The costly blunder Akalis and Congress are making in Punjab

Gunjeet Sra
Gunjeet SraOct 27, 2016 | 16:31

The costly blunder Akalis and Congress are making in Punjab

The news of Punjab being in doldrums no longer takes anyone by surprise. For the last decade, the state has slowly sunk into hopelessness and despair. Its manufacturing hubs such as Ludhiana, the erstwhile Manchester of Punjab (known for its cotton, wool and cycle industry), are barely surviving, with more than half of the units either shutting down or under debt.

Jalandhar, which was home to the sporting goods industry and once supplied footballs across the world, has lost heavily in the face of cheap Chinese products. The steel town of Mandi Gobindgarh is now barely functioning at less than half its capacity. The textile industry of Amritsar too is on its last leg.

Many factors have aided this decline, from incentivised tax holidays for industries in other states such as Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, to the cheap unparalleled manufacturing costs of China, to heavy taxes on infrastructure and power in the state, to even the liberalisation of imports.

Punjab at its current policies barely stands a chance to woo industries and benefit through the industrialisation of its economy. It is no surprise then that when Arvind Kejriwal declared his trade and industry manifesto on Sunday, the SAD, as well as the Congress, went on an overdrive critiquing the points that he made.

Their overzealousness in attacking Kejriwal unmasks their desperation, as both parties have nothing to their merit except charges of corruption and a war of words.

The Congress has suddenly woken up from its slumber of five years, just in time for election campaigning, and has been targeting Kejriwal. Amarinder Singh has been accusing the Delhi chief minister of being a “copycat” ever since the latter released his farmer manifesto last month.

The AAP Industry Manifesto is an ambitious project that targets all the areas which are a sore point with Punjab's traders right now. The 21-point manifesto has promised that the state will have the lowest tax rate in five years (Punjab currently pays 13.5 per cent VAT on commercial manufacturing units whereas its rival states pay 5 per cent).

The manifesto also states that besides lowering taxes, the tax regime will be made more transparent and one time-settlement of pending tax cases will be expedited, along with VAT refunds.

Speaking in Jalandhar, Kejriwal said he would end the "inspector raj" in the state and make the transport and trade industries corruption-free. He also promised a new industrial township in Ropar with the aim of kickstarting industries that will aid employment in the Kandi belt that borders Himachal Pradesh.

Kejriwal said the AAP will focus on setting up an agro-based industry which will benefit farmers and generate jobs for unemployed youth. “Taking care of farmers and controlling the drug trade will also be the focus,” he insisted.

In a bid to woo agro-based industries, the party has promised a 10-year tax holiday and interest-free loans for agro units that employ at least 80 per cent of labour from the state.

It has also rolled out a plan to incentivise local entrepreneurs in rural areas and has declared that if it comes into power, it will look into the issue of the toll mafia which is rumoured to be hand-in-glove with the Akali Dal-BJP and Congress.

The Delhi elections and the run-up to them should be a reminder of how little dismissing Arvind Kejriwal works. (Photo credit: India Today)  

The manifesto stated that it will look into ending the menace of the liquor mafia and generate a fair system that will provide opportunity and employment to all.

All these promises are not impressing the Punjab Congress. Singh, who has been sparring with Kejriwal in a most entertaining manner, sometimes on Twitter and often in official statements, has been accusing the AAP chief of being a “copycat” ever since he released his farmer manifesto in September.

But he reserved his harshest words for the Delhi CM after the release of AAP’s latest manifesto, calling it a theatrical gimmick which lacked substance.

“Arvind Kejriwal has simply picked some of the promises made by the Punjab Congress. The manifesto has ignored certain vital issues of the industry that has hit an all-time low in the Badal regime. One needs intelligence to even copy well. Kejriwal in a hurry to ape the Congress has forgotten to mention key issues, such as those of small-scale industrial units that the Badal government has decided to shift out," he said.

Singh also claims that each of the 21 points in the AAP manifesto is linked to promises made by the Punjab Congress, stating that even AAP's farm and youth manifesto is a "duplication" of Congress plans.

"Kejriwal has taken this strategy a bit too far with the launch of a Congress-type farm debt waiver campaign," he said.

(A survey published in January 2016 by Punjabi University in Patiala estimates outstanding farmer debt at Rs 69,355 crore, while official government estimates stand at Rs 36,000 crore.)

The debt crisis is a part of Punjab’s farming problems right now, but there are other farming issues that need to be addressed, such as new methods and crops for farming, the alarmingly low levels of groundwater and better government pricing regulations.

Someone also ought to ask Singh that if the Punjab Congress has been so clear about its plans for the state, where is the manifesto? In reality, the party is still scampering to make its manifesto and stated today that it will release its detailed plan for the state only by mid-November.

The fact is that it has been relying on verbal promises during campaigning and this shows how unprepared it is for Kejriwal, who first released his youth manifesto in July and followed it up with a farmer manifesto in September and then closed it off with the trade manifesto this month. The AAP party is slowly gaining momentum because of the desperation among people thirsty for change.

Actually, neither the SAD-BJP government nor the Congress have done much for the state in the last decade. They have only used each other to incentivise their positions.

An example of how both parties have been complicit is the case of the drug mafia. According to Kejriwal, Singh saved Punjab revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia from a CBI inquiry (after allegations of his involvement in a drug racket emerged) by using his clout in the UPA government at the time.

Majithia returned the favour by calling Singh "chacha" (uncle). Today, Singh maintains an icy front against the Badals and has even openly spoken against Majithia, stating that the Akalis have no business ruling a state they have deliberately ruined for personal profit.

Singh has also alleged that he will bring back from the Badals the Rs 20,000 crore they pocketed in the notorious foodgrain scam. But it remains to be seen if anything will be done against Akali atrocities if the Congress comes to power.

It is doubtful, because the sudden respect the SAD is giving the Punjab Congress seems rather suspicious. Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, a senior leader and general secretary of SAD, said in a recent statement: "Kejriwal is only a stand-up comedian, who has been fully exposed after his initial success at befooling people in Delhi. He is here to entertain with his meaningless sound and fury. Our main enemy is the Congress whose help Kejriwal had taken to form a government in Delhi. The SAD can't touch the Congress even with a barge-pole. The fact is that the Congress remains the number one enemy of Punjab and Sikhs, and therefore of the SAD.”

It seems that the only agenda the SAD and Punjab Congress have right now is to ridicule the AAP into obscurity, but that tactic might not work well. The Delhi elections and the run-up to them should be a reminder of how little dismissing Kejriwal works. In fact, it makes seasoned politicians look arrogant and desperate in the face of the "common man".

The Congress has confidently declared itself a leader in opinion polls and is gearing up for a smooth win, despite rumours that there might be a hung assembly in the state. Kejriwal too is confident, stating the AAP will win precisely “96” seats and has chalked out an ambitious tour of the state in the coming months.

The SAD on the other hand seems to have already accepted defeat, knowing it is rapidly losing face after its latest ploy to gain saviour status via border evacuation fell flat on its face. It is instead focusing its energies solely on dismissing Kejriwal.

If Kejriwal does win, it will be because of two things. The first, that he seems more prepared than the other two parties that have been plundering Punjab for the last two decades. And the second, the desperate people of the state are thirsty for change and willing to teach the ruling political class a good lesson.

Last updated: October 29, 2016 | 13:51
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