Terror couldn’t have returned to Punjab at a worse time. The Maur bomb blasts, barely four days before the high-stakes Punjab polls, have not only injected the fear of the unknown into the electoral landscape, but its tremors have also dramatically altered the dynamics of a bitterly-fought contest for power in ways that one had scarcely imagined.
The electoral fallout of the “targeted terror attack” — as police investigators concluded — is still nebulous. But, what is sinisterly evident is that the sensational strike may revive the tenuous communal and sectarian fault lines before February 4, and beyond. And therein lies the insidious dimension of a dangerously divisive quest for power among the three chief players — Congress, Akali-BJP and Aam Aadmi Party. It is, in fact, reminiscent of the diabolical political and power games that had pushed Punjab into a vortex of horrendous violence in the 1980s.
More than the timing, the scarier part is the context of the Maur mayhem, which was clearly a bid to kill Congress candidate Harminder Singh Jassi and his supporters. It has happened in the backdrop of an escalating war of allegations by both Congress and the Akalis against the AAP over support of Sikh radicals that the rookie party has been getting in its determined bid to dislodge the traditional parties that have ruled the state since 1966.
Flirting with fundamentalists
It’s an open secret that the fundamentalist fringe, both in Punjab and abroad, for whom moderate Akalis are an anathema, is aggressively pitching for the AAP. A phalanx of fiery hardliners — many of them avowedly Khalistani protagonists — have made common cause with Kejriwal. They have helped power the AAP juggernaut by stridently amplifying an anti-Badal tirade on the emotive issue of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib that had rocked Punjab two years ago but still rankles the Sikh minds.
By cleverly juxtaposing it’s ‘bring-on-a-revolution’ rant with the latent Sikh anger, the AAP has made major inroads into the Panthic constituency, a time-tested turf of the Akalis.
Nowhere is the Akali meltdown more evident than in the Malwa heartland, where AAP has emerged as a formidable frontrunner on most of its 69 seats — more than half of the state’s 117 legislative count. The Sikh voter for whom ‘takri (weighing scales, the Akali symbol) has been an article of faith for generations is seemingly in a mood to punish the mother party.
Stunned by the breach of their fortress, the Akalis were swift in shifting the campaign gear from the development plank to an all-out attack on AAP for its “nexus with anti-national radical forces”. “Each vote for AAP will be a vote for radicals” is the new poll thunder of chief minister and Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, saying that the AAP is “playing with fire”.
The Congress, too, lost no time in chipping in to the choir of criticism in projecting the AAP as a “threat to peace” in Punjab. Kejriwal had already gifted artillery to rivals by his night stay at a house of a former terrorist of the Khalistan Commando Force in Moga. The indiscretion was disconcerting enough to prompt even Prime Minister Narendra Modi to harp on “security and stability of Punjab” in his rallies.
Counting on polarisation
In the last lap of the no-holds-barred campaign, the first terror incident has ratcheted up the AAP’s dalliance with radicals, with both Akalis and Congress raising the spectre of the dark ’80s. Their gambit is aimed as much at weaning away the moderate Sikhs from the Kejriwal spell as it is at wooing the state’s 43% Hindu electorate, which could well be the tipping point in the power sweepstakes.
In a state where religion and politics make a menacing mix, the deras are adding caste to the cauldron. A day after the Maur blasts, Dera Sacha Sauda — a Sirsa-based sect that has been in the crosshairs of confrontation with radical Sikhs and its chief on the hit list of extremists for his 2007 act of imitating Guru Gobind Singh — directed its followers to vote for Akali-BJP candidates.
The dera commands sizable sway in at least two dozen segments in Malwa. The apparent quid pro quo in the dera’s move is the ongoing CBI-monitored criminal trials in murder and rape cases against the sect head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who had thrown his lot behind the saffron party in the last Haryana assembly polls.
Ironically, the Akalis’ miseries, in part, stem from this very dera. Their covert move of orchestrating the pliant Sikh clergy’s pardon for the dera chief two years ago had backfired. A sinister sequel was a string of incidents of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib that outraged the Sikh community.
Now, the Akalis see in the controversial dera a lifeline to buck the Malwa ire. In poll-time hobnobbing, the party has overlooked the Akal Takht edict of calling for the dera’s boycott. But, it’s a double-edged tactic that may drive the Sikh vote into the arms of the AAP and Congress even in Majha and Doaba regions.
Peace at stake
Tuesday night’s blasts fit into a worrying pattern of targeted attacks that no one has owned up and thus remain unsolved till date. Even the CBI has failed to crack four high-profile murders of RSS and other right-wing leaders, besides the sacrilege incidents.
Police authorities see a common link in all these incidents and suspect these to be the handiwork of residual, shadowy militants at the behest of foreign-based Sikh radical bodies. “We are up against a new ISI-sponsored terror strategy of limited and targeted attacks to create communal chaos in Punjab,” says state director general of police Suresh Arora, also tying in Pakistan’s spy agency. And Arora, one of the state’s battle-hardened cops credited with fighting terrorism, is not exaggerating.
It’s in this context that political observers see the downside of the AAP enlisting support of the radicals who find it an ally to gain political space and challenge the hegemony of the Akalis on the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and other Sikh institutions.
The latest attack is also a chilling reminder of how deceptive peace is in Punjab. As pre-poll nerves are on the edge, it could well be a game-changer.