The recent hooch tragedy in Punjab has triggered speculations of another factional feud within the ruling Congress, days after the grand old party succeeded in putting an end to the month-long crisis in neighbouring Rajasthan.
The Congress-governed state led by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has been facing flak because of the 121 deaths due to the consumption of spurious liquor in three districts of the western state. The party’s own Member of Parliament Partap Singh Bajwa has gone to the extent of saying that the ex-serviceman chief minister has lost his “mental balance” after being questioned over the hooch deaths.
“Captain (Amarinder Singh) saheb lost his mental balance after we (Bajwa and Rajya Sabha MP Shamsher Singh Dullo) raised questions on the 121 deaths in hooch tragedy, as he is thinking that his own party MP is questioning him,” Bajwa told news agency ANI on Thursday (August 13).
Of the 121 deaths, 92 happened in Tarn Taran, 15 in Amritsar and 14 in Gurdaspur, as per government statement. Most of the victims were farm labourers. The spurious liquor was manufactured by Rajesh Joshi, who runs a paint shop in Ludhiana, said police. The person who had bought the liquor and supplied it to the three districts has been arrested.
Bajwa said he wanted to know if the excise and home departments, which are under Singh, will allow the two Special Investigation Teams, formed to investigate the tragedy, do their job properly. SITs were formed to probe the railway accident in Amritsar that killed 60 in 2018 and the blast at a cracker factory in Batala, but nothing came out of it, he said.
His comment came when the MPs went to meet Governor Kalraj Mishra to demand an Enforcement Directorate or Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the deaths. “We gave a memorandum to the governor saying the hooch tragedy should be investigated by the ED or CBI. He (Amarinder Singh) lost his mental balance when he learnt about this. He has now withdrawn the police security that was given to me,” he said.
Last week, the Amarinder-led Punjab government decided to withdraw the state security given to Bajwa, saying he enjoys the central security cover and virtually faced no threat. Bajwa had since been accusing the chief minister of resorting to “hitting below the belt” as he had criticised his government.
Bajwa served as the president of the state Congress unit between 2013 and 2015. His comments were seen as “brazen indiscipline” by the state leadership. The current PCC president, Sunil Jakhar, had earlier this month said he’ll write to party president Sonia Gandhi to take “strict action” against Bajwal and Dullo for “attacking” own government.
Jakhar didn’t stop there. He recalled the Rajasthan episode, and asserted, “Had action been taken against Pilot then itself, what is happening today in Rajasthan today could have been avoided.” He described the attack by their MPs as a “copy-paste job” of what happened in Rajasthan in January after the deaths of 107 infants, over which Sachin Pilot had flayed his own government.
While the Rajasthan crisis has now seemingly come to an end, another one seems to be on the cards in Punjab.
What adds fuel to this speculation of a factional feud is Bajwa’s constant critique of his own government, something that theorists would call a characteristic of a healthy democracy. In June, the Rajya Sabha member had fired a salvo at Captain Singh, accusing his own party’s government of not taking concrete steps to ensure payment of dues to sugarcane farmers. He made the accusations in an open letter that he got signed by three party legislators, in a clear show of strength.