In a crisis that seemed to have jolted the Badal family more severely than any other incident since 2002, the extended Badal parivaar had to finally fall back on the political acumen of octogenarian chief minister Parkash Singh Badal to bail them out.
State deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, with an inimitable reputation of being a micro-manager and a crisis-buster was in an unenviable situation in the past week. A young woman and her daughter had been allegedly thrown out of a bus he co-owns, in a state he runs, by the staff he pays salaries to. The 13-year-old daughter had died and the young mother was in hospital. The opposition had a field day, with Congress joining hands with AAP over the issue, escalating the matter with each passing day. Sukhbir’s making the right noises -- of owning responsibility and taking his buses off the road -- had not worked. The party’s old war horse Jathedar Tota Singh who was tasked with “sorting the matter out” threw his hands up.
Sukhbir — who is also the home minister — was asked by his advisers to step back and let the local SAD leaders handle the situation. Forced to only “monitor the situation” closely first from Chandigarh and then in Delhi during the five days that shook him, Sukhbir had his hands tied and it was senior Badal who, sources say, decided to face the heat.
The feedback from the district administration as well as from Tota Singh was that the CM or Sukhbir or even Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur should not visit the Moga civil hospital which had become ground zero for the opposition and protesters demanding that Sukhbir be booked for the incident. The situation was tense and as a senior police officer put it to the chief minister —“Moga is on fire”.
On Sunday morning, the chief minister called his media adviser Harcharan Bains saying he wanted to go to Moga. “He was determined despite all the odds stacked against the SAD,” said Bains. The decision was prompted in order “to be with the grieving family”, as Bains puts it, but for the chief minister, his legacy and the party’s future were at stake.
He, along with Bains and his principal secretary SK Sandhu, reached the Moga rest house in the afternoon by which time the district administration had managed to bring the family around to accepting the offer given by the government. “The fact that he had come to meet the family seemed to have worked for bringing the family around,” said Bains.
When the crisis seemed to be nearing a “solution”, the joint action committee-led protesters virtually stormed the hospital. The police said they might have to use force to prevent them from starting to indulge in arson. But the chief minister asked the police to ensure that not a single lathi is used and not a bullet is fired. “A man injured in the protest would have led to a situation worse than the original,” said a war-room strategist.
The political storm with Sukhbir in the eye of the storm might have blown over, but it has left the Badals bruised, maybe irrevocably.