It’s curtains for Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, who strode Punjab like a colossus for 69 years.
Badal, who at 89 was the oldest chief minister in country, was on way out on Saturday after his SAD clocked it worst-ever tally of 15 in the 117-member Punjab assembly.
The man who owed his almost 70-year long political innings to his extraordinary connect with the common man was vanquished by the Congress led by bête noire and former Patiala royal Capt Amarinder Singh.
Badal can, however, draw some consolation from his win over Amarinder from his stronghold Lambi, which he retained by a margin of more than 22,000 votes. Amarinder, who won from Patiala, finished a poor third in the race.
It’s an unceremonious exit for the five-time chief minister who had a shoe hurled at him in the run-up to the election as his government faced public anger over corruption and the drug menace the border state is battling.
It must have come as a shock to Badal who practised decorum in political discourse, said Jagroop Sekhon of political science department in Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University.
It also marks the end of bridge or moderate politics that came to define Badal.
Despite being a staunch Akali, Badal was a great reconciler, said Ashutosh Kumar, who teaches political science at Chandigarh’s Panjab University.
Badal led several morchas (protest movements) over issues facing the state and Sikhs but never adopted an anti-Hindu or anti-India stance even when Sikh insurgency was at its peak, Kumar said.
In fact, Badal, who partnered the Jan Sangh four times, is one of the oldest allies of the BJP, a partnership in its twentieth year.
Badal, an 11-time MLA, transformed the panthic party, with focus firmly on Sikhs, into a Punjabi party that fielded 11 Hindus in the 2012 polls.
For Hindus, who account for 42% of Punjab’s population, he was the biggest guarantor of peace after the end of militancy. Starting out as a sarpanch -- he was youngest to be elected to that office in Punjab -- Badal support base were farmers or the Jat Sikhs to whom he gave a slew of subsidies, including free power.
A shrewd politician, he also wooed the Dalits, who account for 31.9% of the state’s population, with the atta-dal scheme and other freebies that won him a second successive term in 2012.
But the largesse made both the peasantry and the Dalits dependent on doles. The green revolution had run its course but Badal failed to diversify.
Though the Satluj Yamuna Link canal has been a stumbling block for 34 years, Badal did little to resolve it. Congress’s Amarinder Singh blames him for the recent Supreme Court ruling asking Punjab to complete its side of the canal, saying, “Badal failed to put Punjab’s point across in the court”.
Badal also undermined the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and Akal Takht, the two pillars of Sikh politics. It’s a fact that Badal, as SAD leader, decided the chief of the SGPC, which is responsible for the upkeep of gurdwaras.
But, the most damning charge against Badal is of nepotism --turning SAD, the country’s second oldest party known for its strong cadre, into a family affair.
The cabinet had three members of his family – son Sukhbir Badal, son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon and Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia.
Deputy chief minister Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat is a union minister. Eager to prop Sukhbir as his heir and to ensure a smooth sailing for him, Badal allocated tickets to the kin of his party colleagues, effectively decimating the party’s cadre-based structure.
Charges of corruption and widespread drug abuse in the state ultimately led to his downfall. “People may blame Sukhbir, but it happened under Badal’s watch,” Sekhon said.
The Akalis lost because Badal centralised power and decentralised terror, he said, referring to the party halka (assembly segment) in-charges, who were hand-picked by Sukhbir and became a law unto themselves.
Above all, Punjab declined under Badal, who had showed immense promise when he introduced Adarsh schools and industrial focal points.
Once among the five richest states of the country, Punjab now ranks 12th on the basis of gross domestic product. The ageing patriarch did little for the youth, who count for 53% of the state’s voters. Punjab’s unemployment rate of 16.8% was way ahead of the national average of 11.6% in 2015-16.
The discontent against the Badal government can be gauged from the fact that Punjab saw 25,000 protests, the highest in country, between 2008 to 2015, records of the Bureau of Police Research and Development show.
It’s an irony that a political leader who drew strength from people failed to sense their mood. Even after the party’s worst showing, he seemed bemused, choosing to focus on his victory and that of his son.
Badal has been a survivor. That he will live on in the history of Punjab is a given. Whether his party will be able to survive under his son is another matter.
- 1) A proponent of communal harmony, Badal kept divisive elements at bay during Sikh insurgency
- 2) An advocate of bridge politics, he maintained communal harmony by forging alliances with the Jan Sangh and then the BJP
- 3) Transformed SAD into an inclusive, moderate Punjabi party
- 4) Led SAD to two consecutive assembly election wins, unprecedented in the history of the state
- 5) Put development and governance on top of the electoral agenda, even if at the level of rhetoric
- 1) Destroyed the SAD’s cadre-based structure, reducing it to a family fiefdom
- 2) Presided over one of the most corrupt governments in the state, packing his cabinet with his son, son-in-law and son’s brother-in-law
- 3) Damaged the democratic character of both the SGPC and the Akal Takht, the two pillars of the Sikh panth
- 4) Was ambivalent in his stand on Sikh militants
- 5) Failed to handle the sectarian conflicts with the Nirankaris and the Dera Sacha Sauda