Even by the standards of Punjab’s colourful politics, a TV channel debate on January 20 evening left many red faces. Full of cuss words and wild allegations, it involved not two rival parties but leaders of the Congress on both sides, slugging it out over the same ticket.
Battered and bruised by long in-fighting, the Congress has chosen not to respond to this particular episode. However, the wound is likely to bleed, as its leader who has gone rogue is Cabinet minister Rana Gurjit Singh, also known as one of Punjab’s richest MLAs and close to rebel Amarinder Singh.
Not caring much for niceties, Rana Gurjit has been campaigning for his son Rana Inder Pratap Singh, who is fighting as an Independent from Sultanpur Lodhi in Kapurthala after the Congress refused to give him the ticket instead of its sitting two-time MLA. Rana Gurjit is himself the Congress candidate from adjoining Kapurthala (a seat he has won three times), and the refusal to his son was part of the party’s policy to not field more than one member of a family (even Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s brother was denied, Congress leaders point out).
However, Rana Gurjit, Technical Education and Industrial Training Minister in the outgoing ministry, is not a man who takes no easily. Particularly in this region of Doaba that he considers his fiefdom. For the past two months, the family’s intentions were clear, with Rana Inder getting politically active in Sultanpur Lodhi.
Rana Inder says he has been there for the people in need, and they have complained to him about the prevalent highhandedness, repression, corruption and drugs problem in the area. He claims that voters are fed up of sitting MLA Navtej Singh Cheema, and had been ready to back other parties before he got them behind him. He insists he is only fulfilling the people’s desire for change.
Rana Gurjit backs his son, saying he decided to contest after touring the constituency and gauging the anger against Cheema. It’s not a rebellion, he insists, for once he wins, Rana Inder would back the Congress. For now, things don’t look good for the Congress, the minister admits, but says it’s his son who would win.
A seething Cheema says party supporters are with him and he will win again, and that the father and son are damaging the party. “This is the place of Guru Nanak Dev ji, where the pride of everyone is shown its place,” he adds.
Recently, three other sitting MLAs – Avtar Singh Jr Bawa Henry (Jalandhar North), Balwinder Singh Dhaliwal (Phagwara), and Sukhpal Singh Khaira (Bholath; formerly of AAP) – joined Cheema in writing a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi demanding Rana Gurjit’s expulsion. They claimed that not just Sultanpur Lodhi, the minister was hurting the party in their constituencies too. They also asked why he was reinstated as minister after being once removed over illegal sand mining allegations.
Raising Rana Gurjit’s links to Amarinder, the MLAs mentioned how his confidant Amandeep Singh alias Gora Gill was now in Amarinder’s Punjab Lok Congress party and set to contest from Bholath. And that Gill was just one of Rana Gurjit’s several aides who were now in other parties and contesting against the Congress.
Soon after the letter, the contest took the ugly turn that played out eventually on TV. First Rana Gurjit landed at Cheema’s native village in Bussowal to formally launch his son’s campaign and open an election office for him there, and warned that Cheema would lose his security deposit. The show on News 18 Punjab followed in the evening.
Never away from the headlines, Rana Gurjit, however, has a line open not just to Amarinder but also Channi. Apart from winning Kapurthala (traditionally an Akali stronghold) in 2002, 2012 and 2017, he has represented the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat once (2004). Twice in between, Rana Gurjit’s sister-in-law Sukhjinder Kaur (2004) and wife Rajbans Kaur Rana (2007) won the Kapurthala seat.
With declared assets of Rs 169.88 crore, the owner of sugar mills, distilleries and vast farmlands in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, is one of the richest MLAs of the state.
Inducted in the Amarinder-led Congress government in March 2017 as Irrigation and Power Minister, he had to resign nine months later over allegedly procuring sand mining contracts worth Rs 26.51 crore in Nawanshahr in the name of his staff, including his cook. However, Rana Gurjit was later re-inducted in the Cabinet, despite reservations of party leaders.
In 2018, his son Rana Inder Pratap was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate over FEMA allegations.