By Jaideep Sarin
Suicides by debt-ridden farmers refuse to abate, jobless people yearn for employment, and the youth are yet to get a first glimpse of the promised smartphones. One year after the Congress romped back to power in Punjab, the tall promises made to various sections of the electorate are staring Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his government in the face.
Having remained out of power for 10 long years, the Congress and Amarinder made populist promises in the run-up to the state’s assembly polls last year.
Estimates put the worth of these promises at over Rs 10,000 crore (over Rs 1.5 billion) even without the farm debt waiver. The total debt of Punjab farmers with banks and other institutions is believed to be over Rs 90,000 crore.
With Punjab’s finances in a complete mess, which the Congress never forgets to attribute to the 10-year rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance government (2007-2017), Amarinder is nowhere on the road to delivering on these.
The much-touted loan waiver for the debt-ridden peasantry has been announced in recent months but it has so many limitations and conditions that the eventual beneficiaries are either not eligible or are getting peanuts in the name of the waiver. Yet, the Congress continues to promise them the moon in the remaining four years in power.
Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira, quoting government figures, has pointed out that over 360 farmers have committed suicide after the Amarinder government came to power in Punjab on March 16 last year.
The farm waiver apart, the Congress has an uphill task where other promises are concerned as well — be it employment to one person in every household (there are over five million households in Punjab), eradicating drugs from the state, ending corruption, and smartphones for the youth, among several others.
Not one of these promises is being fulfilled, nor is likely to be in the near future, due to an acute financial crunch. Salaries of government staff have been, in recent months, delayed as there was no money to pay them.
With a Congress government in Punjab and the Centre being controlled by the BJP, not much help on finances is expected on that front.
Investments from industrial houses and big corporates have largely remained confined to mere announcements. Development projects are delayed or held up for want of funds. Unemployment continues to haunt the youth and the government.
Punjab BJP president and Union minister Vijay Sampla has demanded that Amarinder should list the promises he has fulfilled so far.
Even though Amarinder Singh rode to power with an overwhelming majority of 77 seats in the 117-member assembly, the goodwill around him is fast evaporating. The Chief Minister, who has been skipping official meetings on occasion, has ended up fighting internal battles in the government and the Congress party.
The appointment of his hand-picked Chief Principal Secretary Suresh Kumar was quashed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in January. A division bench last month stayed the ruling and Kumar, who was sulking, is back in office.
Amarinder was forced to accept the resignation of his close aide Rana Gurjit Singh from the cabinet following a string of controversies around the billionaire minister over a mining scam.
Amarinder’s claims before the elections that the prevalent drug menace in Punjab, which the Congress had hyped in a big way, would be eradicated within four weeks of his government’s formation, have remained questionable. There is no official data to prove that the menace, as alleged earlier, has actually been eradicated on the ground.
Punjab Police, under the present government, have however been able to end the free run of gangsters and criminals. The police cracked the cases of high-profile killings of Hindu leaders in recent years and arrested several people involved in the killings and those abetting it. The police have also been successful in containing dreaded gangsters, either by killing them or arresting them.
The hiring of a big team of advisers to the Chief Minister and giving them fat salaries, even higher than what ministers get, despite the state’s financial constraints, has ruffled features in official and political circles. At the same time, Amarinder has asked ministers and legislators to pay their own income tax, instead of the state government doing so.
Within the Congress, legislators and party leaders are upset with Amarinder for being inaccessible at times. His frequent sojourns to his orchards in Himachal Pradesh and visits to New Delhi often set the gossip mills whirring.
With the government about to complete one year, a number of senior legislators are still waiting for Amarinder to expand his cabinet so that they also get a shot at power.
In the coming days and months, things are likely to get even tougher for the Amarinder government. The party and the Chief Minister will have to find out ways to tackle the brickbats coming from the opposition and the electorate over unfulfilled promises.