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Goodies, Badal, the ugly - The Telegraph

Kulwinder Sandhu ()
29 January 1997

Title : Goodies, Badal, the ugly
Author : Kulwinder Sandhu
Publication : The Telegraph
Date : January 29, 1997

A close contest is expected in the February 6 Punjab assembly
polls. The two main contenders are the Congress and Prakash Singh
Badal's Shiromani Akali Dal. Badal was tricked into dropping out
of the running in the February 1992 assembly elections. He is now
back with a bang, the challenge he poses is enhanced by the Akali's
electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Of the smaller parties, the Akali Dal Panthic led by Jasbir Singh
Rode has made an electoral pact with the Bahujan Samaj Party. The
Akali Dal Amritsar led by Simranjit Singh Mann and the National
Front, comprising the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party
of India (Marxist) and the Janata Dal, are contesting
independently.

The moderate Akalis, led by Badal, swept the last Lok Sabha polls
and expect to win the assembly. They had some anxious moments when
the Punjab chief minister, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, announced a
"social and economic package" on December 22. But before it came
into force the Election Commission announced the poll dates,
throwing the ruling Congress into confusion. In the words of a
party leader, "The Election Commission has punched our lights out."

The Akali Dal's main selling point is its soft pedalling of
religion. The alliance with the BJP signals an end, to the
sectarian divisions caused by more than a decade of terrorism. The
Akalis have already received one pointer to their popular support:
the BJP-Akali Dal alliance won hands down in last month's
Chandigarh municipal elections. Past Akali campaigns have used
ostensibly religious gatherings in gurudwaras.

Past campaigns were replete with powerful religious and historical
symbols and rituals. In the beginning the Akalis sought to free
the gurudwaras from the mahants. Between 1920 and 1925 a movement
over this issue led to the deaths of 400 Sikhs.

The government yielded and established the Shiromani Gurudwara
Prabhandak Committee in 1926. It has controlled gurudwaras since.
The Akali Dal, until then purely religious in nature, became a
political party. It became a representative institution of the
Sikhs when the British, under their divide and rule policy, passed
acts in 1919 and 1935 to provide Sikhs separate representation in
central legislature.

After independence the Akali Dal launched movements demanding a
separate Punjabi state on a linguistic basis. This led to the
linguistic reorganisation of the Punjab in November 1966. But the
Akali Dal remained dissatisfied. Many Punjabi speaking areas were
not included ,in the new state. Chandigarh was made a Union
territory, the management of Bhakra Nangal was not entrusted to
Punjab and river waters were, in the Punjabi view, distributed
unjustly. These are major issues for the Akali Dal even in these
elections.

Fundamentalism and peace - issues formerly identified with the
Akali Dal and the Congress respectively - are no longer relevant.
Political stability and overall development are the planks with
which the Congress seeks to attract rural Sikh votes. The Akalis
have a flimsy agenda anti-Congressism. They also have a trump-card
- Hindu-Sikh unity. Corruption is another issue the Akalis are
projecting against the Congress, one which has caught the public
imagination.

The Congress is trailing a few steps behind the Akalis. But with
so many third parties in the fray, it is still a contender. The
large turnout at the January 13 political conference in Muktsar
organised by all the major parties on the eve of the Maghi festival
was a shot in the arm for the Congress. It is rare for the
Congress to hold a rally at Muktsar, Badal's stamping ground,
larger than the Akalis'. But it is also the hometown of the former
chief minister, Harcharan Singh Brar, and Jagmeet Singh Brar, a
former Congress parliamentarian who recently rejoined the Congress.
The Akali Dal is making strenuous efforts to project itself as a
defender of Punjabi rights and lambast the Congress for a history
of betrayal.

Though the charge is not new, the Congress has not been able to
blunt the attack. Partnership with the BJP has changed the Akalis
in one way: they are no longer anti-Centre. Their plank is solely
anti-Congress. The BJP, the Akali Dal hopes, will restore its
credibility at the national level. The BJP will benefit from a
dilution of its anti-minority image.

Muktsar was evidence that compared to a few months ago, when it
simply gave up the fight, the Congress is on stronger ground. It
is trying to make inroads into the Jat Sikh vote bank. Its leaders
are projecting themselves as true Sikhs and charge the Akalis with
exploiting religion for political purposes.

Changes in the voting pattern in the Lok Sabha and SGPC polls
indicates Mann's party will indirectly help the Congress by
dividing the rural Sikh vote. A recent state survey puts Mann's
support at around seven per cent. The figure could be higher in
rural areas from which both Akali parties draw support. This
figure translates into 4,000 to 8,000 votes per assembly
constituency.

The Akalis' best performance since Punjab's creation occurred in
the period following Operation Bluestar when the Surjeet Singh
Barnala led Akali government had 73 legislators. The Akali Dal
secured 30 per cent of the votes in the recent SGPC elections,
Mann's party 20 per cent and independents five per cent. If Mann's
party garners 1.3 million Sikh votes - out of 6.5 million - the
final tally may slightly favour the Congress, regardless of what
permutation or combination the Akali Dal uses.

The BSP enjoys a little more support than Mann's party and the
National Front. But recent developments in Uttar Pradesh may not
favour Kanshi Ram's dreams in Punjab. Punjabis are more politically
sophisticated and fear that Kanshi Ram's presence will undermine
Punjab's political stability.

Assembly elections have brought to the fore several issues with
immense bearing on Punjabi society. Punjabis have to ensure they
do not drown in the din of electoral rhetoric. As in previous
elections, they will take the opportunity to remind politicians who
are the real masters.

However, past experience shows that politicians have short
memories. After coming to power they forget the cardinal principle
of parliamentary democracy real power rests with the people.

Politicians use money power to clinch seats, and demagogy to
brainwash the masses. Substantive issues are mortgaged to fanciful
slogans. As election time approaches, voters need to assess issues
such as inflation, corruption, the possible revival of terrorism,
economic growth, quality education, responsive and accountable
governance, rather than fall prey to divisive and diversionary
tactics.

The electoral battle will become uglier in the days to come. The
Akali Dal will try to project Badal as a symbol of Hindu-Sikh
unity. The Congress will stick to its "peace and development"
plan. The routine mudslinging will be filthier than usual as all
the major contenders have been tainted by corruption.

Five members in Bhattal's cabinet are facing trial in lokpal
courts. Badal's government took Rs 20 million from the Haryana
government in 1977 to construct the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, the
most contentious issue in the Punjab-Haryana dispute. There is no
wave in favour of or against any party.

After a decade of zero growth, Punjab seems set to witness an
economic boom. This makes it all the more necessary to have a
responsible government. Yet if both the corruption tainted Congress
and the often irresponsible Akalis fail to win the public's
confidence the alternative may be too terrible to contemplate.



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