The irony is not lost. The highest temporal body of Sikhs, the Akal Takht, has pardoned one who claims to be a ‘Messenger of God’. The controversial head of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, does his own stunts in his movies. Having transformed dalits living on fringes into a formidable votebank, the dera is getting to play the lead role in politics too! Many credit it for scripting BJP’s first win in the Jatland. After neighbouring Haryana, its sequel, with the same heady mix of religion with politics, is now playing in Punjab politics ahead of 2017 polls.
A silent vote announced in its favour by the dera too close to the elections would have not augured well for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. It had to be like in Haryana, clear and bold. Will the Akali Dal benefit if dera followers vote en mass in pockets of politically-important Malwa or lose from a move that has the potential of polarising the Sikh vote will be known only after 2017 Punjab elections. But while the Sikh radicals are up in arms against the pardon hailed by the ruling Badals, the Shriomani Akali Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the BJP, the reactions of the three main opposition parties vary from caution to calling the ruling Akalis “jittery”.
AAP effect: Chottepur
The Aam Aadmi Party sees the truce as the AAP effect. “When it suited them, the ruling Akali Dal divided the dera and Sikhs. Not it suits them to unite the two. The Akalis are jittery owing to AAP’s growing popularity as their rural votebank -- the Sikh peasantry -- is flocking to our rallies. The jathedars of the Akal Takht are not coming from a system like the Vatican’s system of appointing the Pope. They are nominated by the patron of the Akali Dal. How can they (jathedars) go against diktat of their political bosses? Since the votebank of AAP cuts across relegion and caste lines, theyare trying to find ways to counter our mass appeal,” AAP’s Punjab convenor Sucha Singh Chottepur said.
But the Congress which swept the Malwa belt in 2007 polls owing to dera openly announcing its support is treading with caution. Neither former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh nor incumbent Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa have reacted to the pardon. In pockers werethe dera votes count, its leaders are welcoming the truce. “The pardon is good for long term peace in Punjab as it will end the long-running enmity between dera followers and the Sikhs,” senior Congress MLA Lal Singh said. It is not difficult to understand the predicament of the Congress.
It cannot afford to speak against the dera though it would be secretly hoping to gain from polarisation of Sikh votes in its favour. Party insiders believe the move would further embolden Amarinder to break away from the party and try to gain from division in panthic votes. Polarisation of Sikh votes in his favour had helped Amarinder defeat BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley in Amritsar Lok Sabha elections.
People’s Party of Punjab president Manpreet Badal too prefers caution on the “inflammable” issue. “Our party practises secular politics and it is not in our purview to comment on truce. But, I do beleivethat people in Punjab vote with their conscience and not according to diktats of deras or religious heads. It that would have been the case, former Congress MLA Harminder Jassi, whose daughter is married to the dera head’s son, would not have lost the Talwandi Sabo bypoll last year,” Manpreet says.
Win-win for BJP
Among political parties, Akali Dal ally BJP is perhaps the only one which stands to gain without anything to lose. It is widely believed that a truce could not have come without the saffron party playing mediator for the dera. After all, none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lauded the dera in his speeches during Haryana elections and was duly reciprocated through votes.
Welcoming the development, BJP president Kamal Sharma said, “The truce is good for the state and its people as it will reduce tensions between the dera and Sikhs.” Not difficult to fathom why? The radical Sikhs opposing the move have never been BJP’s votebank. On the other hand, the party is out of the awkward position of sympathising with the dera while it faced a boycott decree of the Akal Takht. And if dera followers vote en block for the ruling SAD-BJP alliance, it goes in the BJP’s favour. “We used to be in an awkward position when dera followers approached us with complaints of victimisation by Sikh groups. The feuds between the two would end now,” a senior BJP leader said.
But how will the dera-Akal Takht truce play out in Punjab elections? Professor Mohammad Khalid, professor of political science at Panjab University, sees it as quid-pro-quo between Akalis and the dera. “The SGPC is appeling to Sikhs to welcome the move and the dera is asking its followers to drop cases against Sikhs. The Dera Sacha Sauda claims to have nearly 6 crore followers in Punjab and Haryana. By that figure, it can make or break fortunes of parties in pockets of Malwa where it has sizeable votes. But it will proved counter-productive in Doaba and Majha regions, mainly among Sikhs not willing to pardon the dera head for donning Guru Gobind Singh’s attire. Many may not toe the Akal Takht’s line. The Congress is badly divided as of now and the influence of AAP too is limited to certain pockets of the state. But the opposition parties of Punjab will have to now have to contend with more than just the poll management of Akalis. The elections would be fought not just on mix of money and muscle power but also the dera factor,” Khalid adds.