For arguably the first time in the history of electoral politics of Haryana, sects and religion found an exceedingly important place on the agenda of key parties. Political analysts term the development as worrying and highly undesirable.
It was indeed common to see politicians from different parties making a beeline to the controversial chief of Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, during election times to seek his “blessings” at his headquarters located on Begu Road at Sirsa. Also, apprehending any “adverse” planning against them, parties prefer not to comment on the dera head or the sect even as there are cases pending against him.
As for the dera shedding its diplomatic stance after years to openly support a party — the BJP, that is — watchers said the dera management was trying to prove its worth on the political scenario of Haryana. The dera has in the past backed the Congress in Punjab or strategically split its votes to benefit others; but this was after many years that it took a stance in favour of a party and even the dera head — who likes to seem aloof in such situations — tweeted on poll day that the decision of the dera’s ‘political wing’ be heeded. So much so that he even tweeted a photo after “casting his vote for the first time after his coronation as the dera chief”.
As for the Congress, despite strong opposition from various quarters of Sikhs, the ruling party formed the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee ahead of the assembly elections. It was an apparent move to gain the support of Sikhs, who were otherwise seen as supporters of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) that has an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Members of the religious body openly worked to garner support for the Congress in the name of guarding the religious body that faces a legal challenge from the SAD-controlled, Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
The INLD and the SAD, the ruling party in Punjab, opposed the formation of Sikh panel on the grounds that Congress had interfered in the religious affairs of the community. It had announced rollback of the HSGMC if the alliance was voted to power.
The BJP — which has an alliance with the SAD in Punjab but was fighting the INLD-SAD in a direct contest in Haryana — did not oppose the panel vociferously.
Both, the Congress and the SAD leadership from Punjab toured different parts of Haryana to exploit the religious sentiments for votes on the issue of HSGMC.
Cases behind support?
However, the decision of the Dera Sacha Sauda to support the BJP just two days ahead of polls — after PM Narendra Modi praised the sect — is being seen as one of the most crucial aspects of the election. The dera has a sizeable following in various districts of the state, and the followers tend to vote en masse even on the “secret and unofficial directions” of the management committee of the sect.
An expert on state politics who wished not be named said that there was a popular impression that in lieu of the support the dera chief, who is facing criminal charges of sexual abuse and murder, might gain some “softness” from the Centre’s ruling party.
Rohtak-based social activist and political commentator Daulat Ram Chaudhry said that, unlike Punjab, Haryana did not have a political history where religion was ever on the agenda. “In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections too, the dera had played an important role in Congress winning on at least two seats in Haryana. At that time it was a secret understanding between the dera functionaries and the Congress leadership. But it is for the first time that the controversial dera came openly in support of a political party (the BJP),” said Chaudhry, former chairman of Haryana Public Service Commission.
He said that it was yet to be seen if the Congress strategy of the HSGMC would get it any mileage as there was division among Sikhs of Haryana on the issue.