Aditi Phadnis: The SAD case of Punjab

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 15, 2010 20:01 hrs

Sukhbir Singh Badal is the living, walking, talking six-foot reason why agriculture should be taxed. He is the sole male heir to the vast Badal fortune that, former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, chief rival and bitter Badal critic, says, runs to about Rs 35,000 crore. Sukhbir is part of the GenY brigade in Indian politics: the young, educated and proud-to-be-rich politician.

"So what if we have 28 air conditioners in our house or 44? The point is they are paid and accounted for. Our family’s is not a rags-to-riches story. We have agricultural land in Punjab, UP and Rajasthan. A whole village is named after our family, the Chak Badal village in Punjab. My grandmother’s home is a village. We’ve had a transport business since 1947. In any case, how much would 28 air conditioners cost? Rs 5,00,000?" he once told this reporter angrily.

He’s not wrong. The ruling class in Punjab is much wealthier than ruling classes elsewhere in India. The Punjab countryside is littered with serving and former MLAs and ministers who are cousins, uncles and family retainers of sundry ministers and chief ministers — whether from the Akali Dal or the Congress.

Badal has the confidence of old money. You can see it in his heavy Swiss watch, the sleek foreign car standing in his porch and in his manner: watchful but quietly disdainful. At 40-something, he speaks the language of someone who’s spent a lifetime in politics. The truth is he’s had one term as Rajya Sabha MP, three truncated terms in the Lok Sabha and a Union minister of state for industry in the second Cabinet of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. With minimum exertion, he was made president of the Akali Dal prior to being elevated as deputy chief minister of Punjab.

Little wonder, then, that cousin Manpreet (Sukhbir’s father and Manpreet’s father are brothers) chose the wrong guy to tangle with. What Manpreet should have done is counsel Sukhbir about the perils of spending one’s way to disaster. Maybe he did.

Congress MLA Lal Singh commented in the Punjab Assembly: "Manpreet is like a caged lion. He can only roar," clearly indicating that others saw the denouement coming, even if Manpreet didn’t. Last week, Manpreet was not only divested of the finance ministership of Punjab and suspended from the Akali Dal but his constituency Gidderbaha’s charge was also wrested from him and taken by Sukhbir.

What caused such a stiff sentence? As finance minister, Manpreet had been vocal about the crisis in Punjab’s finances, calling repeatedly to slash the state government’s subsidy bill by 50 per cent, doing away with populist welfare schemes and the need for austerity in government functioning. Over the past three years, concessions worth Rs 1,000 crore have been granted by the Akali-BJP government, by deviating from the value added tax (VAT) regime. Punjab has a debt of nearly Rs 70,000 crore. The state infrastructure is a mess. His efforts to increase duty on electricity, cess on VAT and other revenue-augmenting measures were stonewalled by the BJP in the 2009-10 Budget. In the 2010-11 Budget, he apparently gave up the effort to plug the revenue budget and his signature scheme was the allocation of Rs 400 crore to clean the state’s air and water and for climate change.

But the issue today is the central debt write-off of Rs 35,000 crore that Manpreet is supposed to have negotiated. Punjab can get out of the debt hole by agreeing to do what the Centre says: impose property tax, reduce subsidy on power and hand over state accounts to the comptroller general of India. Obviously no politician in his right mind will agree to the last. But the first two could have been negotiated.

Sukhbir was having none of that. He saw Manpreet taking the V P Singh route to oust him (in the interests of austerity, Manpreet drives his car himself, has minimal security and refuses to touch cashew nuts offered to ministers at public functions, according to newspaper reports from Punjab).

The fact is the two brothers can’t stand each other. It is also the clash of two mindsets: Manpreet has been to St Stephen’s College and studied law in England. Sukhbir has studied business management in the US. Neither needs to work. Each thinks he is more accomplished than the other.

Hours after he was dropped from the government, Manpreet called a press conference. "The SAD [Shiromani Akali Dal] was my religion till it remained under the command of my uncle Parkash Singh Badal, but under Sukhbir the party’s atmosphere has become stifling. Believe me, I am finished with the SAD, the party I left today is not the Akali Dal I grew up in. This is Sukhbir’s Akali Dal," he said.

Punjab will have Assembly elections in 2012. By then Manpreet has to build his own Akali Dal.

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