The Akali Dal campaign for power is always rich in religious symbolism. The difference this time is that they’re mixing with it a heavy dose of Punjabi pride to co-opt communities other than their core Jat Sikh vote-base.
Yet, the path ahead seems uphill for the party that has ruled Punjab for ten years in tandem with the BJP. That despite some very visible and tangible development work done to improve road connectivity—and spruce up the vicinity of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
The facelift the PS Badal regime has given the Harmandir Sahib—daily visited by thousands of devotees from abroad and across the state — is at the centre of his claim of promoting Sikhism with development. Also being restored is the Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Temple and the city’s another milestone, the Durgiana Mandir.
It’s against this backdrop that one needs to decode politically Tuesday’s lavish celebrations to mark the golden jubilee of the Punjabi Suba — euphemism for the creation in 1966 of the Punjab that we know. Interestingly, a sound and light show recapitulating the movement for the Suba focused as much on Master Tara Singh as on Sant Fateh Singh.
A Khatri Sikh, Tara Singh’s legacy was downsized by Akalis the way Sardar Patel’s was by the Congress. Never before had they put him on the same pedestal as Sant Fateh Singh, a Jat Sikh. The rethink obviously is about expanding the party’s religious appeal to urban sections beyond the Jats who dominate rural Punjab.
Of significance also is the Congress’s negative portrayal in the Dal’s Suba narrative. “Punjabi Suba would be over my dead body,” Badal quoted Pandit Nehru in his speech at Amritsar’s beautifully restored Town Hall that leads to Harmandir Sahib. And while honouring eminent Punjabis he conveniently forgot former premier Manmohan Singh.
It was left to finance minister Arun Jaitley to complete the Akali-BJP script. Recalling ‘Operation Blue Star’ that saw troops marching into the Temple to flush out Khalistani separatists, he said: “If 1984 is remembered as the year of destruction, 2016 will be commemorated as the year of reconstruction.”
It remains to be seen whether Badal and his son and deputy CM Sukhbir Badal can ride triumphant on the religious fervour they’re trying to whip up? They’ve set up in recent years several memorials and museums evoking Sikh sacrifices and valour: celebrating 350 years of the founder of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh around election time next year, memorial to Banda Bahadur who fought the Moguls in Sirhind; massacre (ghallughara) of Sikhs by Ahmed Shah Abdali in Malerkotla and Gurdaspur and a theme museum on the ‘Partition’ in Amritsar.
The other prong of their strategy is to revive the Akali spirit to take the focus away from the Badal family. The senior Badal stoked as much the sentiment when he recalled his days as an ‘ordinary’ Akali worker whom the party made the CM.
He evidently realises that anti-incumbency is directed mostly at his family. “The best antidote for him is the Akali lure steeped in history,” conceded a college professor. But he wasn’t sure whether the cracked panthic vote would coagulate. Or which way would the 40 per cent Hindu go?