The reprieve granted by the Sikh clergy to the controversial head of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has queered the poll pitch in Punjab.
Having transformed Dalits living on the fringes into a formidable votebank, the dera head also shares the credit for scripting the BJP’s first win in Haryana last year. A sequel is now playing in Punjab politics ahead of the 2017 Assembly polls.
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal’s politics of pardon is seen as part of its unfolding strategy to blunt the anti-incumbency ire, especially in the high-stakes Malwa belt where the dera vote counts the most. But while rolling the dera dice, the Akalis had scarcely imagined the kind of backlash that has since erupted in its core Panthic constituency. An array of Sikh bodies have made common cause with the radicals in stridently opposing the edict and Akali strategists are busy firefighting to limit the political damage inflicted by its religious gambit.
CAPT PLAYS SIKH CARD
The pardon has also set off political tremors among the state’s opposition parties. In a statement from London, Capt Amarinder Singh, deputy leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha, has deftly played to the current Panthic mood by attacking Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal for “lowering the dignity and authority” of the Akal Takht and asked the Sikh clergy to uphold the trust and supreme authority reposed in them by the community.
He knows the side-effects of dera politics rather too well. In the 2007 polls, the Congress had romped home in the Malwa belt, riding on the dera’s open support. But Amarinder was pipped to the post in power sweepstakes as the party lost badly in Doaba and Majha. Though others in the Congress have not openly spoken on the issue, they too would be secretly hoping to gain from the polarisation of Sikh votes.
So some Congress leaders are even welcoming the truce. “The pardon is good for peace in Punjab as it will end the long-running enmity between the dera followers and the Sikhs,” said senior Congress MLA Lal Singh, who represents Sanaur seat in Patiala, which has considerable sway of the dera.
The Aam Aadmi Party, buoyed by a heart-warming response to its rallies across Punjab, dubs the dera deal as “the AAP effect”. “Akalis are jittery as their rural votebank is flocking to our rallies. When it suited them, they divided the dera and Sikhs. Now, it suits them to unite the two. The jathedars of the Akal Takht are nominated by the Badals and cannot go against their diktat,” says Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chottepur.
People’s Party of Punjab chief Manpreet Badal steers clear of the controversy, saying it is not in the purview of his party to comment on it. He, however, adds that people in Punjab vote with their conscience, not according to the diktats of deras or religious heads.
WIN-WIN FOR BJP
For ruling alliance partner BJP, truce with the dera is a “win-win” deal. Already on a good equation with the Sirsa-based sect, the saffron party is also believed to have brokered the reprieve. Radical Sikhs opposing the move have never been the BJP’s votebank. The party is also out of the awkward position of sympathising with the dera while it faced a boycott decree of the Takht. And if dera followers vote en bloc for the alliance, it goes in the BJP’s favour. “The truce is good for the state and its people as it will reduce tensions between the dera and Sikhs,” says state BJP chief Kamal Sharma.
In the fast-evolving political landscape of Punjab, the dera factor is again at the centre stage. How it will pan out in the state polls hinges on the Badals’ religio-political manoeuvres to stem the tide of anger among sections of Sikhs over the edict.