In a corner of the classroom, Jugnu and a friend are discussing the tyranny of their teacher, when the teacher interrupts.
“Jugnu, eh dass wadda ho ke ki baneinga? (What do you want to be when you grow up?)” the teacher asks, waving a stick.
“Police afsar, master-ji (a police officer, master)” Jugnu says promptly.
“Kyon? (why)” the teacher asks.
“Tusin Matka Chowk ’te dharna laaoge, main aa ke dande maarunga (So that when you protest at Matka Chowk in Chandigarh, I can use the stick on you).”
Twenty-five years on, Jugnu from this comedy sketch is set to be the Chief Minister of Punjab. And he will be responsible for teachers, the police, and much more. That’s no joke.
'Rozgaar', Not Just Jobs
Beyond rhetoric and emotion, generating employment is only one of the many governance challenges for the new regime.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in its report for February 2022, said Punjab’s unemployment rate is 9%, higher than the national rate of 7.5%. In Delhi, where the AAP is in power as well, the rate is worse than Punjab at 9.3%, placing Delhi at the 12th worst position among states; Punjab is 13th. The solution may not be government jobs. Punjab is estimated to spend 63% of its revenue in 2021-22 on salaries (29%), pensions (12%), and interest on debt (21%).
Debt is nearly Rs 3 lakh crore. Punjab is so busy running the daily/monthly show that on building assets (capital expenditure), it spends just Rs 869 per person as against a national average (of major states) of Rs 3,509. And a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India projects the debt to reach Rs 4 lakh crore in three to four years.
This is in contrast with Delhi, which is not only a revenue-surplus state, but its debt ratio to its GSDP is also barely 5%. For Punjab, it is nearly 50%.
In such a scenario, social activist Dr Pyara Lal Garg says, “No government can provide sarkari naukri (public sector job) to everyone, but it can provide rozgaar (source of livelihood). Basic jobs to the lowest rungs of society are more urgently needed and can boost the economy, too.”
He suggests positions such as those of ASHA workers be increased to 70,000 – from around 22,000 at present – and they be paid Rs 2,500 a month, “which will be a mere Rs 210 crore a year”.
Experts also point towards the underuse of the MGNREGA in Punjab. The state has over 30 lakh rural households, but only 21 lakh have MNREGA job cards. But Central government data show that fewer than 20,000 households got the promised 100 days of wage employment so far in this financial year.
“The state can hike the promised number of days to 150 using its own funds and use the labour force towards boosting cottage industry,” suggests Dr Garg.
Can Industry Be a Panacea?
Dr Gian Singh, an economist, sees a link between labour, cottage industry, agriculture, and the character of Punjab’s society. “Punjab gathered a lot of its debt and lost a lot of industry due to militancy in the 1980s and later because of tax sops to other states. But the solution is not big industry alone. Village-level cooperatives – for milk products, juices, traditional foods – can generate not just employment but also social confidence.”
Farming remains the largest employment avenue for people, as 36% of Punjab’s workers are employed in this sector. Next comes small-scale industry, at 24%. “These need to be focus areas and must be linked. Large industry anyway requires huge investments and is automated, which does not translate into a large number of jobs,” Dr Singh says.
Funds for ‘Freebies’
An economic boost is important because the AAP has announced several subsidies. These include Rs 1,000 a month to every woman aged 18 years or above, which will cost about Rs 12,000 crore a year. In addition, it has promised free 300 units of power a month for domestic customers, in addition to the free power to farms already being given.
The party has also promised mohalla clinics and infrastructural improvement in schools.
In Delhi, the AAP government allocated 25.2% of expenditure to education in 2021-22, higher than the average allocation (15.8%) by states. In Punjab, this is less than half of Delhi, at 11%. For health, Delhi allocated 15.9%, which is almost three times the average allocation by states (5.5%) and four times that of Punjab (4%).
In Punjab, a high level of commitment to education and health will require reshuffling of priorities and the enlargement of the pie, at first by plugging leakages and then by generating more revenue.
AAP boss and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has spoken of ending corruption to raise public money. Estimates by economists such as RS Ghuman of Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), Amritsar, say that plugging leakages and more efficient revenue collection can give Punjab up to Rs 25,000 crore a year, which should cover the AAP’s immediate promises. Some politicians, such as Navjot Singh Sidhu of the Congress, made bigger estimates of Rs 50,000 crore a year additional income by eliminating corruption. Thus, it looks mathematically possible.
During a victory roadshow in Amritsar on 13 March, Kejriwal said, “For the first time, Punjab has an honest CM … Loot will be stopped; each rupee will be spent on the people.”
But when Kejriwal made this argument, he was not just talking about economics but making a political promise that has brought the AAP to power. The promise is to end the politics of patronage, a hallmark of traditional party rule.
Vote Against Arrogance
If there is one lesson to learn from the 2022 Punjab elections, it is that Punjab does not like arrogance, and that unaddressed frustration can bring down giants.
The first test, thus, for Mann’s image of “aapna munda” (our guy) will be in how he deals with massive expectations, especially because many of the fiscal solutions are medium- and long-term. He spoke specifically of neeyat (intentions) and used the words “hauli-hauli” (slow and steady) multiple times in his first speech after victory.
This neeyat will have to reflect in policy decisions regarding mining and cable TV monopoly, for instance, and the constituency-level conduct of MLAs.
“If our MLAs indulge in corruption, we will not spare them,” Kejriwal said at the Amritsar roadshow.
When in power, the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine was known to have MLAs – and even their leaders who lost elections – decide the appointments of police officers and bureaucrats in their areas. This idea of fiefdoms did not change much during Amarinder Singh’s regime.
To stand for change, AAP’s elected leaders are now expected to be much more visible and show something tangible every few days. This is where the education and health model of Delhi can become a vehicle for AAP in Punjab, too.
Fixing Education, Fighting Drugs
For instance, the Punjabi University in Patiala needs immediate fixing. It is the nerve centre of higher education in the Malwa region, which has 69 of Punjab’s 117 assembly seats. The AAP has won 66 of these.
In his brief stint as Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi declared that the university shall get Rs 20 crore a month, up from Rs 12 crore. He also announced a takeover of its Rs 150-crore loans. However, the budget allocation had shown a starker reality: the university had sought Rs 400-crore special grant but got Rs 90 crore.
Mann is an alumnus of the university.
“It serves students from the worst-hit areas of agrarian crisis. A substantial number of the students are first-generation college-goers,” says Daljit Ami, director of Educational Multimedia Research Centre at the university. “AAP needs to take care of the chain of public education institutions, from school, colleges to the university.”
Another social front that AAP can start work on immediately is the efficiency of de-addiction centres. Politically, it helps the AAP that Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia is already in jail in a drug-related case. In terms of mindset, Punjab appears to have moved from labelling addicts as outcasts to considering them patients in need of help. This mindset can be further encouraged with the social capital of Mann and his MLAs.
As For the National Capital…
Where Mann’s government will need more than monetary manoeuvring and social capital is in its relations with the Central government.
Punjab led the protest that forced the rollback of the three contentious farm laws, yet the demand for a legal guarantee and the expansion of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) remains at the mercy of the Central government.
In his congratulatory message to the AAP on Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised all help. But if the experience of Kejriwal’s Delhi regime is anything to go by, there are bound to be skirmishes and stalemates.
The issue of river-water sharing – the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal is an example – will also test the idea of federalism. Punjab’s positioning as a border state will come into play when Mann, as Chief Minister, is forced to take a stand on the extension of the Border Security Force’s (BSF) remit up to 50 km within the border with Pakistan. Already, the BJP and its new ally, Amarinder, have been insisting that law and order in a border state cannot be handled by “novices”.
Stubble the First Stumble?
Amid all this, if one goes by viral memes on Punjabi social media, ‘Jugnu’ will face his first big exam in another six months. For, now, a tussle with Delhi does not just mean the Central government but also with Kejriwal’s Delhi government.
Kejriwal’s government has routinely blamed the burning of paddy stubble in Punjab for smog in the National Capital Region (NCR) in September-October. Mann may have to find a way that would please his people as well as his party boss on this issue. Governance delivery, however, is just one part of the mandate.
Politically, too, this is a test that he may have to face over and over.
Nuance Isn’t Dead
Punjab is unique in the sense that a national minority of less than 2 per cent, Sikhs, are a majority here with about 60 per cent population share. It is one of the few states to have such a demographic in India. Its cultural footprint is much larger than its size on the map.
Mann, thus, has one other expectation to live up to. Will he be a counter to the hyper-nationalist polity of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan variety? This may bring him into conflict not just with his adversaries but also within his party, which has been taking a soft Hindutva line over the past few years.
Mann does not have to delink religion and politics altogether. Sacrilege of Sikh holy books is a festering issue in Punjab, as is the release of Sikh political prisoners. He will have to define the fine line between identity and majoritarianism.
While Kejriwal’s AAP may like to reduce politics to a matter of efficient service delivery, in Punjab, it will realise that politics is much more than that.
(The writer is a journalist who has worked for prominent news outlets in Chandigarh and New Delhi. He is currently an assistant professor of journalism at Bennett University. He is reachable at and on Twitter @aarishc. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)