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AAP Sacking its Minister Causes Stir in Punjab and Beyond

The Punjab government’s biggest challenge is to revive the sagging economy of Punjab, and it is yet to go after the big fish in corruption, but its latest move has made a sensation.
AAP Sacking its Minister Causes Stir in Punjab and Beyond

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

Until 20th May, wherever in Punjab I went, people told me when I quizzed them about the two-month-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) state government that we should “wait for six months to judge them, as it is too early to say”. This line has, in a sense, got a new spin because of what has happened in Punjab on Tuesday. The sacking of a minister allegedly caught in the act of taking a “one per cent cut” from government contracts, has caused a stir in Punjab and the country. After all, when did we last hear of a government sacking its own minister over bribery or any other corruption charges? In Punjab, which has been saddled with corruption, this is a big step and bound to cause a sensation. Further, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has asked all cabinet ministers not to appoint relatives as their assistants, because of the earlier practice among some ministers taking bribes through family members.

This event should also remind us that while the people of Punjab were not yet critically examining the performance of the AAP government in Punjab, the news media and social media certainly are! It is common-sense wisdom not to evaluate a government that has been in power for only two months, as AAP has been in Punjab, that too for the first time. Yet it seems the media has been going through a revolution of high expectations—as if Mann has Duke Prospero’s magic wand from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and could make everything alright in a trice.

With a view to the future, we must view developments in Punjab around three crucial interlinked aspects: What the AAP government is trying to do, as we can discern so far, the impression Opposition parties are trying to create of its government, and finally, how interest groups are mobilising to pressurise it. Let us take the last aspect first: We see the mobilisation of interest groups such as temporary teachers, employees, and transportation-sector staff on the one hand and the farmers on the other hand. To be fair, there is virtually no department or area of governance in Punjab that does not temporary employees. And, within them the conditions of teachers in schools, colleges and universities are worse than of the temporary employees in government departments.

Punjab has numerous categories of teachers, and each is paid a different salary. So, there are contractual teachers, ad hoc teachers, and teachers appointed on a lecture basis. There are also the newly-appointed regular teachers, getting paid just a basic salary for three years, with no other allowances or perks. This payment structure is unlike regular teachers, who get perks with their salary from the month they join work. For many years, most teachers have served on just a basic salary, which is hardly sufficient for an honourable living.

The situation of other employees is no different. Instead of making them permanent employees, previous governments of Punjab made their temporary status permanent. The AAP government inherited this challenge from the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance governments and the Congress governments.

All these employees have been protesting for years, but their struggles have now intensified, primarily because of the promises AAP made to them during the election. Farmers’ organisations have also been raising their demands and expectations based on the many challenges they confront. Recently, they moved towards Chandigarh, the capital city, with a charter of demands. Since they were not allowed to enter the city, they stopped at Mohali and began an agitation. On the next day, Mann invited the farmers and held a three-hour meeting with them. They emerged satisfied and ended the agitation.

The second aspect is how the Opposition parties have created the impression, directly and indirectly, that the AAP government is a big flop. The vernacular press has continuously targeted the government with the argument that it has failed to fulfil its promises made during the election campaign. In the beginning, the media consistently raised two issues. First, the government has not said anything about the payment of Rs. 1,000 that the AAP had promised to women. Secondly, it has not yet provided up to 300 units of free electricity to everybody, again as promised.

Finally, the state government announced that it would provide the free electricity from July. The government also created different categories of electricity consumers based on caste to determine the ability to pay bills. Now, the BJP started arguing that the AAP government was discriminating against castes in the general category by giving the Scheduled Castes some privileges. Similarly, Akali Dal leaders are consistently raising matters related to the concerns of the Sikh community. One of them is the release of Sikhs who have completed their sentences but languish in jails. They choose to forget that these Sikh prisoners were in prisons during the SAD-BJP and Congress governments too.

Similarly, a discourse around security concerns is constantly being raised in Punjab. Specifically, there is talk about terrorist threats and arms and drug smuggling. Then, early in May, the Punjab Police party that had arrested BJP leader Tajinder Singh Bagga in Delhi and was bringing him to Punjab was intercepted, and the Haryana government secured Bagga’s release. This incident was similar to what happened with Jignesh Mevani, the sitting legislator from Vadgam in Gujarat, whom the Assam Police arrested in April. So in a way, the BJP got a taste of its own medicine. However, in Punjab, on the very next day after Bagga’s arrest, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided three establishments allegedly of the newly-elected AAP legislator from Dharamkot, Jaswant Singh Gajjan Majra—and found nothing.

Above all, AAP has had to face significant criticism on the nomination of five members in the Rajya Sabha. Truth be told, AAP has shown it is moving with a definite plan and means business. It has shown the people of Punjab things they were not aware of. They learned that former ministers and MLAs do not vacate their allotted furnished houses immediately after losing an election. And when they do exit, they take the movable properties such as furniture away with them. Further, former ministers in Punjab would not return the official vehicles, such as cars, right after they lost power.

Consider another issue, of the village common land or panchayat lands, in Punjab. This issue was long forgotten in the state, but the new government revived it within a month when Panchayat Minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal revealed the government has got many encroached lands near Chandigarh vacated. This news virtually shocked people After that, it took many other steps to secure and clear more panchayat land.

However, the AAP government has not touched the big sharks in corruption yet. The government is also quiet on the sacrilege issue that rocked the state in 2015 and helped the Congress party win the 2017 election. Recall that the Capt Amarinder Singh-led state government did nothing to resolve this crisis when it was in charge of the state.

Now, to some it may seem that the present political dispensation is doing everything right, but its biggest challenge will be to ensure the state economy recovers. And that will not happen even within a year of its coming to power. Moreover, as the incidents of Tuesday indicate, there is no guarantee that its elected representatives will be honest. The only safety net for the present government, considering the tremendous financial strength of the Opposition parties and their unabated campaign against AAP in general and party convenor and Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, in particular, is the mandate of the people. Punjab’s voters brought AAP to power on 92 out of 116 seats. Remember: Even they did not realise voting for honest governance would mean they cannot get their work done through dubious means.

The author was a professor of sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and is a former president of the Indian Sociological Society. The views are personal.

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