The Rs 31,000-cr question : The Tribune India

The Rs 31,000-cr question

PARKASH SINGH BADAL has hailed the Union Budget for 2018-19 as “farmer friendly”, though farmer associations have voiced a contrary view.

The Rs 31,000-cr question

No laughing matter: For Capt, and the Badals before him, Punjab doesn’t come first.

Nirmal Sandhu

Nirmal Sandhu   

PARKASH SINGH BADAL has hailed the Union Budget for 2018-19 as “farmer friendly”, though farmer associations have voiced a contrary view. What he said about the Finance Minister — “the Budget carries the stamp of (Arun) Jaitley’s concern for farmers in general and for Punjab farmers in particular” — is amusing. It is the same Mr Jaitley who had forced Badal as Chief Minister to take a huge loan before releasing money for foodgrain procurement in 2016. 

It is the same Mr Jaitley who had rebuffed Chief Minister Badal’s persistent demand for a Central package for debt-stressed Punjab. And to add insult to injury, the Centre in December 2016 released special assistance of Rs 1,082 crore to four states — Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir — leaving out Punjab. 

The man who had built a successful career out of “Central discrimination against Punjab” overnight changed his political narrative after Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014, locking up his basket of injustices, including the non-transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab and conditional Central funding of schemes.    

The Badals are Modi’s politest and also the most timid allies. Following the “coalition dharma” and maintaining party discipline is understandable and acceptable. What is not acceptable is the selling out of the state’s interests for power.

Other BJP allies speak up when pushed to the wall. Despite sharing the same ideology and playing similar Hindutva politics, Shiv Sena leaders are not Modi bhakts. SAD MPs seldom say anything remotely critical of any Modi policy. Contrast their comments on the Budget with what the Shiv Sena said: “The government which came to power by selling dreams to the nation has once again offered a maze of dreams to the people.” 

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, another trusted BJP ally, has stopped short of pulling out of the alliance after the Union Budget made no mention of promises made in the 2014 Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act. An angry TDP MP reflected the mood in the party: “We are at war now, and we will fight to get Andhra’s share of resources from (the) Centre. During the Congress regime, MPs could get a lot of work done but with (the) BJP… they only listen to (the) RSS. Everybody else is left out.”

Punjab leaders — Akalis as well as Congressmen — do not allow themselves to get that much agitated if Punjab’s interests are ignored or hurt. Given the Prime Minister’s style of functioning and centralised system of decision-making, the Akalis have no say on any issue of significance. And they seem to have accepted the place assigned to them by the more powerful partner. 

This approach has had its consequences. In October 2016 the Badal government was arm-twisted into taking a Rs 31,000-crore loan to clear the Centre-guaranteed bank dues. In April that year the RBI had asked banks to treat the Rs 12,000-crore Punjab loan for food procurement as a bad loan since food stocks of matching value were unavailable.

This caused a political storm. The Badals denied any wrongdoing and instead claimed the Centre owed Rs 26,000 crore to Punjab. Then came Badal’s baffling U-turn. He meekly yielded to an unjust Central demand. How the Rs 12,000-crore initial gap ballooned to warrant a Rs 31,000-crore loan has not been adequately explained either by Badal or Jaitley. 

This happened shortly before the procurement season and Badal apparently did not want any trouble. He did not threaten to resign. As was expected, none in the Akali Dal objected to Badal’s anti-Punjab act as he submitted to Jaitley’s blackmail — first clear past Central dues, then get fresh bank money for food procurement. 

Consequently, Punjab was saddled with a huge loan for which the state will pay Rs 3,500 crore annual interest for the next 20 years. The “Panth Rattan Fakhr-e-Qaum” tied the coming generation of Punjabis to a loan that was taken to cover up bad governance and corruption.

The voice loudest during the Opposition protest that followed belonged to Sunil Jakhar, who had proclaimed then: “Jaitley helped Punjab hide foodgrain scam”. Now Gurdaspur MP,  he raised the issue in his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha on Thursday.

Soon after taking charge, the Amarinder Singh government brought out a White Paper which put the blame for the unwanted burden on “ineffective presentation” of Punjab’s claims by the then SAD-BJP government.   

The government also set up an expenditure commission to look into the misuse of state resources in the past 10 years. The commission has suggested a third-party audit to back Punjab’s case and clear Central doubts.

Unless they have disowned the White Paper and the expenditure commission, it is obligatory for the ruling Congressmen to reopen and re-argue the Punjab case. The Chief Minister and the Finance Minister keep talking about the Badals leaving an empty treasury and a huge debt, but have done little so far to stop Punjab’s financial bleeding. 

 The onus is now on the present government to come out with facts and explain why the original RBI figure of mismatch of Rs 12,000 crore between the money advanced and food procured shot up to Rs 31,000 crore. 

The Chief Minister has to do what his government’s White Paper has accused the Badal government of not doing: fix responsibility for the bungling in food procurement. He is welcome to take the “no vendetta politics” excuse to not touch the Akalis in general and the Badals in particular, as is being done on the implication of Congressmen in false police cases. He should, at least, bring to justice officials responsible for the food procurement mess and repair the system where it is broken so that a few years down the line a similar situation does not recur.

There is a problem, however. Capt Amarinder Singh and his family members face Enforcement Directorate and income-tax probes. Both agencies report to Jaitley. Can he look Jaitley in the eye and tell him to rectify the wrong done to Punjab?

Haryana has not produced any great chief ministers, barring perhaps Bansi Lal, who is considered a builder of the state, but none has caused such financial damage to his state. Foodgrain procurement has always been a routine exercise in that state.

The Punjab leadership should remember that if the disputed loan is not renegotiated now with the Modi government entering the last leg of its term, the next dispensation, even the one under Modi, would have little inclination to look back at a “settled” issue.

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