Barely weeks before Punjab voters were gearing up to give their verdict in January 2012 assembly elections, Rs 15,000 cheques began reaching abruptly the ‘poor’ voters for house repair.
Using this safe mode launched just days before the election commission sounded Punjab assembly poll bugle on December 24, 2011, the Parkash Singh Badal government had quietly pumped in about Rs 50 crore to reach a set of voters in select districts.
This was one of the many covert and overt ploys of the Akali Dal to retain power by outwitting the overconfident Congress.
And the smartly managed gamble yielded results as the Akali Dal-BJP combine retained power with a bang.
Now, the double-barrel Akali Dal top guns — party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and his son and party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal — are using every trick before the poll code comes into force. Their sole objective: Rule Punjab for third consecutive time. “Our cadre is charged up and ready to fight to win,” says Sukhbir Badal.
However, in what the analysts say “hurry and worry” of the Badal duo, the nervousness is rising in the Akali Dal camp with the assembly poll turning out to be a three-horse race. The strong anti-incumbency of its 10-year rule—marked equally by blots and bright spots—is giving jitters to the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine.
And to dodge this disadvantage, the master-strategist Badal Sr has accelerated his speed of holding ‘sangat darshans’ and the game of sanction-on-the-spot development grants that ranges between Rs 20 crore and Rs 25 crore to the host assembly segment.
For an example, in last one week alone CM Badal doled out Rs 40-crore developmental grants during his favourite ‘sangat darshan’ exercise in three reserved segments—Nabha, Chamkaur Sahib and Bassi Pathana—where party has fielded fresh faces.
On Tuesday, CM Badal in Kalanaur—the place of emperor Akbar’s coronation in Gurdaspur—distributed Rs 2.61-crore compensation to farmers.
The overt strategy of the father-son-duo is that while Sukhbir is attempting to set development as poll agenda (see box—inauguration spree), Badal Sr is keeping himself personally and firmly plugged with the public via the ‘sangat darshans’ and liberal dose of grants.
Among other raft of populist steps, CM Badal has taken in last two-weeks include ‘welfare’ of his party loyalists. Badal parked over 150 party activists as chairman or members in different welfare boards ahead of the poll code.
In a pre-poll job bonanza, state cabinet created over 3,300 posts, besides regularising 27,000 employees hired on contract.
Almost every week, Badal cabinet is meeting and taking plethora of populist decisions. Sources say every financial resource is being squeezed, including loan from banks. Punjab Infrastructure Development Board (PIDB), that funds most of CM Badal’s pet projects, in the last cabinet meeting had sought nod for more loans and stating that its financial health had collapsed.
But the desperation to bulldoze the system by the Badal dispensation is such that bureaucrats who are finally mustering courage to say “no” are being dumped. “In the past two months, political masters’ brief is to just do this... Every officer is eagerly awaiting for poll code,” says an officer.
The sense of urgency is palpable in resourceful Sukhbir Badal’s daily drill. In the past one month, Sukhbir has inaugurated or laid foundation stones of over 30 mega or minor projects, beginning with the classy heritage street around the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
“This carpet bombing of sorts (read inauguration spree) is aimed at building positive public perception and deflecting negative public opinion,” says an aide of Sukhbir Badal.
At the heart of Badal government’s last ditch vote-clinching sops is almost every electoral segment. Gymnasiums and free sports kits to youth, utensils to mahila mandals and free pilgrimage for oldies.
That’s just a glimpse of the size and scale of the pre-poll doles.