It’s time for Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to face the popular test. Punjab has had six months to judge the new Congress government, and Wednesday’s Gurdaspur bypoll could well be a referendum on his rule.
Punjab’s drugs problem was one of the issues that Amarinder Singh went ballistic on during the Assembly poll campaign. Launching his party’s poll campaign in December last year from Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda, one of the five temporal seats of the Sikh religion, Singh had vowed on a Gutka (holy book) that he would eradicate Punjab’s drug problem within four weeks of coming to power.
Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former finance and planning minister of the state Parminder Singh Dhindsa said Amarinder Singh’s four-week vow on drugs in Punjab is a non-starter.
Speaking to Lokmarg, Dhindsa said: “This is beyond anyone’s control, and it’s not just up to the government to sort out.” There’s a social aspect to it, he said, adding that strict steps in a time-bound manner, as is done in the developed world, is the way to go. Asked about the one-month vow, Dhindsa said it’s “a sign of frustration”.
On taking charge as chief minister in March, one of the first things Amarinder Singh did was to reiterate his oath, promising to set up a special task force to deal with the drugs problem.
Singh did that too, setting up the STF and putting his best policeman, 1992-batch IPS officer Harpreet Singh Sidhu, in charge of the team. By the end of April, the chief minister was claiming that he had “broken the back of drug syndicates” in Punjab. By then, Singh said, 1,400 peddlers had been arrested and the price of heroin was up 60 per cent, which showed the market was being “compressed”.
PUNJAB’S DRUG PROBLEM
From being a part of the country where mild but regular use of opium was common, Punjab has become the No. 1 state for drug addiction in India. It is estimated that half of India’s drug addicts are in Punjab. The Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS) conducted by government-employed and independent experts last year says Punjab has 2.3 lakh drug addicts, and 8.6 lakh users. According to this study, more than half the users were in rural areas.
At the turn of the century, heroin made its appearance in Punjab, originating mostly from the Pakistan-Afghanistan axis. As the government cracked down, users turned to pharmacological alternatives before heroin retook its top position. Most addicts use heroin or cocktails based on heroin now. The new worry is cocaine that is finding increased acceptance and use among the state’s more affluent youth.
In August, the chief minister was embarrassed by one of his own legislators, Amargarh MLA Surjit Singh Dhiman, who said at a public function that chitta (a narcotic powder that is one of Punjab’s bestsellers) was freely available in the streets. In the uproar that immediately followed, Dhiman retracted, saying his words had been “twisted”.
THE GURDASPUR BYPOLL
On Wednesday came Singh’s first electoral test, as the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency voted to elect a new Member of Parliament. As voting closed, the turnout was recorded at a not-so-high 56 per cent. The election was necessitated by the death of sitting MP Vinod Khanna on April 27 this year.
The BJP hopes to retain the seat, the Congress to wrest it, and the Aam Aadmi Party hopes to best both.
The fight for the seat was supposed to be a direct one between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is supported by alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and the Congress party. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is the main opposition party in the Punjab Assembly, too is trying hard to sustain itself politically in this bypoll. The party won four seats from the state in the general elections in 2014 and 20 seats in the Assembly elections.
While the BJP has fielded controversial Mumbai-based millionaire businessman Swarn Salaria, the Congress opted for state Congress president Sunil Jakhar, who is an “outsider” here. The AAP has fielded a former Army officer, Major General Suresh Khajuria (retired).
SLEAZE OVERTAKES REAL ISSUES
Political and development issues have been overshadowed in the campaign for the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha by-election that has been dominated by personal attacks and sleaze — leaving voters to decide who is cleaner in an otherwise dirty mess.
Charges of rape, cheating, extortion and other immoral acts, including sex videos and photographs, are flying thick and fast among candidates and the leaders supporting them.
The political sleaze started when senior SAD leader and former minister Sucha Singh Langah was booked by Punjab Police on charges of rape and cheating. The allegations were levelled by a 39-year-old woman, who works with Punjab Police, who said Langah had been raping her since 2009 under the threat of death.
The BJP and SAD, despite initially defending Langah, had to quickly get into damage-control mode as he was the district president of the poll-bound constituency, where election is slated for October 11.
Langah, who is now in police custody, was forced to resign from all party posts and was expelled by SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal. The Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion, immediately called a meeting of five Sikh high priests and excommunicated Langah.
The Congress seized the opportunity to take the lead over the BJP-SAD combine.
But once the Langah affair was behind them, the BJP-SAD leadership went on the political offensive. Salaria questioned the credentials of Jakhar, terming him an “outsider” who lost his Assembly seat in the state elections earlier this year at a time when the Congress had swept to power, winning 77 of the 117 seats in the assembly. He questioned Jakhar on the suicide of his brother and levelled allegations regarding a woman.
But Salaria, who has a controversial rags-to-riches story, is now himself facing heat with photographs and videos allegedly involving him doing the rounds of social media. The Congress has even raked up the issue of Salaria not declaring in his nomination papers that he was facing a case, filed by a woman, in a Mumbai court.