The crushing defeat of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) in the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) polls is expected to have serious implications for the party in the Punjab assembly elections. Yet, much will also depend on how the Congress, which largely opposed the winning group led by Paramjit Singh Sarna in Delhi, is able to exploit the situation. The Sarna brothers, who were aligned very closely with the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra till the last Gurdwara polls, have managed to win on their own this time.
Their group’s victory is all the more commendable since they achieved it despite an influential section of the Congress close to the Delhi Chief Minister actively helping the Akali Dal nominees. From among the Congress ranks, only Delhi Education Minister Arvinder Singh Lovely and DPCC chief Ram Babu Sharma extended their help to the Sarnas, whose group bagged 28 out of 46 elected seats, with only 12 going to the Akali Dal (Badal) and six to others, including Jathedar Ranjit Singh, former chief of the Akal Takht. It is being said now that had the Congress unitedly supported the Sarnas, their tally would have been much higher.
The unique character of the polls was that a huge section of the Congress, the BJP/RSS and the Akalis (Badal) were on one side and the Sarnas on the other. The Punjab Congress, which could have greatly benefited by the humbling of the Akalis in the capital, chose to remain neutral with neither Chief Minister Amarinder Singh nor any of his associates making the slightest effort to help the victorious group. This, despite the fact that at least 2,000 activists of the Badal group were camping in the capital, wanting to capture the Gurdwara committee.
The victory has apparently boosted the prospects of Paramjit Singh Sarna, who is poised to take over as president of the DSGMC for a record fifth term in the first week of February. He has been congratulated by several senior Congress leaders, who were earlier not even responding to calls by his supporters for appointments. He is understood to have made it clear to Congress leaders that his prime concern is to work for the Sikhs and defeat the Akali Dal (Badal) in Punjab. But in order to seek his support, the Congress must concede to his group’s two primary demands — that it take up with Pakistan a policy of visa-on-arrival for Sikh devotees who want to visit gurdwaras in that country and it grant amnesty to Sikhs who were blacklisted in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star and now want to return to India.
The Badal group, on its part, knows the damage the Sarna group can cause and has been sending emissaries to make peace with them. The Akalis, who are widely perceived to have a clear edge over the Congress in Punjab at present, appear to be jittery at the prospect of the Sarnas campaigning against them. The Congress seems to have lost out lately due to the non-accessibility of their leaders, who were fighting power battles when they should have been in the midst of the people.
The fact that the Congress has not been able to change even 10 of the sitting MLAs could cost them the state since anti-incumbency against individual MLAs has always appeared stronger than anti-incumbency against the Amarinder Singh government. The party can still bounce back if the central leadership draws up a clear strategy aimed at winning the state instead of playing one against the other or playing favourites.
A golden opportunity was presented with the proposal to field Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from Amritsar. This seems to be lost as of now. Had the party decided to make him its nominee for the Lok Sabha by-election — a seat that has fallen vacant because of Navjot Singh Sidhu’s resignation — it would have not only won the seat convincingly but would have also swept the assembly polls. In addition, the Prime Minister’s candidature would have resulted in a rift between the BJP and the Akalis, who would have been left with no choice but to support Manmohan Singh.
Even when Giani Zail Singh was a presidential candidate, the Akalis had no option but to support him. But then, Congress power politics is a strange game since a large number of players play the second round even before the first one has finished. In the case of Singh, many in the Congress may have been worried that if he came to the Lok Sabha, his standing among the people would go up.
The PM is also not known for taking risks and after his bitter experience in 1999, when his own partymen sabotaged his election from South Delhi, he perhaps does not have too much trust in some of his colleagues. He may also remember that he was targeted by some senior leaders once Sonia Gandhi suggested that he be made PM. She had chosen him to fight from South Delhi and would have certainly backed him even now had he shown the inclination to stand for polls. In politics, one must realise that ‘no risk, no gain’.
The Prime Minister’s term in the Rajya Sabha ends on June 14 this year. There is no doubt that he can easily get one more term in the Rajya Sabha from Assam, but it is naturally preferable to represent the country from the Lok Sabha. He should also know that the BJP too will find it difficult to put up a formidable candidate against him from Amritsar.
Coming back to the Punjab polls, neither the Akalis nor the Congress have been able to clearly define the issues involved. The Congress government is alleged to be as corrupt as the previous Akali-BJP government. But significantly, any party that is able to field better candidates wins. If the Congress loses, the Akalis will have to cope with the issue of who will succeed Parkash Singh Badal. The answer at present is blowing in the wind. Between us.