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The Badals of Punjab

That's Prakash Singh Badal's score on the political pitch. He's has been around for a half-a-century and is now passing on the baton to his son Sukhbir. Manish Tiwari reports. Watch this space for more stories on family dynasties that have decisively influenced the politics of certain states.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 01:07 IST
Manish Tiwari

It took Akali leader Giani Kartar Singh just five minutes to size up Parkash Singh Badal. In 1949, when Kartar Singh was Punjab Revenue minister, Badal went to him for a recommendation for a job as a naib tehsildar. Kartar Singh realised he had met an extraordinary youngster, with all the makings of a brilliant politician. “Why do you want to be a naib tehsildar?” he asked. “Join our party. One day you’ll appoint them.”

Badal did. Since then he has not looked back.

He joined the Shiromani Akali Dali (SAD) as an ordinary party worker and contested his first assembly election in 1957. Within 13 years, in 1970, he became Punjab’s chief minister. He has been chief minister three more times since then – from 1977 to 80, 1997 to 2002, and again from May 2007.

There have been lows in his career no doubt – specially the 17 year gap between the end of his second stint as chief minister and the start of his third, when the violent separatist movement to create an independent Khalistan raged across Punjab. His SAD split repeatedly, his group became one among many. But today there is only one SAD in Punjab – and that is Badal’s.

Ultimately Badal has been able to prevail over all his opponents, including Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra, chief of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee for 27 years. After having been a thorn in Badal’s flesh all through the insurgency, Tohra finally broke away from the SAD in 2000. It was perceived as the most direct challenge to Badal’s domination of Akali politics. In fact Tohra had been completely marginalized by the time he died in March 2004.

At 81, Badal now faces no challenge to his position. “One reason is his brand of politics, which revolves around consensus,” said Harcharan Bains, his media advisor. “He’s a symbol of dignity, decency and moderation.”

The Akali Dal has produced many great leaders, including Master Tara Singh, who commanded more respect than Badal does, but none enjoyed the unbridled power that Badal presently has. He introduced his son Sukhbir Singh into Akali politics and then very cautiously brought him to the centre stage. Today Sukhbir is Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister and SAD president as well. But it was all done so gradually that no Akali leader has uttered a word of protest.

Ask Badal how he deals with his opponents within the party, and he’ll say: “Where are they? There are none.” Commented a long time Punjab political observer: “When Badal slices up a political opponent, not a drop of blood is shed”.

“Badal Sahab is very cool headed. Often even we can’t read his mind,” said his daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur.

Quietly but effectively, the Badal clan has acquired an iron grip over Akali and Punjab’s politics. Apart from Badal and son, there is Badal’s nephew Manpreet Badal, ensconced as Finance minister, there is Badal’s son-in-law Adesh Partap Kairon, food and civil supplies minister. (Adesh, in addition, is the grandson of Partap Singh Kairon, Punjab’s towering chief minister who ruled from 1956 to 1964).

Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, is also an MLA and has served as state cabinet minister. The first female Badal is also expected to test political waters with this election – either Badal’s wife Surinder Kaur or his daughter-in-law Harsimrat (Sukhbir’s wife) will contest the Bathinda seat.

Badal and son may be ruling Punjab together, but no two people can be more different in their concerns and styles of governance, claim those who know both well.

The father’s first concern is the villages – development work at the grassroots level. The son loves to conceive and execute mega projects – expressways, international airports. Badal Senior is quiet and restrained, radiating an almost spiritual calm. Badal Junior is all aggression and demands quick results. Badal is content to keep himself and the Akali Dal confined to Punjab; Sukhbir is keen to play a national role. Badal ignores media criticism; Sukhbir frequently reacts.

As usual, there are tensions in the family too. It is well known that Badal Sr adores his nephew Manpreet. “I make no distinction between Sukhbir and Manpreet,” he has said. “Manpreet’s father’s contribution to what I am today is so great it cannot be expressed in words.”

Manpreet Badal too has made a mark with his fine performance as finance minister. But though they have never spoken out openly against each other, it is known that Sukhbir and Manpreet don’t get along.

As much as his father, it is the Badals’ arch enemy, Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress, who has played a key role in Sukhbir’s rise. Soon after he became chief minister in February 2002, Amarinder Singh got after the Badals, even having them briefly arrested on corruption charges a year later. It was then that Sukhbir came into his own.

Jettisoning the sobriety his father was known for, Sukhbir took on Amarinder Singh with vigour. All agree that he played a key role in the SAD’s victory in last assembly elections of 2007. “The SAD-BJP alliance is in power largely because of Sukhbir,” admitted Badal Sr.

Today the roles are reversed – it is the Badals who are gunning for Amarinder Singh. The state vigilance department has registered four corruption cases against Amarinder, who has also been removed from the state assembly.

The Badals claim they are fighting corruption. But for the people of Punjab, it’s just politics.