Politics is all about timing and momentum. That's why the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal has a reason to gloat over its resounding victory in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) elections.
Barely five months short of the high-stake Punjab Assembly elections due in February, the party, in an alliance with the Sant Samaj, romped home on 157 of the 170 seats up for grabs, re-asserting its time-old hold on the apex Sikh religious body.
In Sikh politico-religious affairs, the SGPC, with an annual budget of Rs 600 crore, represents a veritable powerhouse with enormous sway on the Sikh masses. Clearly, Sunday's triumph has buoyed SAD's morale, galvanised its grassroots workers and geared up the party machinery for the bigger battle ahead for the Vidhan Sabha. That's all that will count for the SGPC election outcome's impact on Punjab's political landscape in the next few months.
But, to interpret the SGPC win as a referendum on the SAD-BJP government's performance, as upbeat Akali leaders are tempted to do, will be a measure of their capacity for self-delusion. Nor does the buoyant forecast of Badals' spin doctors on the "historic verdict" as "a semifinal" to the assembly poll slugfest hold much water.
After all, the SGPC electorate - about 55 lakh and spread over Punjab and parts of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh - is limited to the Sikh constituency of only 'keshdharis' (those with unshorn hair). In other words, only one-tenth of Punjab voters eligible for the Assembly elections exercised their franchise for the SGPC polls. More importantly, the SAD was the only mainstream political party to contest the polls while Punjab's other key political players namely the Congress, BJP and Manpreet Singh Badal's People's Party of Punjab were out of the fray -albeit directly.
Also, the SAD's feat has lost some its sheen because of brazen intimidation and misuse of power by its workers. As if political acrimony and mudslinging that marred the high-decibel campaign was not sacrilegious enough, large-scale, in-your-face violations of the Gurdwara Act, coupled with violence, struck a jarring note to the elections so ineptly conducted by chief gurdwara commissioner Justice HS Brar (retd), who chose to look the other way despite a flurry of brazen violations exposed by the media. That perhaps was Brar's way of returning the favour to the Badal Government for appointing his daughter as a top law officer in Punjab advocate general office.
The reason why the SAD pitched its stakes so high is obvious. In factionalised Sikh politics, the Akali Dal that lords over the SGPC is reckoned as the real Akali Dal, while others merely "Khaali Dal (empty party)".
An astute campaign organiser, SAD president and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal pulled out all stops not only to re-assert his party's long-held supremacy on religious turf, his carefully-crafted strategy had three near-term objectives, too: to buff up his own image as an election-winner, to fire up the Akali rank and file, and to make a headstart in the Assembly elections. And, his strategy has seemingly clicked.
For the SAD-Sant Samaj combine, flush with funds and well-oiled organisation machine, it was advantage from day one. Moreover, Sikh voters have historically plumped for dominant incumbent at the helm of the SGPC. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a one-sided contest. The main challenger, the Panthic Morcha, which is a rag tag of splinter Akali factions led by such rejects or retired politicians as Surjit Singh Barnala, Ravi Inder Singh and Paramjit Singh Sarna, besides radical rump - met its worst nemesis. Also routed conclusively was the pro-Khalistan, fundamentalist fringe of Simranjit Singh Mann who lost both the seats he contested. Ostensibly, the verdict has once again favoured moderate and mainstream Sikh politics championed by Parkash Singh Badal.
Curiously, the Congress appears to have emerged as net loser despite having kept out of the poll. Its dirty tricks department's strategy to throw a spanner in the SGPC elections by orchestrating a bizarre legal rumpus in the Punjab and Haryana high court - wherein senior lawyer Harbhagwan Singh withdrew the Union government's 2004 notification de-franchising 'Sehajdharis' - backfired. Though the Centre was quick to make the amends, the cat was out of the bag when it emerged that Harbhagwan's appointment was recommended by Patiala Congress MP Preneet Kaur. The Congress's tacit backing to the Panthic Morcha, coupled with Capt Amarinder Singh's strident stand against de-barring 'Sehajdharis' lent potent ammunition to the Badals' single-point incessant artillery of dubbing their SGPC opponents as "Congress agents".
Amidst such fiery political sparring, singularly lost in the entire campaign were the real issues notably growing trends of drug-addiction and apostasy among Sikh youth, besides widely-perceived mismanagement of the SGPC funds. Having secured a thumping majority in the SGPC polls, Sukhbir will do well to extend his reformist zeal to the religious body. He has promised to make the SGPC affairs -and accounts - more transparent. That sounds appealing - if only he gets on with making it a reality.