Singh lived up to his reputation of being forthright and unsparing as he spoke extensively on a range of issues – from beef bans to alcohol restrictions, Punjab’s drugs problem, sedition and the future of his party.

On a day when his party led by president Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh staged a protest and petitioned the Election Commission against the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the newly elected chief minister of Punjab Wednesday chose to take a divergent stand on the controversial issue.

Dismissing allegations made by opposition parties, including Congress, of tampering with the machines during state elections held earlier this year, Captain Amarinder Singh said, “If EVMs were fixed then I wouldn’t be sitting here. The Akalis would be.” Singh was speaking at ThePrint’s ‘Off The Cuff’ interaction with ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta and Associate Editor Ruhi Tewari — his first public interaction with a live audience after returning to power.

The chief minister also said that he would not meet Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and would instead send one of his ministers. This, he argued, was primarily because he was denied entry into Canada last year. If the Canadian government wishes to protect the right to free speech of the Khalistanis living in the country, they ought to have extended the same right to him also, he said. Although he stopped short of accusing the Canadian government of indulging in vote-bank politics, Singh said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is catering to a small section of Khalistanis in Canada rather than the majority of Sikhs whose loyalties lie with India.

Singh lived up to his reputation of being forthright and unsparing through the evening as he spoke extensively about a host of other issues including beef ban, Punjab’s drugs problem, sedition and the future of his party, among others. The evening began on a newsy note – and stayed that way – as Singh said that the state he has inherited from his predecessors is in a “pathetic” condition.

He voiced his reservation about the ban on liquor on state highways by the Supreme Court, and also expressed his intention to get around it by abolishing the roads. “I don’t agree with it (the ban) at all,” he submitted.

Singh was unsparing when talking about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), his main opposition in the state. He said AAP’s popularity was “a summer storm that comes and goes”, and dismissed AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s style as confrontationist and inimical to effective governance. Stating that Kejriwal wished to become Punjab’s chief minister, Singh said that the people of Punjab saw through his party’s confrontational style of politics and chose experience instead.

While guests at OTC repeatedly congratulated Singh for his victory in the assembly elections, the veteran politician did concede that things are not moving particularly well for his party. The future of the Congress, he said, lay in promoting local party leaders in order to counter regional parties, like in his own state of Punjab. He, nevertheless, expressed confidence in the party’s leadership, adding that party vice president Rahul Gandhi is an extremely perceptive person. Congress is only going through a rough phase and will emerge from it decisively, he added.

Singh minced no words when it came to talking about issues such as choice in the context of beef ban controversies. “We are a free country. We are a democracy. Why should everyone be told what to eat and what not to eat?” Calling his state a “liberal” one, he said that consenting young couples moving out together is not a matter of concern for him. However, he confessed that the safety of girls in the state is somewhat precarious due to rampant thievery, which he sees as a consequence of the drug problem.

He expressed absolute astonishment at the sedition charges slapped on 66 students of Panjab University on Tuesday for protesting against a fee increase. “Sedition charge for what? Protesting against a fee hike?” he asked, calling the move “stupid”.

Expressing his desire to mend fraught bilateral ties with Pakistan, Singh said he does not agree with the Indian government’s tough line on Islamabad. Given what he said is the looming threat from China, India needs to be extremely wary and that “now is the time to make friends (with Pakistan)”, Singh said.

Singh’s popularity and following in the national capital was in full evidence in the audience as the guests included distinguished names such as Fortis Healthcare’s Malwinder Singh, London School of Economics professor, Meghnad Desai, Hero MotoCorp’s Sunil Kant Munjal, businessman Harish Sachdeva, veteran politician Amar Singh, MP and BCCI treasurer Rajiv Shukla, former Army chief General (Retd) Bikram Singh and well-known surgeon Dr. Naresh Trehan, among others.

Sanya Dhingra is a Reporter with ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @DhingraSanya

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