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Hooch tragedy: Govt finds itself on back foot, Capt’s critics, opposition smell blood

The stunning hooch disaster has not only dealt a blow to the Amarinder Singh government’s image, it has gifted political fodder to both opposition and his party detractors

Updated: Aug 07, 2020 00:53 IST

By Navneet Sharma, Hindustan Times/Chandigarh

Punjab’s worst hooch tragedy that claimed 113 lives in three border districts has stirred the placid political waters in the state.

The Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government, which seemed to be in control after defeating a lackluster opposition in the Lok Sabha elections and the state assembly bypolls last year, finds itself on the back foot like never before. The hooch deaths have not only blemished the image of the state government, leaving its repeated claims of decisive action against illicit liquor in tatters, but also led to a full-blown showdown within the state party.

The opposition - Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) - have smelled blood. Both parties, which have been grappling with unsavoury internal squabbles and desertions, are going all-out after the Congress government, directly targeting the chief minister as he holds the home, and excise and taxation portfolios. The AAP and SAD have ratcheted up their attacks and are also competing with each other, statement for statement and protest for protest, to get onto the political centre stage.

Providing the opposition parties additional ammunition are the questions raised by Congress Rajya Sabha MPs Partap Singh Bajwa and Shamsher Singh Dullo who have publicly accused the government of “clear-cut failure” and “maladministration”. Though there have been rumblings of discontent within the government and the state unit in the past, the fierce joint offensive of the former presidents of Punjab Congress, who met the governor on Monday to demand impartial probes by the CBI and ED into the hooch deaths and illegal liquor trade, has the party leadership in the state worried.

Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar was the first to demand that Bajwa and Dullo, both known Amarinder-baiters, be shown the door for “brazen indiscipline”, claiming their actions were on the pattern of the revolt in the Congress-ruled Rajasthan. On Thursday, all members of the Amarinder cabinet, in a joint statement, also pressed for immediate expulsion of the two MPs for their “anti-party” and “anti-government” activities. Bajwa and Dullo, who were picked for Rajya Sabha in 2016 despite Amarinder’s strong reservations, have refused to back off so far.

Professor Ashutosh, head of the political science department, Panjab University, said the hooch tragedy is bad news for the ruling dispensation as it has not just tainted the image of the state government but the opposition parties are also getting adrenalised. “There were also no voices of dissent after (former minister Navjot Singh) Sidhu’s marginalisation and Amarinder was being praised for his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, but this tragedy is a setback and is going to be a key issue in the state elections,” he said. Already, there are alarm bells ringing and the state government is in damage-control mode, responding to the dissenters and opposition parties with equal vehemence.

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