistan Army? Does he control the ISI? Will the ISI say the same thing? These operations are all ISI operations. Is everyone who runs that country on board or is it only General Bajwa shooting out of his mouth? I don’t believe them at all. In December 1964, I was asked by the-then Army commander, Lt General Harbaksh Singh, if I’d like to be his ADC (aide-de-camp), and I said, yes sir, I’d be honoured. I became his ADC Western Command, which then existed from the Uttar Pradesh border across Ladakh, across Kashmir, across Punjab, across Rajasthan, down to Gujarat. At that time, the Americans were giving us a lot of assistance because the China War had just finished, and they would send us what we call Situation Reports — morning, afternoon, evening — three times. I don’t remember one day when there was no firing on that border in Kashmir by Pakistani troops, not Chinese. That was also recorded. And we knew which pickets who went to, how much ammunition went, everything which was going on, and from 1964 to now, we are in 2021, and we’ve still got the same thing going on. So, what is General Bajwa saying? Let him get everyone on board including the civil administration and all his military chaps around him and these ISI fellows and then talk.
On secularism and nationalism
India has been a democracy for long. That’s why the other day I said this, when somebody said that ‘Haryana is reserving so much for Haryanvis, and Uttarakhand is reserving so much for them, and Himachal Pradesh is so much for Himachalis’, I said, I am Indian, I am for all Indians. I don’t believe in this business of either religion or regionalism and all. How will this country grow if you start talking like this? If you are going to bring everything into communalism and casteism, everything we have brought up against, all our freedom struggle which was against, how we are coming back to square one again. Forget that, look at my own religion, what was the Sikh religion? Why was Guru Gobind Singh ji, why was the langar started? Langar was started so that everyone from every community could sit together and wait, when they know nobody is to sit with anybody there, and you can be fed by anybody and you can eat yourself. These were religions which brought out secularism. That is our country. And if we don’t believe in that, this country won’t have any future; if we are going to break us into little communities or communal details, I’m not for it. And I don’t believe that any chief minister should have the right to say that you can’t come. I want to ask the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister (Jai Ram Thakur), what right has he to stop a Punjabi from going to buy land there? Why is Rajasthan stopping people from buying there? We don’t stop anyone, anyone from any state can come, they can come from Kerala and come and buy land in Punjab, I have no problem. I don’t know what is this business that we are doing now? We are totally isolating ourselves. And we are forgetting what India is supposed to be: a secular democracy.
On what lessons India has taken from its wars
You are referring to The Monsoon War: Young Officers Reminisce. It’s about the 1965 operations. And that was written jointly by Lt General Tajinder Singh Shergill and I. We were coursemates from the Army. He has retired. Now, what lessons can you learn from this? The lessons you can learn are: No. 1, I can’t understand this, with every passing day, I see reports that Chinese have now pulled back, great things have happened. You mark my word, this summer, they will come back. We learn nothing. You haven’t seen the Chinese. I’m writing a book now on the China-India business and I’ve gone back from the time of the emperors of China. And I’ve come down to Mao (Tse-tung), Deng (Xiaoping) and now to this chap (Xi Jinping). Do you think they care? They have made a clear-cut pattern that they want to recover all the territories they have lost over the centuries. And they have got us marked. We are South-Western Command of theirs. And then they’ve got other places marked, including areas in Russia. A very interesting article which came out written by a Chinese lady who had some sort of a Chinese thinktank, and she has made it clear that by this year, China will get back this: Taiwan, and then India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and God alone knows what all. And today a report comes out that the Chinese army is the biggest and most powerful in the world. I thought that things are a bit slower and it could take 10 years for China to catch up. But China already seems to have overtaken the Americans. Now that report is right or wrong, I can’t say, but it’s interesting to know that they’re moving very fast militarily. Second part is the collusion, which is going to be there between them and Pakistan, they built the Karakoram Highway, and now they’re building a Karakoram Highway across the Karakoram Pass and under the range, a train link-up with Tibet. And that’s going to come and they’re going to go down along Karachi and it turns right to Gwadar, and this is going to cost about $28 billion.This new tunnel that they are building, to link up at Gwadar. And you’ve given the Chinese navy access for the port there. And you are going to see a collusive war, whenever it does take place. So we have to be prepared for both sides, I have to be prepared in my little way to see that this doesn’t happen. And there’s nobody supporting them. And the Indian defence services have to be prepared for both sides, there and here. I’m sure the chief of staff and the Chief of Army Staff, Navy Staff, Air Staff, all are doing this and looking at this issue. But it’s a question of giving them the equipment — the carpenter requires tools before he can produce something. Same as the army — you’ve got to have weapons how to fight, and you’ve got to have weapons that can match the weapons of the Chinese and match the weapons of the western border, then only we make sure that whenever this happens, I can assume and I that’s my own conviction, that you’re going to have a collusive war.
On the crisis in Congress
I think we have made it clear that after the elections are over, the Congress is going to have an ICC session and elect its own President. And I’m sure that is only a couple of months down the line. And I think we should wait for that. You can’t just write off a party by saying that, you don’t have leadership, or that there is a confusing message coming out from there. There’s never a confusing message. The fact is that this party is 100 and some years old. Everybody, every village knows who are congressmen. This is the party that brought freedom to India. And it’s something that people remember. People come now, the Hindutva wave and they want to build the mandir and that sort of thing. So people may shift here, and somebody may do something else in some other state Finally, the Congress Party is there. And if there’s any secular face of this country, it is the Congress party.
On the big draconian laws brought in by the Congress
Sometimes wrong laws are brought, yes. I think Rahul himself has said that the Emergency was a mistake. He said so publicly. Now, you can introspect, and you can find out that things are right or wrong, whatever it is. But don’t think that this doesn’t happen in our country or by the BJP being in power this will disappear. Nothing’s going to disappear, it is going to be there and it is going to carry on. Any government that comes in will have to face these issues. Because we are growing at a very fast rate. We are going to be 1.4 billion now, and we are going to carry on and this is going to add to problems. I was going to just mention something, which is China’s much less than us. We are overtaking them too. So when these things happen, why is my law and order breaking down today? Why do I have instances when law and order is broken down. Yesterday in Amritsar, somebody had raided a jeweller and taken 26 lakhs of his jewellery. Because, again, there is no money. The farmer is short of money. We’ve had one year of COVID, people didn’t have money. This is what happened, then we deal with it. And we’ve caught those guys, we caught another two committed murder and we put them in the first go. So we are working very fast on these. So these things happen. I don’t look at these as a problem that can’t be resolved. I think anything, whether it is corruption, or whether it is any sort of wrong policy, policies change, you can’t have static policies. A policy made in 1947 may be outdated. And 2020, you’ve got to find a new policy. And you’ve got to frame it again. This is what I’m saying on agriculture policies — they have made a policy which they think is workable, but it’s not workable, therefore change it. And therefore if you want to have another amendment in the constitution and bring the amendment, and let’s amend the constitution and sit down and make it. Policies keep coming and policies keep changing. Why has the constitution been changed 111 or 112 times? There has to be a reason for it. Because times change and return changes the situation and the requirements are different..
On whether he is still supportive of the Gandhis’ leadership of the Congress
A hundred and one percent. Look, I have known Rajiv Gandhi. We were just one year apart in school. He came to school in 54. And I have known him — a thorough gentleman, a wonderful person. Then Mrs Gandhi has been an excellent president. People may say anything, but I’ve seen her work. She’s very perceptive, excellent and knows what she’s doing. Generations change, time changes. Give a person a chance to just start attacking Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka ji. And I know them both very well. And they’re both very presentable, young, perceptive leaders. The trouble is that everyone wants to think that Indira ji, with so many years of experience, is going to come and sit in the chair tomorrow, or (Jawahar Lal Nehru) Panditji or even (AB) Vajpayee ji, whom I found to be a very fine Prime Minister. I was Chief Minister when he was Prime Minister and I know how he dealt with things. You had Shastri ji, another very fine leader. So everyone needs time to grow into opposition. Mrs. Gandhi now is there — a very fine person — she wants to hand over to somebody else. So she wants it to be done. Let AICC decide. And I hope that Rahul will agree. And I also hope that Priyanka ji will carry on. She’s a very fine lady, and very perceptive. I’ve known them since they were little children.I would be very happy to see the nation in their hands
On what the Congress should do to take on the BJP
The thing is when you have a communal wave policy, which there is, nobody looks then. Then everyone turns to religion. India responds very much to religion. And I think when you’ve got the mandir built, everybody’s looking in that direction. Today India is not looking in the secular frame. I hope it will start looking. I think everyone comes and goes. I remember Akali Dal, there used to be a Khalistan movement. Where is it now? It’s finished. And these are things that happen, they happen and go. It’s not that I don’t want mandir built or gurdwaras, mosques or churches. I want everyone to build them but that’s a private business. I don’t want it to be used politically. And that is why I’m saying that I believe in total secularism. I am an old soldier. It’s not like we are ignorant. But when I was in the army as a young officer, I knew the name of my President and Prime Minister and Defence Minister. That was it. I didn’t know anything else. Because we were not looking at that. It was our own little world in the army, which we looked at and our own family, which was our regiment and that sort of thing. That is how I want India. I want India to be a secular India. I don’t want a communal India.
On fixing Punjab’s drug problem
I very categorically said that in four weeks, I will break the backbone of this. This is what I said. We have set up a very powerful SIT (Special Investigations Team). There are about 4,000 people in jail who were in the drugs business. I have extradited people from Albania, Rome, and one is in the Hong Kong jail with the Chinese not giving him to us. But these are the real bigwigs – three of them have already come back and for one we are waiting for the Chinese. Other than that, we have broken the back here. There is nothing happening now. If you ask me if drugs are on the market, of course, they are on the market. Where are they coming from? Drugs are coming. The Indian army is occupying one of the most strategic locations called Uri, which is one of the ingress points for drugs. Then you have got drugs coming from Nepal. I’ve got drugs coming from the Kandla port. We along with the BSF caught 750 kg drugs worth thousands of crores coming from Kandla. Delhi is one of your biggest hubs. So we fight it, we try to hold it, we are in touch with all the states. I’ve tried to bring all the states together, and tell them that let’s sit down and fight this battle together. Unfortunately, when the five Chief Ministers met, right after COVID came, and everything came to a standstill. Our officers are in touch with each other. So there’s a lot of collaboration going on on this anti-drug business. What was a problem for us was those people who are drug addicts, they wouldn’t go to our drug centres. They were worried more about social stigma, so they’d go to private centres to get things done. Now, every government centre is full with these youngsters who want to get cured. So I’m happy that that way we’ve done something. So while we have enforcement, we are also doing rehabilitation work. And by god’s grace, I hope we can get our youngsters out of this.