Two Punjab ministers on Monday said they will not participate in any meeting attended by the state's chief secretary, worsening a crisis triggered by a showdown last week.
Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal announced his intention at a Cabinet meeting, where he recalled his protest on Saturday against the unacceptable behaviour of Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh at a meeting that day.
Badal and Technical Education Minister Charanjit Singh Channi had walked out of Saturday's pre-cabinet meeting, prompting the postponement of the Cabinet meeting itself to Monday.
The chief secretary, however, kept himself away from Monday's Cabinet meeting to discuss changes in the excise policy. Home Secretary Satish Chandra attended in his place.
As the crisis escalated, Punjab Congress too backed the ministers, asking the top bureaucrat to step back. Manpreet Singh Badal told reporters that the issue was raised as part of the unofficial agenda of the Cabinet meeting, and his stand was supported by the other ministers present there.
Channi also supported him and said he will not be part of any meeting attended by the chief secretary, the most senior bureaucrat in the state.
I gave a proposal that it will be impossible for me to sit in a Cabinet meeting in which CS Karan Avtar Singh is also seated, Badal told reporters. He claimed that this was also the unanimous decision of the rest of the Punjab Cabinet. We urged the CM to decide whether to call the CS or us to a meeting, Badal said after the Cabinet meeting.
After the walkout by Badal and Channi on Saturday rest of the Cabinet too had reportedly followed them -- the finance minister had objected to the chief secretary's body language and the manner in which he spoke.
Badal claimed the behaviour was against the dignity of the Punjab Cabinet. On Monday, he said it was not a battle of egos, but did not elaborate on what the bureaucrat actually said.
This decision which has been taken is in the highest interest of the state, he said, referring to the two ministers' intention to not sit on any meeting with the CS. It is now up to the CM what decision he takes.
"Manpreet will not be there in any meeting where CS Karan Avtar Singh is present, he reiterated. At Saturday's meeting, Technical Education Minister Channi is learnt to have opposed any relief for liquor vend owners in the excise policy under discussion.
The CS had allegedly made some curt remarks after Channi spoke. Badal and Channi then walked out, reportedly followed after some time by the other ministers. The Cabinet meeting, scheduled later that day, was then called off.
No decision on changes in the excise police emerged immediately after Monday's Cabinet meeting. Badal said the Cabinet has unanimously authorised the CM to take a decision.
Liquor vend owners are seeking an extension of their licences, saying they were badly hit by the lockdown. Some of them are also against the Punjab government's plan on doorstep delivery of liquor with the easing of the lockdown against coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar criticised the CS. It is unfortunate that a senior officer in the rank of CS has his own ego and arrogance coming in the way of well-established principles of law. Keeping his own dignity and that of the office he holds, he should step back himself, said Jakhar.
In a series of tweets, Congress MLA Amrinder Singh Raja Warring alleged that the chief secretary's son had an undeclared business interest in a Punjab distillery.
Will the Chief Secretary Punjab be pleased to let us know if every IAS officer is required to declare the business interests of his immediate family members to the state government, especially if they are covered by the domain of his department? Is this not a conflict of interest? Warring asked the chief minister to inquire into the matter.