POLITICS

Punjab Has Done Its Bit For Food Security, Time To Combat The Pesticide Burden: Manpreet Singh Badal Interview

"Time for the Green Revolution to move eastwards."

29/12/2016 3:40 PM IST | Updated 30/12/2016 11:28 AM IST
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BADAL VILLAGE, Punjab -- If the Congress Party comes to power in Punjab following the Assembly election and Manpreet Singh Badal's manifesto is actually implemented, then Punjab is in for its biggest transformation since the Green Revolution.

In a freewheeling conversation with HuffPost India, Badal, the Indian National Congress' candidate from Bathinda (Urban) and the architect of the party manifesto for Punjab, said that it was "time for the Green Revolution to move eastwards," referring to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.

Punjab has done its fair share to ensure India's food security by dedicatedly producing wheat and rice, said Badal, but it was time to deal with the fallout -- the huge burden of pesticides and a tragic legacy of cancer. Eighteen people die of cancer in Punjab, every day. Bathinda, from where Badal is running, is the point of origin of the infamous "cancer train" which takes patients from there to Bikaner for treatment.

"We want to actually rid ourselves of the burden of producing food grain for India," Badal said. "We want to reduce pesticide burden. Punjab could be a fruit state, Punjab could be a veggie state, Punjab could be a milk state. We want to make Punjab the next Denmark of milk production. If anyone wants to buy a good quality cow then it should be from Punjab."

Per acre investment into dairy gives a far higher return and jobs than agriculture.

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Indian cancer sufferer Mukthiar Singh boards a train in Bathinda.

In view of the havoc wreaked by pesticides and the tragic toll their indiscriminate use was taking, Badal said that the Congress Party had for the first time come up with a "Green Manifesto" dedicated entirely to cleaning the environment, cleaning up rivers, and reducing the burden of pesticide.

"I Would Fancy Our Chances"

The Congress, which has been out of power in Punjab for almost a decade, is not only contending with the combined might of the Shiromani Akali Dali (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but also with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which has made a huge impact on the state's electoral landscape.

But Badal believes that the Congress has a fair shot. "The AAP surge is waning and Akalis are facing a huge anti-incumbency. So, I would fancy our chances," he said.

The AAP surge is waning and Akalis are facing a huge anti-incumbency. So I would fancy our chances.

HuffPost India met the 54-year-old Badal at his residence in his ancestral Badal village, a 30-minute drive out of Bathinda city. The four-time lawmaker from the Gidderbaha constituency has gone from being an Akali to a Kejriwal-esque founder of an independent party to a Congress-wallah in a span of five years.

Well over six-feet-tall, Badal has a towering presence. The soft-spoken politician has a manner that is both formal and friendly at the same time. He uses the word "yaar" often, but in the most courteous of tones.

He uses the word "yaar" often, but in the most courteous of tones.

In an hour-long conversation, Badal talked about many things. He spoke of Raja Porus, who took on the might of Alexander the Great, as the embodiment of "Punjabiyat." A separate manifesto has been prepared to promote Punjabiyat. He ticked of the many achievements of the Congress in Punjab including the Bhakra Nangal Dam, the Green Revolution and beating terrorism in the state. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he said, had persuaded Sir Cyril Radcliffe to give large parts of Punjab including the entire district of Gurdaspur, which would have otherwise gone to Pakistan. He spoke of the rivalries inside his political family, and AAP's looming shadow over Punjab.

"Congress has always fired when India and Punjab have been under maximum stress. Fine, there may have been periods when Congress has not performed but compared to other parties, at the moment, we have the most capable and mature leadership. We have better agenda and a better line," he said.

"Congress has always fired when India and Punjab have been under maximum stress.

READ: Exclusive HuffPost-CVoter Pol - Aam Aadmi Party Wave Is Sweeping Punjab

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Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal & Union Cabinet Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal talking with each other in Bathinda.

Frontline Bathinda

A member of the most powerful political family in Punjab, he served as finance minister in the government of Parkash Singh Badal, his uncle, until they had a falling out over the Centre's debt waiver offer to Punjab in 2010.

Relations between Badal and his uncle, the chief minister, and his cousin, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister of Punjab, were irreparably damaged. He went on to form a new party called the People's Party of Punjab (PPP). While PPP did not win any seats in the 2012 Assembly election, quite likely, it cut into the vote share of the Congress Party, allowing the SAD-BJP alliance to slip past by a small margin.

With the Punjab Assembly election around the corner, and the PPP's prospects none to bright, Badal merged his party with the Congress earlier this year.

When the Congress party announced that Badal was to run from Bathinda, the media dubbed it as a clash of the Badals. Sukhbir's wife and the CM's daughter-in-law, Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, is the Lok Sabha member from the constituency. While she was able to defeat Badal in the 2014 national election from Bathinda, he significantly reduced his sister-in-law's victory margin.

Badal insisted that the Congress high command give him the ticket from Bathinda rather than Maur or Moga. He explained that his insistence had more to do with "his politics" than any family rivalry. "I'm a four time MLA, I don't want to be an MLA. I've been there and done that," he said. "I want to be in politics. I want to be able to drive policy. Moga is more than 150 kilometres from my home. It is impossible for me to do politics from there. You have to meet people, go for functions, weddings, be part of their joy and sadness. Politics is always done from home. Bathinda would be my home."

Politics is always done from home. Bathinda would be my home.

Even though the members of the Badal family live next door to each other in their ancestral Badal village, they don't speak to each other. "Unfortunately, it has become personal. We don't meet socially. Our children don't meet. I wish we could have parted as friends but we could not," Badal said.

But Badal said that he had no problem with the rivalry. "I feel they have compromised Punjab's interest and the national interest. They have run a very corrupt administration. They have a lot to answer for," he said.

I feel they have compromised Punjab's interest and the national interest. They have run a very corrupt administration. They have a lot to answer for.

As it happens, Badal and Captain Amarinder Singh, who is heading the Congress party's campaign in Punjab, did their schooling at the famous Doon School in Dehradun while Sukhbir studied at the equally elite and well known Lawrence School in Sanawar.

When HuffPost India asked Badal if there was just a tiny element of old school rivalry at play, he said, "Sanawar has produced great leaders in academia, media, military and political leaders," Badal said. "I greatly respect Omar Abdullah. But Sukhbir is certainly not one of them. But Doon is the better school, there is simply no denying it," he added, smiling.

READ: Why Punjab, Not UP, Will Be The Defining Election Of Spring 2017

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Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal with AAP Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Mann during a rally in Amritsar district.

AAP In Punjab

In Bathinda, Badal will be up against AAP's Deepak Bansal and the incumbent lawmaker Sarup Chand Singla from SAD. Observers say that even if the Congress loses Punjab, Badal has a chance of taking Bathinda.

When HuffPost India asked Badal to assess his competition, he said, "There was a huge upsurge in favor of AAP about a year back, but that has kind of petered out now simply because they could not project anyone for chief minister," he said. "They have not been able to throw up candidates of caliber with some kind of political standing. A lot of them are novices."

On Kejriwal as the chief ministerial candidate for Punjab, Badal said, "I fail to foresee a sitting chief minister contesting from another state. It would be odd and maybe that would be a sign of weakness of the party."

I fail to foresee a sitting chief minister contesting from another state.

Punjab, Badal said, had more factionalism than caste politics. And with the Congress and Akali cadres firmly entrenched in the hinterlands, there is no place for a third faction. Badal is speaking from experience. Despite the initial excitement over PPP's launch in 2011, it failed to win any seats in the 2012 Assembly election.

The PPP was launched in 2011, less than two years before the Aam Aadmi Party was launched in Delhi. Both grassroots driven parties had similar agendas of stripping politics of privilege and corruption, and ending the VIP culture.

There was also speculation about Badal joining AAP in this electoral battle, but both sides rubbished the possibility. Badal, in fact, called PPP the "predecessor" of AAP.

"Why AAP got some traction in Punjab and not anywhere else in India is because we had already set the ball rolling," Badal said. "What Arvind said about not taking a government bungalow, car and not using a red light on his car, Manpreet, when he was finance minister, had already done that," he said.

Why AAP got some traction in Punjab and not anywhere else in India is because we had already set the ball rolling.

So why did Badal join a party crippled by corruption and nepotism -- things that he had vowed to fight. His replied that it was because the Congress party Vice President, Rahul Gandhi, had agreed to the 11 points in PPP's manifesto including rule of law, ending the police-politician nexus, ending the VIP culture, and making Punjab debt free.

"I had six or seven meetings with him," Badal said. "He is extremely well mannered. He is very decent. He actually won us over with his good manners. And then he said, what bigger sincerity can I show to you, why don't you draft the manifesto of the Congress party. That was the clinching factor."

READ: We Will Call In The Military To Stop Drugs In Punjab, Says Manpreet Singh Badal

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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with PPP leader Manpreet Singh Badal during an election campaign rally in April 2014 in Bathinda.

Depoliticising The Police And Dalit Empowerment

Badal spoke a great deal about the Congress manifesto, which, he said was "something that the future generations would be proud off" irrespective of their political allegiance. "My life's ambition was to write this. I put my life and soul into it. This is a manifesto for Punjab. The fact that the Congress party is releasing it is incidental," he said.

He said that the Congress' most significant promise in the manifesto was "depoliticizing the police force." "We want to break the police-politician nexus and make it autonomous from politics," he said. "We want a situation where a politician cannot walk into a police station and demand that this has to be done and that has to be done."

We are going to implement State versus Parkash Singh Badal in letter and spirit.

Because the police force was so damaged, Badal said that the Congress party will call in the military to crack down on drug dealers, and that the state's drug problem would be brought under control in four weeks. (Read more about that here.)

On the sensitive issue of water sharing with its neighbour, Badal said that Haryana as a successor state was entitled to 40 percent of Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, but only if Haryana was willing to put Yamuna into the kitty.

"It's just that Punjab has been very generous with everybody. We have given away 75 percent of all river water to our neighboring states," he said. "We really don't have anything else to share. If we share anything more than this, we would actually be compromising the future of our generations."

Punjab has been very generous with everybody. We have given away 75 percent of all river water to our neighboring states.

Punjab also has the highest proportion of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes in the country. On the question of Dalit empowerment, Badal said that the Congress had planned a separate budget for Dalits and a 33 percent reservation quota in all government appointments be it corporations, trusts and boards or even housing schemes.

Dalit girls would have free education till the Ph.D level.

On whether the Congress would be able to communicate its plans to the electorate, especially with AAP appearing to have taken a head start, Badal said, "We hope that the people will recognise Congress for its past and for the future."

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