Religion pushes real issues to back burner as Punjab readies for Lok Sabha elections
The recent developments on Punjab's political turf point towards one thing – Panthic issues will be at the core of the campaign for the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls while real problems will be at the second or third rung.
The grounds have been prepared for political battles on these issues that have taken the centre stage while the problem of drug menace, farmer suicides, unemployment, etc stand pushed back.
Right now it is the findings of the Justice (retired) Ranjit Singh Commission on the instances of sacrilege of holy texts that has emerged as a major point of contention between the ruling Indian National Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
The commission report, leaked recently, reportedly indicts former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal for being in the know of police action on protestors at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan in 2015 that led to the death of two persons. This has put the Akalis on the back foot.
But the party has launched a counter attack. Its President, Sukhbir Singh Badal, alleged a “sinister conspiracy to defame the erstwhile SAD-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government and divide the Sikh community.”
He released call details to accuse Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, his ministers as well as Ranjit Singh of consorting with radical ‘sarkari’ jathedars to vet the Commisison report tabled in the state Assembly last Monday.
“The unholy nexus between the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intlligence)-sponsored radical outfits to help the Congress wash its sins against the Sikhs is out in the open,” Sukhbir said. He also accused Amarinder of meeting Sikh radical Baljit Singh Daduwal secretly at his residence.
Taking strong exception to these allegations the CM called for a probe by the Speaker into the charge of his meeting Daduwal.
On the other hand, Sikh harliners have been holding a 'Morcha' at Bargari for a couple of months now, seeking action against the police officers guilty of firing at the protestors and those responsible for sacrilege of holy texts.
The issue of sacrilege is all set to dictate the political discourse in this sensitive border state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Along with the Commission's findings has been the recent decision of the Punjab Cabinet for bringing in amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedures and the Indian Penal Code to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment for “curbing such incidents and maintaining communal harmony” in the state.
According to an official spokesperson, the Cabinet approved insertion of Section 295AA to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to provide that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life.”
While the move has been termed 'regressive' by many intellectuals, no political party has come forward to denounce it. This move too is all set to be played up during the poll campaign.
Meanwhile, the dynamics within the main political forces are changing. With AAP continuing to function as a split force following the rebellion led by Sukhpal Singh Khaira and some of its legislators aligned with him, the party is is no position to reap political dividends in Parliamentary elections.
The Congress remains smug with almost the entire support base of AAP, along with the Hindu voters, making a shift towards it during the recent bye-elections. Though it is facing criticism for failing to deliver on promises made ahead of last year's Assembly polls, curbing drug abuse problems, Controlling law-and-order and addressing unemployment, continuing anger among the public against the previous Akali-BJP regime is helping the Grand Old Party.
The Akalis have meanwhile chosen to project as a party working for the aspirations of Sikhs, with Sukhbir reportedly trying to resurrect the party on those lines. This comes as a deviation of the party's 'Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat' stand that it had been taking since its Moga anniversary in 1996.
The Akalis are trying to project the Congress as anti-Sikh and the recent comments of the Congress president Rahul Gandhi on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom at an interaction in London has given them enough fodder to rake up the issue once again to put the Congress on the back foot.
The issue of '84 keeps returning ahead of elections despite the fact that the state has elected Congress governments in both Delhi and Punjab on multiple occasions since then.
The Akalis face the counter charge of having failed to get the BJP, which is their ally at the Centre to get justice for the victims of '84 riots during the National Demcratic Alliance regimes led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and now Narendra Modi.
The BJP that continues to throw in its lot with the Akalis remains on a sticky wicket. It remains on the defensive for the actions of its central leadership. Both demonetisation and shoddy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) have ensured its base of small Hindu traders making a departure. The Akalis projecting themselves as party of Sikhs too is expected to have its implementation. The party also lacks a face at the state level.
It looks imminent that issues pertaining to religion will dominate the political discourse in the state in the months to come. The real issues will once again take a back seat. Marx might once again get justified for his quote: “Religion is the opium of the masses.