After 7 Decades in Politics, Parkash Singh Badal Fades Into Sunset
In 2007, when Parkash Singh Badal was vying to be Chief Minister of Punjab for the fourth time in his career, a reporter asked him if his age was an impediment. “Bhaag ke dhikawan?” (Should I run and show you?) he quipped in response.
Chief Minister of Punjab Parkash Singh Badal/File photo
New Delhi: In 2007, when Parkash Singh Badal was vying to be Chief Minister of Punjab for the fourth time in his career, a reporter asked him if his age was an impediment. "Bhaj ke dhikawan?" (Should I run and show you?) he quipped in response. This, perhaps, sums up the never-say-die spirit of the five-time Punjab CM, affectionately known as 'Baba' among dedicated party workers.
The political journey of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is one for the history books. His first foray in politics, much before he became an MLA, was when as a 20-year-old he first became the Sarpanch of Badal village. Ten years later, he made his debut in the Punjab legislative assembly and in 1970, was sworn in as chief minister for the first time. In 1947 he became the youngest Sarpanch in India. In 2012, in an election that defied expectations, he became the oldest Chief Minister in India. 2017, which is likely to be Badal's last election, saw an unceremonious end to a 70-year-old political career.
Professor Ashutosh Kumar at the department of political science in Punjab University describes Badal as a 'survivor'. Of his 70 years in politics, he spent 17 in prison for his political activism – a fact that led Prime Minister Modi to call him the "Nelson Mandela" of Indian politics. "Parkash Singh Badal is the ultimate political survivor. He has seen many ups and downs in politics. The reason he has survived is because he is a moderate figure. He never took an extreme position, even during the height of militancy in Punjab. He maintained an arm's length from separatists and maintained his belief in the constitution. Even when he was in prison, he did not take an extreme position. So when people were looking for an end to the violence, he emerged as the tallest figure in Punjab politics. To this day, there is no politician in Punjab higher in stature than him," says Kumar.
It is, perhaps, due to his stature that spared him from personal attacks during a highly-charged political campaign in 2017. Most of the attacks by opponents were directed at his son and Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, Sukhbir's wife Harsimrat Kaur and his brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia. Even Badal senior's most bitter critics grudgingly admit that he is a “man of the people". In that, says Kumar, Badal is comparable to Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. "Both Badal and Yadav are sons of the soil. Both have spent years touring villages in their respective states and have deep bonds with local party workers, down to the booth level. Their sons, Sukhbir and Akhilesh, may have inherited their political legacies, but they don't have the same kind of connect. Nobody can deny that Badal's is firmly rooted in the Punjabi hinterland."
There are many factors that have solidified Badal's image as a "survivor". Chief among them is his ability to form formidable alliances – both political and familial. His son Sukhbir is married to Harsimrat Kaur from the influential Majithia clan and his daughter Preneet Kaur is married to Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon, the son of powerful former Punjab CM Pratap Singh Kairon. In 1998, when the SAD joined the alliance led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it was seen as an "alliance of extremes", much like the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir of today. Kumar says, "The BJP and SAD were polar opposites. One was a party with support among Sikhs in rural areas and the other was a party of urban Hindu voters. But we must remember that it was an alliance of extremes. Both parties actually complemented each other.”
The biggest poll issue in Punjab this year was the drug menace. According to an affidavit filed by the state's Department of Social Security, over 16% of the state's population was struggling with drug addiction. Both the AAP and the Congress promised a 'nasha-mukt Punjab' (Drug-free Punjab). The state government's response, however, was to live in denial. When asked about the drug menace, Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal said "only 0.06%" of Punjab's 2.77 crore people were drug addicts. He hit out at Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal for "defaming" Punjab.
According to Kumar, much of the blame for bad governance fell on Sukhbir Singh Badal. "The image that went out was that an ageing Badal had given up the day-to-day functioning of the government to his son. Ten years of Akali misrule dented the party's credibility beyond repair. The road ahead is very tough. Parkash Singh Badal will most likely retire before the next election and Sukhbir lacks the political acumen of his father to resurrect the party."
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