Punjab, once the most developed state in India, has had a traumatic past and is now facing a troubling present. The assembly elections are a little over a year away but the process of electioneering has started creating waves. The reason is simple. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is preparing for a grand entry in the state after having tasted success in the assembly polls in Delhi last year and in the Lok Sabha polls in Punjab two years ago.
For the past nine years, the Shiromani Akali Dal has been in power in the state in alliance with the BJP. Last time it barely managed to win. Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal is a veteran of many electoral battles and is respected for his fight against the Congress. But he is not the same man we knew. His son Sukhbir Singh Badal is virtually running the state as deputy chief minister. During their tenure, Punjab has touched a new low and a very strong anti-incumbency undercurrent can be felt. Punjab is now hurtling from one crisis to another: The drug crisis, farm crisis, Panthic crisis and financial crisis.
Experts say drugs were introduced to the state under the Congress regime. Now the problem has turned unimaginably dangerous. Village after village has been swept away by the drug menace. A whole generation has been wasted. The most tragic thing is the fact that this has been done under the patronage of their own leaders, the leaders the people have voted for. And under the rule of the Badals, terrorists and drug lords are having a free run.
In Punjab there is mysterious silence on the drug menace in the power corridors. But there are whispers all around. The names of a very senior Cabinet minister and a powerful politician of the state are openly bandied about in public also. A deputy superintendent of police and a drug dealer, on interrogation, hinted at the involvement of a person close to the Badals, but nothing happened thereafter.
The state is passing through one of the worst agrarian crises. The cotton crop has failed and adequate compensation has not been given to the farmers. Farmers’ suicide is no news in Punjab now. The situation has come to such a pass that last month a farmer immolated himself on the day of his daughter’s wedding.
Punjab has turned into a bankrupt state. There is virtually no money to pay salaries and pensions to government employees. It’s a small state but has incurred a debt of Rs 1.3 lakh-crore. There is no fiscal discipline and corruption is rampant. Industry has moved to other states. Ludhiana, once hailed as the Manchester of the east, is now a barren land. I spoke to many industrialists and they say that unless one pays a substantial amount of money as bribe, it is impossible to run a business.
Finally, the Badals have played with fire. The people of Punjab are deeply religious. Unlike other states, religion plays a very important role in determining the course of politics in Punjab. The Akal Takht and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) are very powerful institutions. But the Badals, after assuming power, tried to hijack these institutions. A few months ago they became so audacious that they decided to transfer/sack the Panj Pyare, a revered institution in the Sikh religion, on frivolous grounds. It has been alleged that at the behest of the Badals, Guru Ram Rahim was pardoned by the Akal Takht and when people reacted in anger the pardon was withdrawn after two weeks. It was the same Ram Rahim who is alleged to have impersonated Guru Govind Singh, the 10th Guru, something that has infuriated the Sikh community.
The Badal government committed a blunder in the response to the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. When pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were torn and thrown away by some miscreants, a stir took place. The community was protesting peacefully when the police opened fire on the protesters and two young men were killed. Now, one can see posters and banners saying that the Akalis are not welcome.
Terrorism has once again come back to haunt the people. Three incidents have already been reported and Pathankot is the latest. It is common knowledge that the police are compromised; competent officers are not given appropriate postings.
Punjab is a classic example of how a developed state can turn into a sick one. People have alternated enough between the Akalis and the Congress because of the lack of an alternative. Today Punjab is looking for one. The state is willing to look out of the box to fight the political malaise. The overwhelming response to AAP’s Maghi Mela last month is a pointer in that direction. If AAP could continue the present momentum, Punjab is heading towards a major upset in the Indian political system. Punjab is looking for a massive change, a change to send the message that the days when people could be taken for granted are gone. The state is ready to throw all the rogues to the dustbin of history.
Ashutosh is spokesperson of AAP
The views expressed are personal