One had hoped that a visit to the Golden Temple on the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh on Thursday could be an education on the direction in which the political wind’s blowing in Punjab.
But not really. For those who spoke up to vent preferences were aligned – with the Akalis, the Congress, the AAP or the BJP. The unaligned seemed to keep their counsel. They even deflected pointed questions whether the Akali-BJP combine could gain politically for sprucing up the Temple complex. For bringing its once congested topography at par with any world class heritage site in record time.
Tens of thousands of devotees had thronged the Harmandir Sahib a day after the announcement of the poll schedule. Many among them felt it was improper for anyone to take credit for the work done to refurbish and reconstruct the temple’s vicinity. In their view, it all was the doing of the Sikh gurus who laid the Temple’s foundation and that of the city of Amritsar.
A duo selling Sikh literature outside the temple invoked Guru Amardas, Guru Ramdas and Guru Arjan to make the point. The sentiment was no different at a donation counter for community meals served free to over one lakh devotees each weekend and working day. “Here all are welcome regardless of their political persuasions,” remarked an employee of the Akali Dal-controlled SGPC. He obviously was unwilling to link the shrine’s majesty to the ruling combine’s political fortunes.
The first impression one had from these responses was that the Akali Dal’s reliance on religious symbolism to keep intact its traditional support base required consolidation beyond showcasing the historicity of the Sikh faith. Fissures within the faith on caste and class lines are hard to miss. At a kiosk run by the ‘business correspondent’ of a government bank in rural Amritsar, there were queues of poor women waiting to open accounts.
The voters’ reluctance to reveal their hand was evident as much at the Akali and Congress-held Attari and Raja Sansi constituencies. Those who ventured to express a view in these largely rural areas did so with the caveat that ground could shift while the campaign progresses in the run-up to the February 4 vote.
The only takeaway from voices on the ground was that the contest was three-way between the Congress, AAP and the Akali-BJP alliance.
“The stronger the AAP, the better the chances of the Akali Dal keeping power,” remarked Gurmeet Singh, an Akali supporter at Attari. He felt the ruling combine’s development work was as tangible as it was visible: “Yes, nothing’s possible without the blessing of our Gurus. But people reward those who make things happen.”
The narrative changed a little over 10-km away in Raja Sansi. At a small marketplace, there was talk of demonetisation hitting small businesses and farmers. Ironically, the blame for the people’s plight was laid at the Akalis’ doorsteps, the rural folk unaware that notes were banned by the BJP-ruled Centre.
“I’m earning Rs 10 against the hundred I earlier earned,” said Maninder Singh, a tractor-mechanic who works closely with farmers. He was also livid with the Akalis for their pro-Jat Sikh bias that helped rich farmers benefit the most from sops up for grabs.
“The notebandi did us in after years of the Akali’s parcha (police FIR) raj to muzzle dissent,” lamented Harbhajan Singh whose welding business has taken a hit. “Here nobody’s talking about Sukhbir Badal. The fight in Raja Sansi is between the Congress and AAP that’s popular among villagers.”
In the urban pockets of Amritsar North and Amritsar West the sitting legislators, the BJP’s Anil Joshi and the Congress’s Rajkumar Verka, appeared to have retained traction with the electorate. The one thing common between them was that they served well their constituents.
Be that as it may, the jury’s out still in Punjab. The silent voter might keep on tenterhooks the psephologists. As also the political class.
Vinod Sharma is political editor, Hindustan Times