In Punjab, all major fronts other than Congress are surrogates of BJP: Sunil Jakhar

Veteran Congress leader Sunil Jakhar (centre) addressing a protest rally against the farm laws in October 2020. NARINDER NANU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
20 February, 2022

A veteran Congress leader, a three-time member of the legislative assembly and a former member of parliament, Sunil Jakhar served as the head of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee President between 2017 and 2021. Amid political turmoil in the state in mid-2021, the Congress high command removed Jakhar from the post to make way for the cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu. When tensions between Sidhu and the then chief minister Amarinder Singh came to a head in late 2021, resulting in the latter’s exit from the party, Jakhar was among the main contenders to take over the post. Despite receiving more than eighty percent of the votes from Congress’s largely Sikh MLAs, Jakhar, a Hindu, was not selected to succeed Amarinder —the high command chose Charanjit Singh Channi.

In the run-up to the Punjab assembly polls, Jakhar announced that he was quitting active politics. He, however, rubbished rumours that he was leaving the Congress party. “I am very much with Congress,” he told Jatinder Kaur Tur, a contributing writer at The Caravan. He spoke to Tur about the Congress’s failures and the choices facing the people of Punjab on 20 February, when the state goes to polls. According to him, aside from the Congress, every party in the running is a stand-in for the Bharatiya Janata Party. “All roads would lead to BJP if people don’t exercise their vote for Congress,” he said.

Jatinder Kaur Tur: Are you quitting politics?
Sunil Jakhar: I am not, and never was in the race for the post of chief minister. Despite not being the MLA or the PPCC president, I got 42 votes of [Congress] MLAs who wanted me to be the chief minister—that support is my real earning and position and I am happy with that. I am just not a part of electoral politics anymore but would continue to be a part and parcel of politics and the Congress.

Tur: What is the apt choice for Punjab in the coming assembly elections? Given the number of parties with different ideologies, and the extension of freebies, voters seem to be spoilt for choice.
Jakhar: Parties like the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party are only giving a false choice to Punjab. They have the same ideology as the BJP. If the voters don’t realise this, then all roads will lead to BJP. It is the real brand behind the surrogate advertisements of the SAD and the AAP. The Congress is the only right choice for Punjab. Otherwise, the people of Punjab may knowingly or unknowingly end up voting for their nemesis—the parties responsible for the drugs crisis [in the state], for [illegal] sand mining, for the sacrilege incidents at Bargari [in 2015], which further led to innocents losing their lives in the Kotkapura and Behbalkalan police firing incidents [amid protests against the sacrilege incidents], and for the death of nearly 750 farmers during the farmers’ protests [in 2020 and 2021]. The people of Punjab are being taken for a ride. They need to look at the options available. They should not fall for freebies and should not take everything at face value.

Tur: But will people vote for change?
Jakhar: Change for the better is [more important] than change for just the sake of change. If people vote for Akalis, who were in power for ten years just five years ago, this will amount to giving a clean chit to them on the accusations of sacrilege, as well as drugs. The BJP and AAP are trying to project that there are just eighteen or twenty constituencies where panthic issues [pertaining to the Sikh faith] are important. But these are not political issues, these are related to [public] sentiments and these issues should not be exploited for political reasons. These issues [reflect] a compromise of the Akali Dal’s commitment. Akali Dal is nothing but a political wing of the Sikh religion, and they have betrayed the faith of Sikhs.

Tur: But even Congress, which came to power in 2017, led by Captain Amarinder Singh, had promised to resolve the issues of drugs and to act on the sacrilege cases. It has failed to anything concrete about these issues.
Jakhar: Just because the Congress has not been able to nail them [the Akalis] on these issues, let’s not exonerate them of these serious accusations.

Tur: Post Operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots, the Congress was construed as anti-panthic by Sikhs. Was Captain Amarinder Singh able to change that image in recent years? What went wrong after that?
Jakhar: In 2017 [during the assembly election], Captain Amarinder Singh was representing the secular image of Congress while leading the charge. He was hailed to be as panthic as the SAD leaders at one point of time. Everything was going smoothly for us, and people had put their faith in Captain Saheb that he would take care of these issues of sacrilege and drugs and put those responsible for these acts in the dock.

Until the last moment, when I handed over the charge to the new PPCC president Navjot Sidhu, I felt that Captain Saheb was saving the best for the last. Maybe he was trying to [take strict action on] these issues closer to the election so that people do not forget that who sorted these out. Captain Saheb’s inaccessibility [during his tenure as chief minister] was concerning but his conduct after he quit the Congress and [joined hands with] the BJP was highly unbecoming.

Tur: Could the Congress high command have handled the Punjab infighting and crisis in any other way?
Jakhar: The Congress could have handled it in a better way and given Captain Amarinder Singh a notice to do the things he promised on behalf of Congress before he was made to step down in a way that led to many a heartburn.  

The Congress leadership has to know that the way to Delhi goes through the leadership in Punjab. It goes through Bargari and Behbalkalan [where the violence related to sacrilege incidents took place]. The issue of sacrilege and drugs kept coming up and dying down in Punjab all this while, leading to not just a downslide of Captain but even the Congress command in the state, while issues like anti-incumbency, corruption and sand mining were put on the back burner and became secondary.

Tur: After having marked a landslide victory in 2017, it was being assumed that it would be smooth sailing for Congress in the 2022 assembly elections too. What were the reasons behind Congress landing in the current position? What was the tipping point?
Jakhar: I can pinpoint the exact date. The tipping point for Congress was when, on 9 April 2021, the Punjab and Haryana High Court delivered a verdict quashing the Special Investigation Team probe report into the post-sacrilege Kotkapura firing case of 2015. The SIT was constituted by the Congress government and an IGP [Inspector General of Police] Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh was heading these investigations. The high court even directed the state government to constitute a new SIT without the IGP.

Six years since these incidents and five since the Congress came to power in Punjab, the botching up of the investigations into the issue made the lack of intentions of Amarinder Singh’s government clear in the eyes of Punjab. Narratives of Captain being in cahoots with Akalis, being thick with Badals, led to other MLAs and the like of Channis, Randhawas and Sidhus becoming emboldened [referring to Charanji Singh Channi, who took over the chief minister’s post after Amarinder Singh; Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who was also in the running and now the deputy chief minister; and Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was Amarinder’s top critic within the party]. Further, Sidhu going to Burj Jawahar Singh Wala in April last year, the site from where this sacrilege started in 2015, became the tipping point for Captain as well as Congress.

Tur: What went wrong between you and the high command?
Jakhar: After sweeping away the 2017 Municipal Corporation as well as the assembly elections, I said that Captain Amarinder would lead the charge into 2022. I never said that he would be the chief minister. Some wise guy made it sound as if I had announced the chief ministerial candidate for 2022. The high command was furious, though they never came to me. [They thought,] who is Sunil to declare the CM candidate, and it was like, “Sunil ko utaar ke Sidhu ko banaa do” [Remove Jakhar, and bring in Sidhu]. At that time, everybody in the Congress had this feeling that they have finished the Akali Dal, while Aam Aadmi Party was in a disarray. But now, the tables have turned.

Tur: When did things start going downhill for Sidhu?
Jakhar: Punjab politics is so fickle. On 23 July 2021, I handed over the charge [of the PPCC] to Navjot Sidhu, when his popularity was at a peak. That day, he signed his own political death warrant by the way he behaved on stage and showed disregard and disrespect towards Captain Amarinder Singh. This resulted in Captain Saheb regaining some of his stature especially with the way he conducted himself. Sidhu’s slide started that very day. From that pinnacle of popularity, he is all alone today.  

Tur: According to the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report, the Badal family secured a pardon from the temporal seat, the Akal Takht, for the Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim in the blasphemy case from 2015, as his followers were suspected to be behind the incident. You have publicly asked Sukhbir Badal of the SAD to come clear regarding an alleged meeting with Ram Rahim, just days prior to the latter’s pardon from the Akal Takht, and the release of his film, Messenger of God 2. What exactly are you asking him to address?
Jakhar: I just want Sukhbir Badal to answer whether he met Ram Rahim in Bombay or not [prior to the pardon]—yes or no. Ram Rahim was an accused in the 2015 case, and was directly responsible for the unrest in Punjab after the incident, so much so that he stood excommunicated from the Sikh panth [community]. As per [news] reports, Badal met Ram Rahim, and till date, he has not denied this.

Sukhbir has said that I am nobody to talk about panthic issues. The Badals’ antagonism towards me stems from the time when I said that just [former chief minister and SAD head] Parkash Singh Badal alone could not be blamed for all the wrong that happened [during the 2015 incident]. Sukhbir, apart from being the deputy chief minister, also held the portfolio of home minister at the time of the sacrilege incidents and the subsequent police firing at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. He was equally responsible. He never answered my question about why he rushed to Bombay and held a meeting with Ram Rahim. Why did he go to Bombay just two or three days prior to telling the Akal Takht jathedar [head] to withdraw the hukamnama [order] excommunicating Ram Rahim? He has not answered that question till date. It was obvious that the Akal Takht hukamnama was withdrawn so that MSG could be released in Punjab. Sukhbir Badal arm twisted the Akal Takht by summoning all Takht jathedars to his residence.

A day later, on 24 September, the Akal Takht pardoned Ram Rahim, and his movie was released the next day. Sukhbir Badal farcically used Mukesh Ambani as his reason for going [to Mumbai], but Reliance had already invested thousands of crores in the state by then.

Tur: Could these be mere coincidences?
Jakhar: No. There is yet another “coincidence” like this, wherein the blasphemy case against Ram Rahim was cancelled on 27 January 2012, just three days prior to Punjab assembly polls, which were to be held on 30 January. Even after being convicted for rape and subsequently murder, he was again granted a three-week furlough, just two weeks before the state assembly elections. Can you see the links? Once again, he is out ahead of the elections and he will be free to influence his followers in Punjab.

Tur: What is your view of the Aam Aadmi Party’s ideology?
Jakhar: The Aam Aadmi Party is a surrogate political party for BJP. The AAP sided with BJP when it came to the riots in Delhi [referring to the communal violence against Muslims in the city in February 2020]. When Trump was here [the then US President Donald Trump, who was visiting India in February 2020], Mr Kejriwal was nowhere to be seen. Kejriwal never opposed the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019].

These are the dots which have to be connected. A clear picture emerges from this, which shows that AAP is like the surrogate advertisement for BJP.

There are uncanny parallels between AAP and BJP.  The AAP started with a jhadoo [broom, the symbol of the AAP] yatra and the BJP started with a tiranga yatra [referring to the Indian flag]. Kejirwal replicated BJP’s Tiranga yatra in Jalandhar and Pathankot . The basic ideology behind all these people is the same. All these parties [SAD and AAP] are in cahoots with each other, and all of them are hoodwinking people. They are all against farmers.

It is like giving people a false feeling that they have a choice—just how, if you ban liquor, the advertisement will be for 100 Pipers soda. They are advertising the brand that people associate with liquor, but they say it’s soda. The SAD is like soda and the AAP is like mineral water, but the drink is BJP.

The Congress may have committed some follies—it has failed to live up to the expectations and not fulfilled the obligations expected of it, but do you want to give a clean chit to SAD or to let BJP get away scot-free under the garb of the AAP or the SAD?

Tur: Kejriwal is asking for one chance for the AAP in Punjab. Will they be able to bring the change the voters want?
Jakhar: I don’t understand what kind of change are the AAP leaders talking about. They are asking for a chance which they have already been given twice. They had four MPs elected from Punjab [in 2017] when they could not open their account anywhere in the country. Three of them quit. But I doubt if Kejriwal even knows how many MLAs left him, how many came back and how many left again. They could not keep their flock together. They speak about the dissension within the Congress party but from day one, AAP kept changing the leaders of opposition. First it was HS Phoolka [former AAP MLA and a lawyer], he quit soon after and then there were by-elections. Then came Sukhpal Singh Khaira. He too left the party, and then came Harpal Singh Cheema. People like Kanwar Sandhu [a senior journalist] who was considered to be AAP’s think tank here, left as well. Eleven out of 20 [elected MLAs] left and I think that’s too much. The AAP has no moral authority to talk on issues of unity in Congress or shed crocodile tears over what happened to [me]. Further, the SAD Chief Sukhbir Badal has not said “never” regarding going back to BJP, just that at the moment, it is a “no.”

Tur: Isn’t it true that people want to see those from humble backgrounds in politics? AAP is projected as a party of the common man.
Jakhar: Let’s talk about the richest candidate in Punjab, who happens to be AAP’s candidate from Mohali—the former mayor of Mohali, Kulwant Singh. Is he the common man?

Tur: After the farm protests ended, farmer organisations launched the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha. Can they be the change Punjab is looking for?
Jakhar: They are fighting unprepared. They could not even get registered so far. Kisanon kou kalam nei mara hai,  goli se nahin maara [Farmers have been defeated by the pen, not by guns]. They said that they would not allow politicians to enter [the farm protests], but the permanent solution to their problem lies in the parliamentary process. Farmers, or whoever understands their problems, has to take up these issues through politics and not by sitting on the side-lines. With the farm protest, their unity despite differences was what got them success, but the same is lacking now.  

[In September 2020] Captain Amarinder held a meeting with farmer organisations in which they demanded that the Punjab Vidhan Sabha should pass bills or resolutions rejecting the farm laws and even gave a charter for passing three bills to counter the centre’s farm laws. Even though Ugrahan did not agree with their points, but he extended his support. [Joginder Singh Ugrahan is the head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), the largest farmer organisation at the protests. He is avowedly against participation in electoral politics]. This was unity but unfortunately, it is not there anymore. Once again, similar bills were passed by the Channi government. The fate of both these bills remained same as I had predicted to [farmer leader] Darshanpal—these bills remained with the Governor and were never sent to the President.

Losing a battle by being unprepared will not be the loss of an individual or a leader like Rajewal [Balbir Singh Rajewal, a prominent farmer leader, is leading the farmers’ political front], it will bring down that image of grit which farmers painted despite a death toll of 750 farmers during this agitation. The Lakhmipur Kheri massacre, involving mowing down of  people in broad daylight, and Navreet Singh being shot down in broad daylight in Delhi—[these incidents] have all fizzled out from the cause list of everybody.

Tur: But aren’t the farmer leaders clearly opposed to the BJP?
Jakhar: It’s the farmers’ prerogative to contest elections but unwittingly they might end up helping the same people—by omission or commission—who are responsible for the farm laws, the agitation, the lost lives and their woes. Eventually, contesting for the 2024 parliamentary elections is the way to go, while assembly elections are a stepping stone. But if they help Akalis, they will be helping their arch nemesis.        

Tur: What if, to vote out the Congress for whatever reasons, voters opt for Akalis in Punjab?
Jakhar: If people become emotional and want to teach the Congress a lesson, that is ok. But whom are you favouring? If you want to select Akalis, then by giving them a clean chit, you can never ever bring up drugs, never ever talk about sacrilege, because these are the very people who were there at the helm [when those issues arose], who were the accused.

This interview has been edited and condensed.