Congress vice-president president Rahul Gandhi chartered a plane to visit Dera Radha Soami Satsang in Beas on December 17 last year. His security personnel cooled their heels outside the mammoth dera as Gandhi spent a night there along with Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh. Though the dera with a large and powerful following has remained avowedly apolitical, politicians have been flocking it in the hope of garnering votes by sheer association.
With elections around the corner, politicians of all hues are beating a path to various deras in the state, which have increasingly become a place of political mobilisation for the candidates.
Punjab is home to more than 9,000 deras, according to a 2007 study by Prof Ronki Ram of Panjab University. While the apolitical Radha Soami dera cuts across caste and religion, many other prominent deras, such as Dera Sachkhand Ballan near Jalandhar, cater to a large number of Dalits, who are an important vote bank comprising 33% of Punjab’s population against the national average of 16%.
FROM BIPOLAR TO TRIANGULAR CONTEST
With the state moving from bipolar polity to a three-cornered contest with the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), every vote counts, and deras are a way of ensuring Dalit votes en bloc. Saying that deras provide a religio-caste space for politics to function, Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), says it is “common knowledge” that deras helped the SAD-BJP combine win 11 seats in the 2007 polls, and 20 seats in the 2012 elections. This time, he claims, they will play a decisive role in at least 37 constituencies.
Dr Ashutosh Kumar of PU’s political science department says deras will be the deciding factor between the AAP and Congress. Explaining the importance of the deras, and the blind loyalty of their followers towards the dera head, he explains: “They not only provide a space that promotes associational relationships between different castes, but also undertake societal reforms and social work. For instance, they forbid the consumption of liquor. ” And the dera heads are the spiritual guides of their followers.
Dr Jagroop Singh Sekhon, head of political science department, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, calls deras the “ATMs of vote banks”, which started exerting their influence on voters after the terrorism period.
Dr Ashutosh recalls how the Akalis, who were on a losing wicket in Moga in 2012, went on to win the seat after the Sirsabased Dera Sacha Sauda mandated its supporters to vote for Akali candidate Joginderpal Jain on the polling day. In fact, the Sirsa (Haryana)-headquartered dera announced candidatewise support in 35 constituencies of the Malwa region in the 2012 polls.
OF BLESSINGS AND SUPPORT
While the Shiromani Akali Dal doesn’t publicly seek the support of deras as they are considered anti-Sikh by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) for upholding a living guru, it has given tickets to Kabir Das and Satpal Mal, pointsmen of Dera Ballan, the seat of the Ravidassia community.
Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and deputy, Sukhbir Singh Badal, have also been consistently visiting Dera Radha Soami. “Revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia is married to a relative of the dera chief,” claims Dr Ashutosh, even as the dera refuses to be drawn into any kind of political discourse.
Even in the case of Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, Nurmahal, which is facing a legal wrangle because of its late head Ashutosh whose body lies frozen, the Akalis have not taken a stand but for providing security to the dera. The Akalis have, in fact, stayed ahead in the dera game, by allying with Panthic deras such as Nanaksar near Raikot. Earlier, in 2011, the CM spent the night at the dera of Sant Baba Harnam Singh in Rampur Khera, Hoshiarpur.
Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary at Chowk Mehta, which was once headed by radical leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, is aligned with the SGPC, controlled by the Akali Dal.
Congress, however, took the lead in tapping deras for the 2017 polls when Amarinder began his stint as the state unit president by touring several deras, such as Beas, Ballan, Nurmahal, and Dera Dhesian, besides Namdhari headquarters Bhaini Sahib and Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale in December 2015.
AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal too has been making the rounds of the deras. The latest was his visit to Dhadrianwale’s dera near Patiala after its chief was attacked at a village near Ludhiana.
Union minister and Punjab BJP head Vijay Sampla, a Dalit, is also in favour of approaching deras for political support. “We will go to the deras and we will go openly,” he said, alluding to the earlier practice of soliciting the support of deras in a hush-hush manner.
Whether the deras will be as open in their support to any party or candidate remains to be seen.
Strap: While all political parties are courting and counting on myriad of deras in Punjab, these religious sects’ vote banks will play a crucial role in a closely fought triangular contest in the state. The dera vote could be a swing factor in at least 37 of the 117 constituencies.