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Punjab polls: Demonetisation, sacrilege of holy texts emerge as silent killers

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 3 February 2017, 14:38 IST

The twin issues of demonetisation and the sacrilege of holy texts are all set to work as silent killers in the Punjab polls as people step out to exercise their right to franchise on Saturday.

These issues have been touched by campaigning political parties as a passing reference in their speeches but not have been played up as main focus.

But there is immense anger among the common man on these issues and the masses are likely to convey it through their votes. And at the receiving end of this ire are the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and their ally - the BJP.

The issue of demonetisation continues to have an impact on the economy, particularly in the semi-urban and rural areas of the state. People have pointed out that they are still unable to withdraw the maximum amount specified by the central government. They have also pointed out the job losses as well as small business being hit.

Farmers have continued to complain how the whole system went for a toss when the Arhtiyas tried to get rid of their cash and offered to pay the farmers only in notes of old denomination.

"Even today we are not getting more than a few thousand from the banks. The limit of Rs 25,000 is there only on papers. The ATMs here are still not loaded with adequate cash except for the one in the BSF Camp," complained a shopkeeper in Khemkaran.

"There have been occasions in the initial days of demonetisation when we travelled right up to Chandigarh to withdraw money from ATMs," said Gurpreet who is now campaigning for the Congress in Majitha.

Issued in

The politicians know that the issue is playing a major role in the minds of the voters. A case in point is the BJP leader Anil Joshi who reportedly told the electorate not to punish him for demonetisation as he was not the one who took the decision.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Jalandhar drawing a poor response has also being attributed to the demonetisation issue.

"How can there be only a few thousand people in a prime minister's election rally that too when he is seeking votes for his party candidates from three districts in the presence of the Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. At least the candidates could have mustered a large gathering. This clearly points at the anger the people have against demonetisation," said a senior media person in Jalandhar.

Text trouble

The issue that has come to haunt the Akalis is that of the desecration of holy texts that began a year and a half ago and has continued in the state. People are not talking openly about it, but when the issue is brought up, the anger spills over.

A large number of the people in the villages, while preferring to remain anonymous, are blaming the Badals (Chief Minister Parkash Singh and his son Sukhbir) for the happenings saying that the desecration was carried out to divert the attention from the issues like farmer suicides and farm distress.

More than the recurring instances, it is the failure of the government to nab the persons behind the instances that is taking its political toll.

"They can nab the persons who threw stones at Sukhbir's convoy within hours, but they have not caught those who were responsible for sacrilege and for trying to fan communal tensions," pointed out a woman bus traveller to this reporter near Bhikhiwind.

Jeevan Jyot, an AAP functionary campaigning in Majitha, added that women, in particular, are very angry over the incidents.

Divert attention

The efforts of the Akalis to raise the issues of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots have failed to counter the anger over the desecration incidents. The alleged framing of a Delhi MLA in the matter pertaining to the desecration of the Quran in Malerkotla last year is also being picked on by the voters.

There have been reports of Akali leaders being greeted by black flags in villages, particularly in certain areas of the Malwa belt - particularly in districts like Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Moga. These were the areas that had witnessed massive protests in the latter half of 2015 over the instances of holy book desecration.

A third factor that came into play towards the end of the poll campaign is the pressure cooker blast in Bathinda that saw six people dead. The blast at Maur Mandi took place at the spot where Congress candidate Harminder Singh Jassi had just finished a public address.

There are reports calling it a terror attack. Both Akalis and the Congress have targeted the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the episode blaming them for wooing radical elements for political gains. AAP has hit back at Sukhbir holding him responsible for the incident.

Besides the political blame game, the incident had left a strong imprint on the mind of the voter who does not want the dark days of militancy to return to his homeland.

The Dera angle

Yet another factor that has come into play just two days ahead of the polls is the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda declaring its support for the Akalis. The Dera courted controversy about a decade back when its chief appeared attired like Guru Gobind Singh.

The Akal Takht issued an edict against the Dera which was followed by a flip-flop on the withdrawal of this edict that angered the Sikhs and the pardon to the Dera Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had to be withdrawn.

Political observers say that the Dera has 'selectively' backed the Akali candidates both in the 2012 Assembly polls and the 2014 Parliamentary polls. They pointed out that the Dera has been close to whichever party is ruling at the Centre because of various CBI cases against its functionaries.

Observers say that the Dera followers can have an impact on at least 20 seats in the Malwa region where AAP has emerged as a leader. But since the support base of both AAP and the Dera is the same - Dalits and the marginalised, the latter offering support to the Akalis is likely to change the poll dynamics at the last moment.

There are reports of several Akali leaders, including some ministers in the out-going government like Parminder Singh Dhindsa, Janmeja Singh Sekhon, Sikander Singh Maluka and Surjit Singh Rakhra, having visited the Dera to seek the blessings of its chief. Sukhbir is also known to have an understanding with the Dera chief.

How much these factors come into play will be known only on 11 March when the results are declared. But till then, they will continue to haunt the political leadership in the state.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 3 February 2017, 14:38 IST