This story first appeared on The Quint on 30 January 2017.
Harjeet Singh arrives at the Golden Temple. He walks through the divine passage, removes his chappals, picks out a handkerchief and wraps it around his head. He heads down the steps and bows down as the majestic monument appears. He looks at it with reverence and throws a disillusioned glance at the Akal Takht – located in the same complex.
Politics in the Name of Religion
While the Golden Temple stands for spiritual guidance, Akal Takht – the highest seat of authority among Sikhs – is the symbol of dispensing justice.
In October 2015, several instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, transpired, which triggered widespread protests across Punjab. Amritsar, being the religious capital, saw most intense protests, which spiralled into the Majha region of Punjab, covering the area between the Beas and Ravi Rivers.
In spite of the agitations, the state government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal in alliance with the BJP has not been able to nab the culprits, which still rankles the Sikhs here. Further, the fact that the Jathedar of the Akal Takht did not speak out against the failure of the Badals – the family in charge of the Akali Dal – deepens their scar.
It is shameful the way Jathedar sahib has become a pawn of the Badals. His stature is no less than that of the pope. There was a time in Punjab when Jathedar’s word would be gospel. Now, nobody takes him seriously.
Harjeet, a rickshaw-puller
Dilution of the Akal Takht’s Autonomy
Over the last decade of the Akali rule, the Badal family has prospered while driving the state to ruins. Parkash Singh Badal is the Chief Minister. His family members control important portfolios in the state cabinet. The family, locals say, has taken over the state. But among the orthodox Sikhs, who have been the Akali Dal’s traditional vote bank, the dilution of the autonomy of the Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is an unpardonable crime.
The SGPC – which is considered the custodian of Sikh religion and works towards promoting it while monitoring Gurudwaras and the schools and hospitals it runs across the country – also remained conspicuously silent during the sacrilege of 2015.
A member of the SGPC, requesting anonymity with folded hands, said, that out of the almost 200 members of the committee, 180 are Akali Dal stooges. “Our tongues are controlled by the SGPC president and Jathedar,” he said in a hushed voice at the fourth floor of a hotel room in Amritsar. “Both dance to the tune of Badals.”
Orthodox Sikhs Unhappy with Akali Dal
The politicisation, and thereby seizure, of revered religious posts has not gone down well with the orthodox Sikhs, or Garmkhayalis as they are called here, and it is apparent that they would express their anger at the ballot box. Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member, said they respected the president of Akali Dal even more than the CM of Punjab. “There was hardly any remorse from him,” he said, sitting at a haveli in front of which a lush green farmland spread out.
A true Sikh will not vote for the Akali Dal.
Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member
Allegations Related to Drug Cartel Will Backfire
Another reason why the electorate will ensure the Akali Dal does not get another term is the burgeoning drug trade. Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Akali president Sukhbir Singh Badal and the revenue minister in the state cabinet, is named as one of those running the illicit trade.
However, the CM, president of Akali Dal and Narendra Modi, supremo of its ally BJP, have denied or downplayed the crisis, despite a whole generation being destroyed.
Anti-Incumbency Wave in Favour of Congress
In the corner of a remote village of Jhander in Amritsar’s Ajnala town, Gurumeet Kaur and her ailing husband Badkar Singh wonder whether to laugh or cry at these statements. Their son, Resham Singh, 32, has not returned home for a few days but they do not seem to be worried. “He does that every now and then,” said dark-coloured, wrinkled face Badkar, sitting on a khat with a blanket wrapped around his body to weather the chill in the air.
Gurumeet and Badkar found out their son was a drug addict when he was 24. “We got to know because a friend of his did it,” said Gurumeet, serving a hot cup of tea. “He started stealing money from the house, our jewellery disappeared. If his elder brother had not been working, we would have been sleeping on the road.”
There is not a single person in this state who is unaware of Majithia’s involvement, said Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant. “The reason Arun Jaitley lost the Lok Sabha elections even during the Modi wave is because Majithia was his campaign manager,” he said. “While the drug menace is decaying the whole of Punjab, the border areas in Majha are the villages through which it is smuggled.”
Riding on the anti-incumbency in Majha, where 25 out of the 117 seats fall, is the Congress with Navjot Singh Sidhu proving to be a star campaigner. Contesting from the East Amritsar constituency, Sidhu’s presence has propelled the Congress, along with Captain Amarinder as the CM candidate. “He is an honest man,” said a shopkeeper in East Amritsar. “We would have voted for him even if he had been in the BJP.”
AAP Should’ve Declared a CM Candidate
AAP, on the other hand, is lagging a bit behind, because of the lack of a credible Sikh face. The team of MLAs in Majha, say observers, does not invoke confidence. Upkar Singh Sandhu, who is now in the ranks of AAP, is a former Akali district president, seen to be close to Majithia.
There are a few more defectors who are dicey. If AAP had declared a CM candidate with Kejriwal resisting the urge to jump ships, they would have swept.
Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant
Commentators believe that someone like HS Phoolka, who has been fighting for justice for 1984 riot victims, would have been an ideal choice, but insiders say he refuses to toe the line of the head command – the reason behind his marginalisation. If AAP had struck a deal with Sidhu, it would have increased their chances, as his popularity cuts across age groups.
Because AAP has not empowered its local leadership, “the party has not effectively influenced the religious votebank,” said Sarabhjit. “The interplay of politics and religion plays a crucial role here. I do not think we are still ready to have a non-Sikh CM.”
Even then, the radical Sikhs, who are disenchanted with Badals, will not vote Congress because of Indira Gandhi’s operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots that followed. “That vote will go to the AAP,” said Amrik Singh, head of Damdami Taksal, a radical Sikh group, who refers to Akali Dal as “Badal Dal”. Sitting in his office at Ajnala adorned with photographs of Bhindranwale, he said AAP deserves a chance, with the Congress and the Akalis having already been in power.
Congress Needs Momentum for a Comeback
But the radical voters are outnumbered by mellowed religious Sikhs who are likely to express their anger against the Akalis by voting for the Congress. Baldev Singh said the Captain is a trusted old school lieutenant who knows the state better than AAP. “He has worked in Punjab for so many years,” he said.
“He knows our culture and rituals. He would bring back rule of law in the state while preserving our ethos.” Badals, in the meantime, struggling to tackle the anti-incumbency, are hoping for a split in votes. Congress had lost out in Majha during the previous elections with 16 of the 25 seats going to the Akali Dal. AAP is reportedly well ahead in Malwa, which has 68 seats.
For the Congress to make a comeback in Punjab, it needs to further consolidate the momentum and ensure a remarkable performance in this region. However, one strata of society which it has failed to woo is the labour class. Harjeet, the cycle-rickshaw driver, said the Congress and the Akali are in cahoots with each other. “There is only one man who can ensure justice in this lawless state right now,” he concluded. “Arvind Kejriwal.”