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Punjab wants Akalis out. The choice is between a new govt and a new order

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:42 IST

Every year in the month of Magh - 13 January to 11 February - the Maghi Mela is held in the city of Sri Muktsar Sahib in Punjab. This is one of the most important religious gatherings for Sikhs, who celebrate it in honour of the 40 warriors who were killed fighting the Mughals in the Battle of Muktsar in 1705.

These 40 warriors had earlier deserted Guru Gobind Singh, but after their conscience was stirred by a woman named Mai Bhago, they rejoined the Guru at a place called Khidrana. The Sikh army successfully held off the Mughals, but these 40 warriors and Mai Bhago were killed in battle. After the battle, Khidrana was renamed as Muktsar (the pool of liberation).

For many in Punjab, Magh this year represents a similar sense of liberation. Not just liberation from autocratic rule, but liberation from a culture of helplessness.

This is a region that has faced external violence and invasions for millennia, beginning perhaps with Porus's spirited resistance against Alexander. In the relatively recent past, it witnessed the ghastly violence of the Partition of 1947, and the Khalistan insurgency and the state crackdown that followed.

But through every crisis, every phase of violence, Punjab survived because of the resilience of its people. Even in post-independence India, Punjab's contribution in every field - armed forces, industry, agriculture, education, sports, culture - has been disproportionate to its small size.

Rarely, if at all, have Punjabis fallen victim to the kind of despondency and helplessness that has become widespread in the state in the last few years. This helplessness deprived Punjabis of what they prided themselves on most - the will to fight and change their circumstances.

Akalis' betrayal and Punjab's anger

Travelling around Punjab, one came across a deep anger against one or all of four evils - drugs, debt, corruption, and unemployment. And each of these evils has come to be associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state.

The anger against the Akali Dal is particularly acute, as it comes with a sense of betrayal. This is a party that came to being nearly a century ago, and its sole agenda was to defend the Panth. Even when it spearheaded the essentially linguistic Punjabi Suba movement, its broader aim was always to protect and promote the Panth.

It continued to play that role during the turbulent 1980s and early 1990s, negotiating the difficult space between the Indian State on one side and the Khalistani radicals on the other.

Advocating a moderate Panthic viewpoint throughout and using all his experience as politician who had risen from a Sarpanch to the post of Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal took complete control of the Akali Dal in the mid 1990s, overcoming all other factions. Badal played an important role in bringing stability to Punjab after the Khalistan insurgency, and preserved the Akali Dal's credibility as a party that defends the Panth.

In the last five years, however, the Akali Dal seems to have degenerated into a party that promoted only its own interests and those of the Badal family, under the pretext of defending the Panth and Punjabiyat.

Every aspect of Punjab came under the control of the Badal clan and their cronies - Gurudwaras, civil administration, business and, as some allege, the burgeoning drug trade in the state. The Badals and their related families like the Kairons and Majithias have stakes in almost every sector of Punjab's economy - power, civil aviation, transportation, hospitality, land, liquor, cable television, media and so on.

There is a running joke in Punjab that it is possible for a person to come to the state on a bus or a flight owned by the Badals, stay in a hotel controlled by one of their related companies, turn on the TV for which both the electricity and the cable connection is provided by a Badal clan company, and watch their channel PTC while sipping liquor manufactured by an Akali leader like Bikram Majithia, Deep Malhotra or Shiv Lal Doda.

The kind of control the Badals and their cartel have over Punjab's economy is unheard of anywhere in India. What's worse is that they have expanded their business at a time when farmers across Punjab were being crushed under debt, and the state's youth was under the grip of unemployment and drugs.

Yes, there is no denying that the Akalis brought stability to Punjab and built quality infrastructure across the state. But their polices have caused massive inequalities and fostered the four evils that have killed Punjab's spirit.

In village after village, even in the Parkash Singh Badal's and Sukhbir Badal's pocket boroughs, the refrain is: "Badalaan ney pindach loka nu dukhi kitta hai (Badals have caused distress in the villages)" or that they have injected Punjab's youth with drugs. The anger seems particularly acute among the Jatt Sikh community, who have been the core support base of the Akali Dal.

The last fig leaf that the Akalis had - of being the defenders of the Panth - was removed by their failure to act against the incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as their flirtation with the Dera Sacha Sauda.

Congress or AAP?

These Assembly elections in Punjab are largely about one issue alone - liberating Punjab from the SAD-BJP. Surveys as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that there is an anti-Akali wave in Punjab. But the question is: who will benefit from it - the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party?

The answer to this would depend on whether the voters who have cast their vote on 4 February want a new government or a new order. Both parties have run an excellent campaign in the past few months, representing these two visions respectively.

In a state where 5-6 families have dominated politics for decades, the Congress has projected one of the few remaining credible faces from Punjab's ruling elite - Captain Amarinder Singh. The 75-year-old Maharaja's image has been repackaged into that of a strong leader who can defeat the Badals and bring the state back on track.

The "Captain De Nau Nukte" concept shows Amarinder as a man with concrete policy solutions to Punjab's problems.

AAP, on the other hand, represents the desire to liberate Punjab from not just the Badals but the entire ruling elite that is perceived as corrupt and criminal. The fact that the Badals dismiss AAP and its leaders like Bhagwant Mann as 'upstarts' only strengthens their position as spokespersons of anti-Akali anger in Punjab.

In either eventuality, Punjab is on the cusp of change. Even though the polling has taken place in the month of Magh, the results will be announced over a month and a half later, on the eve of the Sikh new year. The new year would definitely mark a new beginning for Punjab.

First published: 4 February 2017, 6:36 IST
Aditya Menon @AdityaMenon22

An incurable addiction to politics made Aditya try his luck as a political researcher as well as wannabe neta. Having failed at both, he settled for the only realistic option left: journalism. Before joining Catch as associate editor, he wrote and reported on politics and policy for the India Today group for five years. He can travel great distances for a good meal or a good chat, preferably both.