Chandigarh: If there’s one word you won’t hear in any campaign rally in Punjab in this Lok Sabha election, it is drugs.
The scourge of rampant drug abuse took centre-stage in the 2017 assembly polls in Punjab, but ahead of polling on 19 May, the issue has vanished from the agenda of all political parties.
In the assembly polls, the ruling SAD-BJP alliance was targeted by the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for allowing drug abuse to spread throughout the state. Parkash Singh Badal’s government was accused of giving political and police patronage to the drug trade, and the CM’s son and deputy Sukhbir Badal had responded by saying that the two opposing parties’ allegation that the state was full of addicts was “the biggest disservice” to Punjab.
It’s not as though the problem has disappeared from society in the last two years — a national survey on the problem of drug abuse in India conducted by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) New Delhi said Punjab is among the top five states with the highest prevalence of substance abuse. So, why has it dropped off the political radar?
AAP’s deafening silence
The AAP had made the drug issue the mainstay of its assembly election campaign in 2017. In rally after rally, party convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made the ‘patronage’ accusation against the Akalis.
The AAP also called then-revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, who had been summoned by the Enforcement Directorate in a drug-related case, the ‘kingpin’, and promised to ‘jail’ him the day the party came to power in Punjab. The issue resonated like no other with the masses and helped the party.
This time, though, it has been virtually silent on the issue and the allegations against Majithia.
The AAP is already a pale shadow of what it was in 2014 or even 2017 — having won just 20 of the 117 assembly seats while being a pre-poll favourite. It has also suffered one leadership crisis after another, changing its leader of opposition twice and suffering a vertical split when Sukhpal Singh Khaira took away half-a-dozen MLAs and formed his own political outfit called the Punjab Ekta Party. Now, state party chief and Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann is also fighting to save his seat while trying to prevent more defections, after one MLA from his camp and one from the Khaira camp joined the ruling Congress.
But in effect, the AAP has shied away from raking up the drug allegations against Majithia after Kejriwal offered a “humiliating” apology in a defamation case filed by the Akali leader last year. The apology, much publicised by Majithia, deflated the AAP cadre, and saw its party chief as having “sold out” the cause for the sake of convenience.
“What face do AAP leaders have to show after that apology? They not only took their own cadre, workers and volunteers for a ride, but also the people of Punjab over the drug issue,” said MLA Simerjit Singh Bains of the Lok Insaaf Party, which called off its alliance with AAP following the apology.
No-no for Congress too
The Congress, which is now running the state, isn’t raising the drug issue for obvious reasons.
The party had challenged the previous SAD-BJP government over the issue in almost every election rally. Its state chief Captain Amarinder Singh had even gone to the extent of holding the ‘Gutka Sahib’ — a collection of five Sikh prayers — in his hand and swearing to rid the state of drugs within four weeks of coming to power.
Now, the issue is a touchy one for the Congress.
First, the drug menace in Punjab is a complicated problem, with no quick-fix solutions. Two years into power and despite a host of measures, Amarinder is facing heat because of a series of drug overdose deaths reported across the state. The issue even threatened to dominate the political discourse till the Bargari desecration case allowed it to wriggle out of a spot of bother.
Second, Amarinder’s own party colleagues and several cabinet ministers have been asking him to act against Majithia for his alleged involvement in the drug trade. The demand increased especially when the Special Task Force (STF) for drug control submitted a report to the Punjab and Haryana High Court detailing Majithia’s role last year.
Within the Congress, however, Amarinder is seen as going “soft” on Majithia as fears persist that the drugs issue will take centre-stage in these elections and the CM’s alleged inaction will likely be questioned.
“The drug issue was raked up only to criticise the Akalis,” said Daljeet Singh Cheema, SAD general secretary.
“Now, when Amarinder realised he is failing on the drugs situation, he raised the Bargari issue. These are political games to which people are not blind. The result of these falsehoods will soon be for everyone to see.”