Widespread anger against the ruling Badal clan along with growing public resentment across Punjab with demonetisation could push the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP regime to not just defeat but a humiliating rout in this week’s Assembly polls.
"Ae te vapas nai andene (these guys aren’t coming back)" was the common refrain from a variety of people I spoke to on a three-day road trip through a wide stretch of Punjab to gauge the popular mood a few days before voting. Young college students and elderly farmers, shopkeepers and rickshaw pullers, transporters and carpenters, Jat Sikhs and Mazbis, men as well as women were near-unanimous that the denouement of the 10-year-old government was near. There was considerable confusion on who — the established Congress or the fledgling AAP — would emerge as the winner, but virtually everybody was certain that the current ruling dispensation would come a huge cropper in the polls.
The deep-rooted disaffection against the government is for multiple reasons. The Akalis are being blamed among other things for the rapid impoverishment of farmers, the deteriorating state of the economy with gross state domestic product plunging from over nine percent to below five percent in the past decade, mounting drug addiction, widespread corruption among the police and bureaucracy, losing the Sutlej–Yamuna Link Canal case in the Supreme Court against Haryana, a reign of terror by goons allied to the ruling party who are also said to have a stranglehold over the transport and liquor business. To compound their woes, the Akalis who have always cleverly used the Sikh religion to propel their political agenda have also fallen afoul of the faithful and are seen as responsible for the recent desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and other incidents that have offended religious sentiments.
Yet beyond this litany of complaints and the fierce anti-incumbency that the Akalis face after being in power for a decade is a wave of personal animosity against the ruling Badal clan. They are seen as unscrupulous wheeling-dealing politicians, who have hijacked for their petty private ends a venerable institution of the Sikhs that has been a rallying point for the community for nearly a century.
“The Badals are rascals and scoundrels who have turned the Akali party into a private club of family and friends to share the spoils of office”, fumed Ameer Singh, a farmer in the Majitha constituency on the outskirts of Amritsar — the traditional stronghold of the deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s brother-in-law Vikram Singh Majithia. This was a sentiment shared widely in both towns and villages across Punjab. Indeed, the spread of the Badal clan in the corridors of power is palpable: The 90-year-old Parkash Singh Badal is chief minister, his son Sukhbir is his deputy and three other family members — Majithia, Adesh Singh Kairon and Janmeja Singh Sekhon — are senior cabinet ministers.
The rage against the ruling coterie has been further aggravated because of the arbitrary manner in which the Badals have snuffed out the democratic process over the past several years. Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a distinguished political scientist at the Guru Nanak University in Amritsar, pointed out that unlike most other states where the Opposition provides political checks and balances to the government, in Punjab duly-elected Opposition legislators have no power at all in the constituencies they have won. Instead local Akali leaders many of whom were defeated in the polls have been appointed as 'halaqs-in-charge' and subterfuge legislators, who call the shots much like their elected party colleagues.
"By controlling every single Assembly seat in this manner and also manipulating local panchayats, the Badal regime has left no space whatsoever for any kind of political Opposition to them. There is a lot of pent-up anger among people against this dictatorship," said Sekhon.
This may well be the reason there have been a series of physical assaults against the Badals and senior Akali leaders as the polls draw nearer and word spreads that they are about to be deposed from power. The most shocking instance was a shoe attack in his own constituency of Lambi on the venerable old chief minister, that according to some reports broke his spectacles. His son and deputy Sukhbir’s cavalcade has been stoned, veteran Akali Dal leader and Member of Parliament Prem Singh Chandumajra’s turban was ripped from his head and Rural Development Minister Sikander Singh Maluka and his son was gheraoed in an ugly fracas outside Takht Damdama Sahib from which they had to be saved by the police.
Not surprisingly even the mighty Badals and their close relatives who seemed once electorally invincible are struggling to retain their seats.
For instance, Vikram Singh Majithia is reported to be in serious trouble in his Majitha stronghold not least because of persistent charges that he was connected with the drug syndicate and indirectly responsible for the many addiction-related deaths in Punjab. In Jalalabad constituency, the deputy chief minister who is known to be a past master of electoral manipulation, faces the humiliation of coming third in the face of a strong challenge from popular AAP leader Bhagwant Singh Mann and former Congress chief minister Beant Singh’s grandson Ravneet Singh Bittu.
Even the senior Badal, who became chief minister for the first time nearly half a century ago and has won a series of electoral victories since then, appears to be struggling to win his traditional Lambi seat now that the Congress chief ministerial candidate Captain Amarinder Singh has decided to contest from there.
"Prakash is in serious trouble this time because people are simply fed up with the way he has trampled over the rule of law. Here in Lambi, the chief minister’s own constituency, the law is broken all the time — whether it is in road construction, water supply, the distribution of lethal drugs or rapes and murders. It is the law of the jungle here," declared Pappi Manjinder Singh, a social activist in Lambi.
Significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation appears to have only deepened the unpopularity of the Akali regime even though the BJP is a minor political player in the state.
"What kind of prime minister is this?" asked a roadside dhaba cook as he slapped a paratha on the tawa. "He had promised acche din, but has only brought us misery. Even our womenfolk use curse words against him," he added.
A variety of people complained of notebandi seriously disrupting their lives. A potato farmer said that he had to throw away his crop because there was no cash in the mandis, a transporter complained his business had slumped and labourers lamented that it was difficult to find work.
Indeed, if the Akalis are heading for a rout, the BJP in Punjab may be decimated and left with no more than a handful of seats.
Published Date: Feb 02, 2017 07:49 am | Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 07:49 am