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Mann, Kejriwal, Modi: Why new Punjab CM will have a tough time juggling conflicting interests

Arvind Kejriwal’s national ambition could make life difficult for AAP leader and Punjab's new CM. Bhagwant Mann will have to also keep PM Modi and Centre in good humour.

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Bhagwant Mann, the new chief minister of Punjab, has hit the ground running. Within 24 hours of being sworn in, he declared his “unprecedented” decision to launch an anti-corruption helpline on 23 March, Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary. And hours after his ministers were sworn in, his Cabinet cleared a proposal to provide 25,000 government jobs.

The first decision is easy to roll out. Since 2017, Punjab vigilance bureau has had a toll-free number (1800-1800-1000) for the people to complain against government officials who demand bribes. I rang the number on Sunday — the response was prompt. The vigilance bureau subsequently released a WhatsApp number and an email address, too, urging people to send videos or texts to complain about corruption.

Punjab’s new CM announced that the anti-corruption helpline would be his “personal WhatsApp number.”

Mann has several other pledges to redeem for his boss, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal saw the advent of an Inquilab or revolution in the AAP’s victory in Punjab. It must spread across India now, he said. Eleven-member Punjab Cabinet, led by Mann, may lack administrative experience, but not in revolutionary fervour, so to say. One of the ministers, Lal Chand Kataruchak, for instance, was once a member of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India. Another minister, Kuldip Singh Dhaliwal, is an ex-comrade who was once a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist); yet another minister, Harjot Singh Bains, had cut his teeth into politics with Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, “a bloodless revolution”, as Tamil actor Rajinikanth had described it.
They aren’t supposed to bring Inquilab of the kind Amitabh Bachchan brought in his 1984 film of the same name. In the reel life, Bachchan’s character, a police officer, is forced to join the murky world of politics, and leads Garibon ki Party to victory. But before becoming the CM, he comes to the party office to meet his to-be Cabinet colleagues and shoots them all, uprooting the jurm ka ped or tree of crime. That’s Bachchan’s way of Inquilab in reel life. In reality, it’s much less dramatic and much more down to earth.

Also read: From ‘masterji’s son’ to stand-up star & ‘Pegwant’, how dropout Bhagwant Mann became Punjab CM

Punjab or Durbar: Mann’s tough choice

For Bhagwant Mann, the face of Inquilab in Punjab, there are challenges galore. A friend from Punjab told me Saturday evening, “We voted for NOTA (none of the above) this time… because the Akalis were no option and the Congressis were in a mess. Bhagwant Mann is the CM of NOTA. He has to prove a lot to convince us about the AAP.”

And what is Mann supposed to do to prove himself in the eyes of the people of Punjab?

“First of all, he mustn’t behave like a slave of Dilli Durbar. He will never win the trust and respect of Punjabis if he is seen as someone at the mercy of his political masters in Delhi,” the friend told me.

A visitor from Punjab, he wasn’t really making a revelation but the trigger for his outrage was intriguing. A day after the poll results were out, Mann had called on Kejriwal in Delhi. A picture of him touching the AAP convenor’s feet went viral, drawing sharp criticism from various quarters in Punjab. One may argue what’s wrong with a 48-year-old leader seeking the blessing of a senior party colleague who is elder to him by five years? Why should it become an issue of Punjabi pride? The answers lie in the proud Sikh history but it’s beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that the compulsion to bow before the Dilli Durbar is one among many challenges Mann is confronted with as he starts his chief ministerial innings. The fact that Mann is the CM of a full-fledged state while Kejriwal heads a union territory brings no respite. In the AAP’s centralised system of control and command, all powers emanate and flow down from Kejriwal. Mann must submit himself to his Delhi counterpart, no matter whether it undermines his status as CM in his home state. It was, therefore, Kejriwal, and not Mann, who drew up the list of ministers in Punjab. Again, barely 15 minutes after Mann tweeted about his anti-corruption helpline, Kejriwal posted an elaborate video statement, explaining how he had taken this anti-corruption initiative during his 49-day government in Delhi in 2013-14.

The message is unmistakable: Kejriwal was implementing the Delhi model in Punjab and Mann has to play the role of a facilitator. Mann’s ministers are clear where their loyalty lies. “Arvind Kejriwal brought back the trust of youth in politics…. We will make a Punjab model and in 2024 Arvind Kejriwal the PM of the country,” said Harjot Singh Bains after taking oath as a minister.

Also read: Not Modi, Mamata or KCR, Kejriwal bigger threat to Congress now — 3 takeaways from assembly polls

Mann’s choices against the Modi govt

Kejriwal’s national ambition may, however, make life difficult for the new Punjab CM. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not a political challenger to Mann in Punjab. He would rather keep Prime Minister Narendra Modi in good humour. An indifferent or hostile Centre may make his life more difficult.

In the 2021-22 Rabi marketing season, Punjab was on the top in terms of wheat procurement at the minimum support price (MSP). Out of the total central procurement of paddy by the third week of January in 2021-22, the maximum was from Punjab, benefiting 77 lakh farmers.

By the end of 2022, Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP would like to emerge as the third alternative in states with bipolar BJP-Congress politics, starting with Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Comfortable with the Congress as its principal challenger, the BJP wouldn’t really like the AAP to develop a Punjab model. The Delhi model, centred as it is in the national capital, wouldn’t have the same appeal in a semi-urban or rural setup. What if policymakers in Delhi start thinking why the Centre should procure so much food grain from just one state, Punjab? After all, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao is already planning agitation programmes, saying that if the Centre procures 100 per cent paddy from Punjab, it should do the same in Telangana.

And count on more CMs to join the debate. AAP insiders argue that if the Centre doesn’t procure, Punjab can set up its own corporation to buy wheat and paddy at MSP and bear the differential (between MSP and market price). But can Punjab afford it? Already, the debt-ridden state is looking at an additional burden of Rs 20,600 crore per year to implement the AAP’s pre-election promises of 300 units of free power and Rs 1,000 to each woman.

Since Punjab being a border state, Bhagwant Mann must work closely with the Centre.

Capt. Amarinder Singh, understood these compulsions and maintained a warm relationship with the Modi government. The Congress high command wouldn’t understand it, though. His equations with the Centre only enhanced their misgivings about him.

Would Kejriwal allow Bhagwant Mann to keep the Modi government in good humour? Unlikely. It doesn’t suit the AAP’s politics or Kejriwal’s national ambition.

So, how would Bhagwant Mann placate the farmers in the event the Centre starts paying heed to states such as Telangana’s arguments and revise its procurement policy? What if the Centre drastically cuts down its procurement from Punjab and increases it from other states? It may sound speculative but when politics drives governance, one can’t discount any possibilities.

And if that happens, how would the farmers, who are still celebrating their victory against the Centre over the three farm laws, respond?

The Punjab CM has another problem coming his way. Kejriwal has always blamed stubble burning in Punjab for pollution in Delhi.

When air quality starts worsening in the national capital this year, Mann will start feeling the heat. He will have to choose between placating his boss and farmers burning stubble. One of them will be upset either way.

Less than a week into the CM’s chair, Bhagwant Mann must be feeling the rising March temperature.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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