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The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab has completed six months in power. At a time when the party is gearing up to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in the poll-bound states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh by flaunting its ‘performance’ in Punjab, it is befitting to take stock of the AAP government’s performance.
The party came to power after winning an unprecedented 92 out of 117 seats in Punjab, bringing to an end the electoral dominance of the Congress and the Akali Dal in the state’s politics since Partition.
The verdict was as much a result of anti-incumbency as of faith in the ‘new’ party. The party managed to create a silent wave in its favour by promising to bring an end to what it called ‘institutionalised’ corruption, mafia raj and a drug-infested system. It also promised to bring Punjab’s economy back on the rails by bringing in investment in the farm sector.
Further, following the party’s ‘Delhi model’ of development, the AAP also promised improvements in the health and education sectors.
Underlining the unemployment issue, which causes the state’s youth to emigrate in huge numbers, the party promised to create government jobs, improve the education sector and also regularise the jobs of temporary employees. The party also went far beyond its rival parties in promising ‘freebies’, like the supply of free electricity up to 300 units to each household, a Rs 1,000 payment to each adult woman in Punjab, and so on.
Execution: hit or miss?
The past six months have witnessed several decisions being taken by the Bhagwant Mann government in line with its poll promises. However, the manner in which they were announced reveals the character of the ten-year-old party.
Mann’s very first decision was to launch an anti-corruption helpline number, which was announced on social media and asked people to record audio/videos of officials asking for bribes and send them via WhatsApp it to the given mobile number. Among the most prominent faces to fall into the trap was the then state health minister Vijay Singla who was not only sacked, but also arrested on charges of corruption by the chief minister after a ‘monitoring operation’.
Kejriwal, while hailing the decision as the ‘dawn of a new era’, reiterated the party’s avowed policy of ‘zero tolerance for corruption’. Ironically, another AAP minister is presently in the dock facing corruption charges, being yet another victim of a ‘sting operation’.
The government also announced its intention to get a bill passed (which it did) to amend the pension rules for legislators, allowing them to avail of pensions for only one term even if they had been members for multiple terms, as was the case earlier.
Aiming to end ‘VIP culture’, a decision was taken in phases to withdraw the security cover of 424 people, including former legislators. The move was justified in the name of augmenting the police force on ground to fight organised crime and corruption. The government, however, had to partly backtrack on this move after the assassination of popular Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala, who was among those whose security cover had been withdrawn.
In the service sector, temporary government jobs have been regularised and posts have been advertised, however, not at the scale promised. Teachers at universities and colleges finally received the Seventh Pay Commission, after years of waiting, though they will have to wait longer still for arrears. On the services delivery front based on the ‘Delhi model’, the government also opened several mohalla clinics in Punjab and has upgraded government schools, but again, not at the scale expected.
On the issue of drugs, arrests have been made in thousands of cases involving serving officers, leading to a visible improvement in the situation on the ground; or at the very least, keeping the situation from worsening further.
In a state reeling under massive debt, freebies have come in the form of free power up to 300 units for every household. To revive the state’s once-famed manufacturing sector, the party has been trying to woo potential investors, but without much success. Mann’s trip to Germany for this very purpose ended on a disastrous note, with the Opposition alleging that he returned to alcoholism despite taking a vow publicly to abstain.
The farming sector, reeling under the post Green Revolution crisis, has not witnessed much-needed diversification. The government, in its efforts to encourage farmers, has announced a minimum support price (MSP) for Moong dal, which not only allows farmers to have a third crop for the year, but also helps in augmenting the depleting nutrient quality of the soil.
Interestingly, most of these decisions were announced in a very ‘public’ mode, typical of the AAP brand of theatrical, media-fed politics which aims to get traction on social/new media platforms using videos and tweets besides regular, full-page newspaper advertisements.
The party’s penchant for dramatics was evidenced in the recent hullabaloo created by party workers about the BJP allegedly trying to lure AAP legislators in Punjab as it allegedly did to other Opposition MLAs in states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa, using monetary or ministerial inducement. The party aimed to highlight the integrity of its members and also take a potshot at the Congress, whose legislators have allegedly been victims of the ‘Operation Lotus’.
The episode also led to a very public spat between Punjab governor Banwarilal Purohit and the party as the latter demanded that a special session of the legislative assembly be called for a floor test and the governor initially declined to do so on legal advice.
Congress and BJP leaders, for their part, have been claiming for long that many AAP legislators are disgruntled and ready to defect of their own volition. The AAP leadership must be credited for averting defections so far as the party, in the past, has witnessed regular defection. Half of the 20 legislators who won on AAP tickets or its support in 2017 assembly elections switched sides and the same was the case with the four MPs who had won in 2014.
Besides coming up short on the huge promises it made before the election, the AAP has also faced the ‘perception’ challenge as the Opposition has alleged that the Mann government in Punjab is a proxy government run by the party high command in Delhi (read, Kajriwal). Further, the Punjab government is accused of using large amounts of Punjab government funds and resources to promote the party in other poll-bound states.
Chief minister Mann has not been able to project himself as a leader of Punjab having relative autonomy vis-à-vis his Delhi bosses. This, despite his playing the regional card by opposing the demand to make Panjab University a central university, or the extension of central services rules to the Chandigarh Union Territory (UT) employees or employees of UT-based educational institutions.
The omnipresence of Raghav Chadha, a Delhi-based Punjabi politician and now a Rajya Sabha member from the state seen as a ‘regent’ of the AAP’s Delhi durbar, has not helped in dispelling the perception.
Kejriwal has also been very public in endorsing every major government decision. He was seen as giving Rajya Sabha tickets to the non-Punjabis, however, the party later made amends by nominating an environmentalist and a social activist from Punjab for the remaining two seats.
On the electoral front, too, the party has faced setbacks. Sikh separatist leader Simranjit Singh Mann of the radical Akali Dal (Amritsar) faction won the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll earlier this year, necessitated by Mann’s resignation as an MP. This came as a setback as the party in power in the state is expected to win such polls.
However, the spectre of the revival of militancy remains distant despite the Sangrur verdict and other similar developments, such as the Akal Takht Jathedar reportedly asking Sikh youth to keep arms to ‘defend their faith’; the public display of Bhindranwale posters; or the Akali Dal demand to release ‘Bandi-Sikhs’.
Communal peace has prevailed even though the simmering sacrilege issue is yet to be dealt with to the satisfaction of the Sikh masses. However, the issue of illegal sand mining in the border regions as flagged by the security agencies, frequent landing of drones laden with weapons, fake currency and drugs from across the border and also the incident of the rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Punjab police intelligence headquarters; all show a threat to national security and the ethnic peace in the border state.
The inexperienced AAP government has a major task before it to keep the state agencies and forces in high alert and in a fighting mode. Cooperation with the Union government in this aspect, as well in seeking economic assistance, is of vital importance.
The precarious state of Punjab’s economy and its geo-strategic location demands a certain degree of understanding and cooperation between the Union government and the state, something that was visible during Captain Amarinder Singh’s regime.
As for the promise to root out corruption and organised crime by the entrenched mafia, much more systematic effort is required.