Chandigarh: In an ugly one-of-its-kind spat, the entire Council of Ministers in Punjab walked out of a pre-cabinet meeting Saturday following an altercation between some of the ministers and the state’s chief secretary over alleged disrespect shown by the latter.
According to a senior cabinet minister who attended the meeting in Chandigarh, the disagreement between the two sides emerged during an informal discussion on amending the liquor policy in Punjab in view of the lockdown’s impact.
Two senior ministers — Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and Technical Education Minister Charanjit Singh Channi — had an ugly exchange with Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh on the issue of excise revenue generation through liquor, said the minister who didn’t wish to be named.
In the melee that ensued, at least one cabinet minister raised his voice and hurled abuses at government officers saying they had looted the state exchequer, according to the minister.
Singh then retorted that ministers decide policy, not officers. Badal took an exception to this remark and staged a walk out. Others followed him even as Singh apologised.
According to the original schedule, the meeting was to be followed by a cabinet meeting led by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh through video conferencing. However, it couldn’t take place eventually.
The amendment to the liquor policy will now come up for cabinet discussion Monday.
In a series of tweet later in the day, Congress MP from Ludhiana Ravneet Singh Bittu criticised his party ministers for not being able to handle civil servants, asking them to quit for “incompetent behaviour”.
During Corona pandemic, the coordination between Ministers and bureaucrats should be strong but Ministers walking out from a Pre-Cabinet Meeting should might as well resign for their incompetent behavior as Many other Capable of handling Work pressure are ready to replace them. pic.twitter.com/frSWlIHqm2
— Ravneet Singh Bittu (@RavneetBittu) May 9, 2020
ThePrint couldn’t reach the Punjab chief secretary for a comment despite repeated attempts.
What happened in the meeting
According to the minister quoted above, the first conflict of the day played out at 11 am, when the Council of Ministers – barring two ministers, Razia Sultana and Bharat Bhushan Ashu – assembled at the Punjab Bhawan in Chandigarh for the meeting. Sports Minister Rana Gurmeet Sodhi had joined via video conferencing.
The ministers objected to chief secretary Karan Avtar Singh’s decision to join in virtually from his office in the main secretariat, along with excise and taxation commissioner Vikas Pratap Singh.
Both the officers then joined the meeting physically at 11.30 am.
Senior officers of the Punjab government – chief principal secretary to the chief minister, Suresh Kumar, principal secretary to the CM, Tejvir Singh, special principal secretary to the CM Gurkirat Kirpal Singh and finance secretary Anirudh Tewari – were also present.
As the meeting began, Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal pointed out that excise revenue generation in the state had fallen over the past three years – with the reduction amounting to almost Rs 1,000 crore in the past fiscal.
As the chief secretary began to explain the situation, putting forth another set of figures, Technical Education Minister Charanjit Singh Channi pointed out that the current policy was inherently so flawed that it would lead to a loss of at least Rs 2,000 crore in the current financial year.
The chief secretary then cut him short pointing out that Channi’s figures were wrong. He said as chief secretary, he had the correct figures with him, adding that he was ready to provide them under his signature.
Channi said his work too had some value, adding that government officers expected the ministers not to raise any objections and accept whatever they said without questioning. This is when the chief secretary said the policy was not prepared by officers, but by ministers themselves.
Following this, an altercation broke out as some of the other ministers lost their cool too. Manpreet Badal then got up from his chair and said he would not like to be a part of the meeting if this was the “attitude” of the officers.
All the other ministers followed Manpreet, even as the chief secretary apologised and the other officers tried to stop them from leaving.
Earlier in the day, there was another internal conflict in the Punjab government as Ashu, who chose to skip this meeting, called CM Amarinder Singh’s decision to allow home delivery of liquor as “undignified”. He came out in support of his wife, who asked the CM to reconsider the move.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.