Chandigarh In an embarrassment for Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, a spat between his Cabinet ministers and his ‘blue-eyed’ officials has come to the fore over amending the liquor policy to mop up revenue to cover losses in view of the lockdown.
Also a sitting party’s Member of Parliament and a Legislator, both young turks, went vocal over the tug-of-war between the bureaucracy and ministers.
The ‘undercurrent tussle’ between the executive and the legislature became palpably apparent on Saturday at a pre-cabinet informal meeting that led to the entire Council of Ministers walking out of the meeting over alleged disrespect to them.
The meeting, ahead of the Cabinet meeting, was called by Chief Secretary-cum-Financial Commissioner (Taxation) Karan Avtar Singh amid the presence of Chief Minster’s Chief Principal Secretary Suresh Kumar and Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary Tejvir Singh, among others.
Punjab annually generates a revenue of Rs 6,500 crore from the sale of liquor.
At the meeting, two senior ministers — Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and Technical Education Minister Charanjit Channi — had a spat with the Chief Secretary, a minister, who didn’t wish to be named, told IANS.
Even the government officers were accused of favouring the liquor lobby, severely impacting the state’s revenue, said the minister.
In the war of words, Badal took the lead and staged a walkout. Others followed him despite the Chief Secretary being apologetic.
The Cabinet, which was to meet after the pre-Cabinet meeting, is now scheduled for Monday.
Indicating ‘fissures within the government’, Congress two-time Member of Parliament Ravneet Bittu took the lead in saying during the corona pandemic, the “coordination between the ministers and bureaucrats should be strong”.
“But ministers walking out from a pre-Cabinet meeting might as well resign for their incompetent behaviour as many other capable of handling work pressure are ready to replace them,” Bittu informed in a tweet.
In another tweet, Bittu said the ministers walking out of a pre-Cabinet meeting after an argument with the Chief Secretary “is like a judge walking out of court after an argument with advocate”.
“If they found bureaucracy to be incompetent, then they should have replaced the officers and not staged a walk out themselves.”
Quoting a famous quote by Winston Churchill, Bittu said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
“In the pre-Cabinet meeting, in a time of crisis like corona, ministers should have shown courage to listen and negotiate, not walk out.”
The simmering dissent brewing between Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his Legislators is not new, say political experts.
The Congress sources suggest the cause of provocation is disconnect or deliberate side-stepping of a certain section of Legislators, who say unbridled powers to handful of bureaucrats is hampering their day-to-day working and deliberately ignoring the party’s interests.
The workers too are largely feeling disillusioned.
Earlier, four ruling party Legislators, all belonging to Amarinder Singh’s wife parliamentary constituency Patiala, were airing their anger against the government on several issues, including lack of development funds at the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meetings and at public platforms.
Some ministers, it is learnt, believe the bureaucracy is ruling the roost, political feedback is not taken periodically and the Chief Minister’s Office works in incognito.
Former senior bureaucrat Suresh Kumar was hand-picked by Amarinder Singh when he became the Chief Minister.
The officer, known for his impeccable, honest and upright approach, is often referred to as the ‘Super CM’ in political circles in the past 38 months.
Interestingly, wives of two Congress legislators, including a Cabinet Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, urged Amarinder Singh to review his government’s decision to allow home delivery of liquor, saying it would spike domestic violence cases.
“Respected Captain Amarinder Singh sir, we know the fight against drugs was our election promise, we should rethink our decision of opening liquor vends for home delivery,” Mamta Ashu, a Ludhiana councillor, said in a tweet.
“It might lead to increase in cases of domestic violence during the ongoing lockdown. Even contractors are not willing to open them,” she added.
Joining chorus, social activist Amrita Warring, wife of first-time Legislator Raja Warring, told the media that she is not against the opening of liquor vends for revenue, but it should be sold at the vends only, not delivered at homes as it not an essential commodity.
Her Legislator husband added: “This type of contumacious behaviour by the Chief Secretary time and again is unacceptable.”
“He has regularly disregarded our cabinet ministers and their decisions. I request you to kindly remove him from his post immediately,” a vocal Warring added.