A captain's knock needed on a bouncy Punjab pitch

Dateline

The Congress mantra to win Punjab was well defined. The party ensured it did not repeat mistakes of the last elections when it lost many seats in narrow margins.

The same mantra is even more relevant now, post elections, that Capt Amarinder Singh is in the saddle for the next five years as chief minister. The scion of the erstwhile royalty just needs to make sure his past mistakes as chief minister doesn’t recur anymore.

The captain can ill-afford to fall prey to cronyism. He had declared that this was his last election and will also be his final innings as the CM. He, for sure, would like to hang his boots with pride of having accomplished a mission he solemnly pledged ahead of the polls. The writer in him will hope his memoirs are noteworthy.

But the 75-year old former soldier has daunting challenges to grapple with. Singh, in his previous stint as CM, gave Punjab a coterie-driven governance that cost him dear. He now has five years to change all that, and more. It begins now, unlike his last term when his honeymoon with power continued way too long for him to cover the distance.

His political strategist Prashant Kishor did well to “dress down” his 'Maharaja image'. That image had inherent drawbacks. He now has the task of living up to the image he projected of himself ahead of polls. It cannot be ephemeral.

Punjab has twice in the past withstood the Narendra Modi juggernaut — once in 2014 general elections and now in 2017 assembly polls. The Captain walks away hugely with the credit of winning this elections - his party too can share a pie in the cake. Regardless of the populist doles that Congress promised, people of Punjab have voted for the Amarinder government.

The expectations may fast dry up if the CM detours to a wobbly, unsustainable path and buckles under politics of compulsion and populism. He has to live by his word. Foremost is his four-week challenge to root out drugs from Punjab. It is a tough call, but doable. Punjab has 70% of youth addicted to deadly drugs. Mere claims will not take time to get exposed.

Drug supply lines will have to be mercilessly broken. The politician-official drug nexus will have to be dealt with, with an iron hand. If that flops, or left to lull in bureaucratic red tape, much of it will be lost. Every other household in Punjab yearns of a dur­able solution to the spiralling drug menace.

In the first week of his government, Capt Amarinder Singh and his entire council of ministers, have given up the ill-conceived legacy of VIP culture. ‘Sobriety will prevail’ — at least that’s being claimed. Good governance and public image will matter. The CM does not anymore use a red beacon atop his official vehicle.

It is deemed as a good beginning. He has kept the cabinet size small, at least for now. More than the size, he has to ensure that his cabinet delivers, and delivers fast. An army of political aspirants is waiting to be accommodated as political aides and ch­ief parliamentary secretaries (CPS). He has to decide if he wants his office to be an employ­ment exchange of sorts for such “backdoor” entries. Some say he has he already begun to stumble. His government is planning a new legislation to accommodate political appointees as CPS and private secretaries.

De-politicisation of the state police is a big challenge for him. Primary side-effect of this has been a poor law and order situation. The force had remained heavily politicised in the last decade. The reign of “halqa-incharge”— political appointees of the Akali’s superimposing as administrative officials in every district — has to be systematically ended once for all.

Several incidents of sacrilege in the last two years have threatened the social fabric of Punjab. Being a border state, Punjab has been the new theatre of terror with two major terror strikes from Pakistan. Pro-Khalistan, radical and separatist voices have been rearing their head and Amarinder Singh will be expected to square the circle.

The CM begins his innings with an advantage. It was the advantage of numbers in the state assembly - an 'unexpected' 77 MLAs sitting on the treasury benches out of a total 117. Politically, his government can safely cruise all the way to the shore without any turbulence.

No challengers

Many senior Congress leaders, including former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who may have been seen as Captain’s challengers of sorts at some point of time, lost polls and will remain out of the reckoning until next polls. Heavyweight former BJP MP Navjot Sidhu and now Amarinder’s ministerial colleague, too has realised that the ‘Captain is the boss’.

Amarinder has inherited a heavy baggage of fiscal mismanagement and financial bankruptcy. Congress’ electoral promises of debt waiver, smartphone, unemployment allowance to youth and more, are going to be a colossal drain on the state exchequer.

The CM’s logic of generating resources by an ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking will have to come about fast. His government inherits a debt burden of Rs 1.78 lakh crore and pending bills of Rs 3,000 crore amid a plethora of farm and power subsidies that will continue. Generating additional resources to fund poll promises will be a tall task.

The Captain has promised ‘one job in every household,’ besides monthly unemployment allowance of Rs 2,500 to all jobless youth. Punjab has an unemployment rate way in excess of the national average, which is one reason why youth are increasingly getting hooked to drugs.

Over 18,000 industrial units have shut down since 2007. If employment generation does not happen in real time, Singh will be in for a bad image beating. Farmer suicides and waiver of farm debt are expected to be focus areas of the incumbent regime. It is estimated that nearly 450 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in Punjab in 2015. Majority of them had farm debt.

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