Deras have been playing a vital role in elections in Punjab and this time is no different. Essentially religious sects, deras are the hub of all things worldly, come elections.
Political parties, except for the Left, have never shied away from tapping the vast network of dera followers.
The blessings of a dera head, mostly referred to as baba or sant, can be that divine intervention which can swing political fortunes. Punjab has around 500 deras of Dalit communities, a majority of them in Doaba followed by the Majha region. About 12 of the major deras command a following of more than 100,000 devotees each.
While some deras have been open about their political allegiance, most do not articulate their political leanings or participate in electioneering directly. The controversial Dera Sacha Sauda, headquartered in Sirsa, Haryana, has a large following in the Malwa region of Punjab. Open support by the dera’s followers to Congress candidates in the 2007 assembly elections gave a new twist to the electoral and politico-religious scenario of Malwa, an Akali heartland.Later, Punjab was gripped by large-scale communal violence between the dera followers and Sikhs after the sect head, Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, allegedly dressed up like Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru.
This time the dera may opt for a please-all formula. Ram Singh, a member of the dera’s political affairs wing, said members across the state had been asked to “take a unanimous decision over the issue of supporting one or more political parties”.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the dera had supported the Akalis in Bathinda, Faridkot and Ferozepur, while backing the Congress in Patiala and Sangrur. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family’s ties with the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan dera of Ashutosh Noormehalia had been controversial in the past.