‘I will act as a bridge between Centre, international investors for Amritsar’

INTERVIEW / Taranjit Singh Sandhu, BJP candidate from Amritsar

BJP candidate from Amritsar constituency Taranjit Singh Sandhu | PTI BJP candidate from Amritsar constituency Taranjit Singh Sandhu | PTI

The entry of former US ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu into electoral politics as a BJP candidate from the prestigious Amritsar seat in Punjab has created a buzz. Amritsar, like other seats in Punjab, is witnessing a four-cornered contest. It’s an intense battle in the holy city, as the BJP could not secure a win during the last two polls.

A 1988-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, Sandhu served as the US ambassador for four years apart from his previous three postings in the country. He won accolades in transforming the relations between the two countries.

Rushing headlong into the fractious 2024 Lok Sabha polls, Sandhu has his task cut out. He wants to use his connections to bring investments to Amritsar. His family's deep connections to the border city also bolster his candidacy. His grandfather, Teja Singh Samundri, was a founding member of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, the premier body managing Sikh institutions, and his father was the founding vice chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University.

Sandhu says he wants to act as a bridge between the Centre and international investors for Amritsar to create employment opportunities. He lists the worsening law and order problems, including the drug menace, as major issues in the area. As he starts his second innings as a politician, he can be the Sikh face for the BJP which the party has been desperately looking for.

He spoke to THE WEEK amidst his hectic campaign. Here are the edited excerpts.

You joined the BJP two months ago. What has been your key learning so far? How has been your transition from a diplomat to a politician ?

I was doing public service in an another way in the last 36 years. My approach is that politics, especially in Amritsar, is a service. The development of Amritsar is in a very bad shape, therefore, I am taking it more as a focused zeal.

What issues you are raising in Amritsar during the campaign?

Despite it being 2024, Amritsar is still lost in some of the very old problems. Law and order is a big issue here. There are extortion calls, threats, incidents of chain snatching and robberies. Secondly, drugs menace is a major issue here. Third, sanitation. People are getting poisonous water and it is a major issue. Environment pollution is another issue. A big dump got fire, three to four months ago.

Then, there is a problem of low productivity, low income and increasing unemployment.

What are you promising them?

I come with a stress on delivery as an ambassador of India to the United States and that relationship has transformed into partnership. A lot of investments are coming to India which is leading to job creation and development. For Amritsar, all these can bring development, particularly connectivity, increasing incomes in both agriculture and industry. Similarly in education, not for the sake of degree, but education that leads to skills which can transform this environment very swiftly.

You come from an illustrious family which had links with Amritsar. How does it resonate with the people?

It is a fact that my family had more than 100 years of history. My grandfather (Teja Singh Samundri) was a freedom fighter and leader of the Gurudwara reform movement. He also brought in 1917, education reforms by opening two schools, one of them for girls, which are still functioning. He talked of women empowerment way back.

My father, who got education in one of those schools, later became principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar, and founding vice chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, which serves the border area. My father’s (Bishan Singh Samundri) contribution to education was immense. My Mother (Jagjit Kaur Sandhu), who did her doctorate in the US, returned to India to teach in the government college for women and later became its principal. This is the tradition which I carry and my focus will be on the issues I mentioned including education.

Punjab, including Amritsar, is facing a four-cornered contest. Does it make the BJP's campaign tough this time? Is your election tough in Amritsar?

There has been lots of political analysis. But I have focused only on the development of Amritsar. I have noticed that all the candidates, who were earlier throwing mud at me, are now talking about development and what they are contributing. But people know the situation that existed. At least the debate has come on development.

Historically, the BJP and the Akali Dal had fought elections together. The alliance was seen in national interest. Do you see at any point that they both can come together?

Politics is an art of doing impossible. But I don't see. This is a situation where BJP is contesting alone and in my district I am very clear that the focus is on development. People are taking note of that. There are always challenges but they are opportunities, too.

In the past years, we have seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading a massive outreach towards the Sikhs. How is it resonating in Punjab?

A lot of politics is being played in all this (protests against the BJP). If you look at what Prime Minister Modi has done for the Sikhs in particular... I personally know as Ambassador in the United States, and earlier as the deputy Ambassador. An unprecedented pruning of the black list was taken up. The percentage increase in the MSP is much more than what it was during the Congress tenure. Other important initiatives have been taken up like Kartarpur Corridor, the removal of GST (on Langar), the celebrations organised for the Sikh events, and commemoration of martyrdom of four sons of Guru Gobind Singh through Veer Baal Diwas. This has been taken note across the world. If you look at his approach, the kind of respect he has brought to most of the Gurudwaras...

There is also the history of Congress – the 1984 riots, and Amritsar. We have Congress MPs and governments. But it was the BJP who punished those responsible for the riots.

Due to the farmer agitation, a big section of voters have turned against the BJP. So how are your addressing their concerns ?

Again there is politics here. One needs to view it that these protests are politically motivated. One doesn’t find solutions on the road, one needs to discuss. MSP is a very complicated issue which takes into cost, the selling price, the environmental factors and international obligations.

It's important to involve the experts and to hold serious discussion. I have been speaking about the increase in incomes of the farmers. I've spoken about different products. Even if it is rice, value needs to be added in that. Amritsar grows vegetables and fruits for which international markets exist, be it Dubai or Europe. They need to be tapped. Look at the prices of fruits and vegetables in Amritsar and Dubai and London. You will see the difference. We have cargo facility here of which 20 percent is utilised. In addition, if we bring our stuff to middle east, they will push Pakistan to open up transit route.

The waste products like parali need not be burned. Some companies turn them into aviation fuel. I talk about these things (to people in Amritsar). I have gone around in villages and people are responsive.

People outside Punjab get worried about certain hardline voices emerging from the state and even foreign countries. How do you react to this?

Those are dangerous but they don’t represent the people. Its just that they present facts in a manipulative way.

How would you rate Aam Admi Party government led by Bhagwant Mann in Punjab?

It is for people to rate. But look at the situation in Amritsar. It has only gone worse, be it law and order or drugs problem. I mentioned productivity and employment. Do they talk about the situation?

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal was also here in Amritsar for the campaign. Do you see any impact?

What is he bringing to the state. He is just taking the facilities of Punjab government. He needs to address the real issues. I want the Punjab government focuses on delivering on promises to the people.

How did you come to join politics?

I was inspired and encouraged. I worked for 10 years with the prime minister. My focus

is very clear. The situation in Amritsar is very grave. Somebody needs to be a good bridge between the Centre for its schemes and internationally for the investments to come here.

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