The projection of Sukhbir Singh Badal as the obvious successor to former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is essentially an attempt by the senior Badal to declare his son as his political heir. Other than that, the main political message which went out after the historic Akali Dal rally in Chandigarh last week was that the Akalis were ready for their battle with the Congress in February next year. The gathering also symbolised the resolve of the party to wrest power from Captain Amarinder Singh.
However, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s comments that the senior Badal would lead the government, in the event of the Akalis and the BJP coming to power, reflects that the senior leadership of the party may not be too happy with this development. Dhindsa or other senior leaders like Captain Kanwaljit Singh may not oppose any move to project Sukhbir as Parkash Singh Badal’s successor. But that does not mean that they do not have ambitions of their own. Sukhbir is a gifted young man but in Sikh (Akali) politics, the succession issue is decided by the Panth and not by individuals.
It is very much possible that the Panth may also endorse Sukhbir’s elevation but one would have to wait till that time. Parkash Singh Badal has evolved into the undisputed leader of the Akalis over a long period of time and has gone to jail several times on core Sikh issues. Reverence for him has grown over the years seeing his commitment to the welfare of Punjab’s people. He has faced many electoral battles and people have reposed their faith in him many a time. In a democracy, the successor has to also pass the ultimate test, the electoral one, to get recognition.
The greatest stumbling block in the Akalis’ winning the elections is Captain Amarinder Singh who, in his regime, has checkmated the Akalis several times and has not left them too many issues to contest the polls on. In fact, the Congress stands a very good chance of repeating its 2002 victory and this has been possible because Amarinder has managed to beat the Akalis at their own game on many fronts. He has done to the Akalis what Giani Zail Singh did to them in his time — and much more. This makes the Congress a serious contender in retaining power.
Amarinder has many achievements to his credit. Many of the Sikh issues that he has addressed can make the Akalis uncomfortable. For instance, the Punjab CM used his friendship with his Punjab counterpart in Pakistan, Pervez Elahi, to get clearance for Sikh pilgrims to visit various religious shrines in that country. With the support of the Sarna brothers of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Committee, he also organised the carrying of the Golden Palanquin to Nankana Saheb. The birthplace of the first Sikh Guru had many visitors from all over the world. In his tenure, he beat the Akalis by organising the maximum number of Sikh functions including 400 years of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, 500 years Parkash utsav of Guru Amardev and 300 years of the Guru Granth Saheb, to name a few.
On these occasions, the Akalis’ agenda was usurped by the Congress government in the state leaving them with very few issues. Manjit Singh Calcutta, a former member of the Badal ministry who parted company with the Akalis recently, apparently paid the price when he tried to discuss things in the open during the political affairs meetings of the party. The Akalis, in general, and Sukhbir, in particular, will have to catch the imagination of the people in order to be acceptable to them. Though an attempt is being made to rope in sons of other Akali leaders in the party to assist the junior Badal, things are not going to be easy. All of them will have to seek the people’s acceptance before they are accepted in the party in the real sense. Sikh history, particularly that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on this score is also not in favour of this succession. The mandate of the Panth is its only hope.
What has changed for the Akalis on the electoral front is that there are too many groups within the Akalis waiting to challenge the leaders. The front with Prem Singh Chandumajra, the Sarna brothers and, perhaps, Ravi Inder Singh and some others will certainly cut into the Akali vote bank. Simranjit Singh Mann has also made it known that his party will contest all the 117 seats in Punjab. On top of that, there is a problem on seat sharing with the BJP. Their most prominent leaders are Navjot Singh Sidhu and Harjit Singh Grewal, even though Avinash Rai Khanna happens to be the president of the state unit. Also, Sushma Swaraj’s controversial statement regarding the involvement of Chandu Shah in the execution of Guru Arjan Dev has not gone too well with the Sikhs.
The Congress has to change at least 25 to 30 MLAs for it to win. The anti-incumbency in the state is more against individual MLAs than towards the government. The appointments of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and General JJ Singh as Chief of Army Staff have helped the party no end. The Prime Minister’s apology for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots has taken the steam out of that issue and Amarinder’s stand on the SYL Canal issue has been received very well in the state. The CM’s luck has also resulted from the high prices of land and the smooth manner in which the last 10 procurements of wheat have taken place. The so-called rich farmers, the backbone of the Akalis, are happy with these developments.
In the face of all this, Sukhbir will have to think of fresh issues to outsmart the more experienced Amarinder. The succession will not be very smooth. Similarities can be drawn with the Shiv Sena where Bal Thackeray is facing the same problem in naming his son Uddhav as his successor. Nephew Raj has already revolted and so have others like Narayan Singh Rane.
Sukhbir, therefore, has to prove that his father is no Dhritrashtra and has to work very hard to get the endorsement of the Panth as well as that of the masses in order to be a true successor. Between us.