Political Storm Over Drugs

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The AAP is returning to Punjab, determined to stoke the issue of drug addiction to win the assembly elections next year. The ruling SAD-BJP combine is on the defensive and there are doubt s if the Congress can get its act together either.BY GAURAV VIVEK BHATNAGAR

A bitter war of words has broken out between Punjab’s ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) on one hand and the opposition Congress over the extent of drug addiction in the state. While some may find this surprising, the fact is drug abuse is a hot topic of discussion and could well be the clincher in deciding the winner of Assembly elections due early in 2017.

The potential of appealing to the sensibilities of people on the issue of drug abuse was first exploited by the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Its slogan, “‘Na bhooki (poppy husk) ko, nadaaru (liquor) ko, vote denge jhaadu ko,” had caught the fancy of the masses, long tired and sick of growing drug addiction which had destroyed livelihoods and families. Villages like Maqdoompur are known as “widow villages” because they have lost almost all their menfolk to drugs.

With large numbers of men having died in several villages due to their addiction, the anger of the people was palpable. And it showed in the manner in which they voted for AAP, as it spoke about their troubles. A debutante in the state, the party ended up bagging nearly a quarter of all votes polled and won four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats – surprising both the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine which till the last moment were under the illusion they were engaged in a direct duel.

Now, the Congress and the SAD have started raising the issue. At the centre of the debate right now is a recent report of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) which said that opioids worth Rs 7,500 crore, including Rs 6,500 crore worth of heroin, are consumed in Punjab every year.

The potential of appealing to the sensibilities of people on the issue of drug abuse was first exploited by the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Its slogan, ‘Na bhooki (poppy husk) ko, na daaru (liquor) ko, vote denge jhaadu ko,” had caught the fancy of the masses

Being a border state, Punjab has long struggled to deal with the menace. Falling on the Silk Route, it has for the last over two millennia been a trading point for drugs. The problem accentuated during the militancy years as in the wake of terrorists targeting liquor vends, people searched for other intoxicating options, and drugs were pushed in from across the border.

As per the study, conducted by National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre at AIIMS in association with Delhi-based Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses, the result has been catastrophic. About 1.23 lakh of the 2.77 crore people have got addicted to drugs. This is four times the global average of drugs addicts. It further said about 2.3 lakh people in the state were now opioid dependent and about 8.6 lakh were opioid users.

The findings have triggered a political storm especially since the state government had always denied such widespread sale and abuse of drugs. Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh was the first to fire the salvo. He pooh-poohed the claim of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, that the state had only 16,620 drug addicts, and insisted that the submission by the SAD-BJP government in the Punjab and Haryana High Court had pegged the figure much higher.

Amarinder Singh, who has been handed over the reins of the state by the party high command after a prolonged battle for the post with his predecessor Pratap Singh Bajwa, has been using the study to target the ruling Badal family for deliberately overlooking the drug menace. He said in an affidavit filed last July, the chief secretary had himself submitted that there were over three lakh drug abusers in the state.

Charging that an “entire generation has been destroyed by drugs”,Amarinder accused the Badals of being in the habit of denying the very existence of a problem.

Incidentally, it was Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who had first started a major debate in the state over drugs when in 2012, he claimed that that more than 70 per cent of Punjab’s youngsters were addicted to narcotics. With the facts not right, his argument about the scale of the problem got lost in derision and ridicule despite his having got the sense of the issue right.

As the state Congress leadership was also divided then, the issue was not pursued vigorously. Consequently, the Aam Aadmi Party stole the march on the issue as it vigorously flagged the agenda during the Lok Sabha elections.

This time too, the Aam Aadmi Party is in no mood to relent and let slip an issue which had endeared it to the electorate. Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann was quick to target the Badals following the AIIMS study. He accused SukhbirBadal in particular for trying to “subvert the widespread menace of drugs” in the state.

Averring to a claim by the junior Badal that only 16,000 people, or 0.06 per cent of the population, were addicted to drugs, he said rather than juggling with the figures it would have been better had Sukhbir vowed to deal with it. He also pointed out that BJP’s brand ambassador, Baba Ramdev, had in May last year also observed that 80 per cent of youths in the state were exposed to the scourge of drugs.

The Badals are, however, in no mood to relent to the voices from the opposition. Sukhbir Badal claimed there was a conspiracy to demean Punjab. In a reference to Rahul Gandhi’s claim, he said: “A recently conducted AIIMS (New Delhi) study has shown the mirror to the anti-Punjab forces indulging in defaming the state by declaring 70 per cent of the youth as drug addicts.”

Claiming that the AIIMS study had shown that only “0.06 per cent was found abusing drugs, which is the lowest percentage across the nation,” he said, the “anti-Punjab” campaign was a brainchild of Rahul Gandhi who had “branded the youth of the state as drug addicts by distorting facts”.

Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann said rather than juggling with the figures it would have been better had Sukhbir vowed to deal with it. He also pointed out that BJP’s brand ambassador, Baba Ramdev, had in May last year also observed that 80 per cent of youths in the state were exposed to the scourge of drugs

And having realised the damage potential of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Sukhbir also accused him of resorting to cheap gimmicks by visiting the families of drug addicts.

The politics over the issue apart, people in the state are also closely following developments in the Bhola drug racket, in which the names of several well-connected politicians cropped up. AAP is now raising the issue of why the Enforcement Directorate probe was not handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation and why Amarinder had opposed the move.

The ruling family also has much to answer for, especially as a former Director General of Police, Shashi Kant, has charged that the State Intelligence Department had in 2007 identified six politicians, including two SAD ministers, as involved in drug smuggling and yet no action was taken against them by the Badals.

While the issue of drugs has also figured several times in the High Court and repeated very scathing observations have been made by several judges, it seems ultimately the people will have to decide in 2017 what they think of the entire issue.

Summary

  • Drug addiction has become a political hot potato in Punjab as the state gears up for elections early next year
  • AAP is cashing in on the defensiveness of the ruling SAD-BJP combine, and has made the war on drugs its main election plank
  • The Badals who have dominated Punjab for many years, say drug addiction is being exaggerated for political gain
  • The coming elections could see the votes go in favour of that party which reflects Punjab’s anger over drugs
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