For the Parkash Singh Badal government in Punjab, the timing of the
Moga bus horror
could hardly have been worse. As if the farmers’ anger over tardy wheat procurement wasn’t enough, the ruling coalition is now feeling the heat of the shocking death of a 13-year-old girl who was molested and thrown out of a moving bus.
What has fuelled the high-decibel political outcry and public opprobrium is the fact that the men who allegedly molested the teen and her mother on Wednesday were staffers of Orbit Aviation , one of several public transport companies owned and operated by the Badal family.
Quick to smell blood, the opposition – the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party – lost no time in grabbing a potent issue that has left the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government red-faced and on the back foot.
The incident dramatically galvanised Badal-baiters, particularly those in the factionalised Congress, which fancies its comeback in Punjab’s next election in early 2017.
Upping the ante, the victim’s family and the opposition have pegged their protests to demands for an FIR being registered against Badal family members with stakes in the bus company – a la the action against owners of the bus involved in the 2012 Delhi gangrape and the Uber taxi operator who allegedly sexually assaulted an executive last December.
Worse, the incident has seemingly spiked public ire against the Badal family, which at first clumsily tried to fob off its link with the bus company. “I don’t know...will check who owns this...,” is how Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the chief minister’s daughter-in-law, reacted outside Parliament a day after the incident rocked Lok Sabha.
Within hours, the media called Kaur’s bluff, ferreting out the 2014 election affidavit that showed her as a major stakeholder in the controversial bus company.
It was left to her husband, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, to mount a belated damage control exercise by confessing the obvious and announcing compensation of Rs 20 lakh and a government job for the victim’s family. Curiously, he chose to shell out the grant from the state exchequer instead of the cash-rich account of his privately owned bus enterprise.
But the victim’s family has spurned the government bait to get them to cremate her body, and instead made common cause with the opposition-led protests for holding the Orbit bus owners criminally liable.
The longer the agitation drags, the worse it will for the state government. “The issue may be resolved soon but the political damage it has inflicted will not go,” said a close aide of the chief minister who did not want to be named.
He was not off the mark. For the Moga shocker has put a negative spotlight on the flourishing business empire of the Badal clan, which has long been accused of misusing power to promote its business interests.
The Badals are known to have multi-crore stakes in an array of businesses, including hospitality, transport and media. The opposition accuses them of having fingers in the tills of the sand mafia and liquor cartels.
Sukhbir Singh Badal swats off the charges of conflict of interest, insisting that all his businesses are “clean and in official records”.
But the aggressive streak that has characterised the Badal family’s push to its business stakes, while in power, has only fuelled a widely-held perception in Punjab that “the Badals have grabbed all businesses”.
The Moga incident has further bruised the reputation of the Badals and could well be a tipping point for the coalition government that is already battling anti-incumbency.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @vinayak_ramesh.)