Bathinda and Mukhtsar in Punjab’s Malwa region are the dens of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the party with a strong Sikh Panthik vote-bank that ruled the state for a decade before a disastrous exit in 2017.
It was then blamed for the sacrilege and police firing cases in 2015 in nearby Faridkot. Now, just before the elections, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) has questioned both SAD patriarch 93-year-old Prakash Singh Badal and party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal in one of the cases with Congress under pressure to deliver on its pre-poll promise. The anticipation of further action against the Badals, including the specter of their arrests which may be a major game-changer event before the elections, is consolidating the SAD cadre in Malwa behind the Badals.
“It is cruel to question a 93-year-old man of frail health in this case for political benefits. This is playing with fire,” say a group of villagers in Badal village in Lambi, a seat in Mukhtsar that senior Badal has won five times and where his home is. He even defeated Amarinder Singh here in 2017.
“This is a political gimmick and a stupid set of allegations that a Chief Minister ordered police firing at 4am. A non-performing government of CM Amarinder Singh is latching on to a non-event,” senior SAD leader and Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujral told News18.
SAD’s Game Plan
Gujral also makes two significant disclosures. One, he says that party chief Sukhbir Badal will be the Chief Ministerial face of the party and their latest ally, Mayawati, has also said the same. Five-time CM Prakash Singh Badal is now 93 years old, in frail health and cannot campaign as earlier, Gujral says. “He will always remain our patron. This election in Punjab will be fought under Sukhbir Badal’s leadership,” Gujral says.
Second, Gujral says the party lost badly in 2017 as the BJP “duped” the SAD by transferring its votes to the Congress in order to block AAP’s chance of coming to power in Punjab. “We had then complained to the BJP about this but their leaders remained silent. BJP did this deliberately which hurt our alliance, only to block AAP. BJP’s leaders who are leaving the party now are confirming the same,” Gujral says.
SAD says it has a much better alliance now with the BSP, offering Mayawati 20 seats to contest out of the 117 in Punjab. Gujral says this alliance is one in which both parties can enable complete vote transfer. Eight seats have been allocated to the BSP in Doaba region, which has over 42% Dalit population, and where Kanshi Ram was born in Hoshiarpur. “People hold him in high regard in Doaba,” Gujral says.
On Ground in Malwa
In Malwa, SAD voters say snapping ties with the BJP is the best thing the party has done, especially given the farmer agitation. Harsimrat Badal, MP from Bathinda, and Sukhbir Badal, MP from Ferozepur, are impressing upon people how Harsimrat sacrificed her Cabinet Ministerial chair to come in support of the farmers against the farm laws. But farmers here do not seem to buy the SAD story and question why SAD remained with BJP after the ordinances were first brought.
Many farmer groups here say they won’t allow SAD cadre to enter their villages for campaigning. However, Gujral says the recent power crisis in Punjab is reminding people now of the “good days under SAD rule when there were no power cuts in the state.” News18 visited a dozen places in Malwa to invariably find power cuts everywhere and the industry shut under a government diktat, which seems a big issue.
Gujral said such issues and the implosion in the Congress means the ruling party will finish a “poor third” in the upcoming elections and the main fight will be between SAD-BSP alliance and AAP. “In their desperation, they are now trying to make Navjot Singh Sidhu as their face but Amarinder Singh won’t allow this and they will ultimately collapse,” Gujral says. Local SAD leaders in Mukhtsar are also taking this line before people, dismissing the Congress challenge altogether.
That said, people in Malwa region still reminisce about the problems of the earlier SAD regime, like the rampant availability of drugs, unemployment and corruption. “However, Amarinder Singh had promised finishing the drug issue and unemployment after coming to power but he could not. The young are unemployed and in the grip of drugs. Situation is same as SAD rule,” Kanwarpreet Singh, whose son has been at a de-addiction centre, told News18 in a Mukhtsar village.
“The drug issue and the sacrilege cases issue was used against us in 2017 to defame us and send us out of power. But in the last five years, not one shred of evidence has emerged against our leaders. Now we are not with the BJP too and so one can imagine no one would have spared us even if one piece of evidence was there. People are not fools and have seen through this,” Gujral reasons. 2022 is Sukhbir Badal’s biggest test as for the first time, he is the CM face asking for the votes.