The first family: CM Parkash Singh Badal carefully choreographed succession politics in Punjab
He lights up amid people. Parkash Singh Badal, once the youngest sarpanch of India and now its oldest chief minister, is a people’s politician, a title that even his most virulent critics don’t deny him. The morning is cold and gloomy, but the towering 6’2” 89-year-old is wide alert, beaming a smile at a sangat darshan, a tete-a-tete with villagers wrapped in blankets, eager to get their grouses to Badal Saab, gearing up for the election early next year.punjab Updated: Dec 11, 2016 19:17 IST
He lights up amid people. Parkash Singh Badal, once the youngest sarpanch of India and now its oldest chief minister, is a people’s politician, a title that even his most virulent critics don’t deny him. The morning is cold and gloomy, but the towering 6’2” 89-year-old is wide alert, beaming a smile at a sangat darshan, a tete-a-tete with villagers wrapped in blankets, eager to get their grouses to Badal Saab, gearing up for the election early next year.
It’s the cellular age – arch rival and Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh has promised 50 lakh 4-G mobiles to Punjab voters – but the patron of the Shiromani Akali Dal believes in the old world one-on-one connect. It’s never failed him, not since 1947 when he was first elected sarpanch of his namesake Badal village in Bathinda at the age of 20.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Today the village, which has been transformed from a dusty hamlet to a sparkling oasis, is eponymous with the first dynasty of Punjab and the Akali Dal. The surname Badal spells power. The Punjab Cabinet has four members of the family – chief minister Badal, his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal, son-in-law Adaish Partap Singh Kairon and Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia. Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat is a Union minister.
It’s quite a moral climbdown for a leader who was once a harsh critic of the Gandhi dynasty.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, the second oldest party of India, known for morchas (movements) and motivated cadre, is now a family affair. Ashutosh Kumar, a professor at the political science department of Panjab University, says like Akbar, Badal has used matrimonial alliances to strengthen his hold on Punjab. “He married his daughter Parneet into the Congress heavyweight Kairon family, and his son into the powerful Majithia clan. Now he is systematically giving tickets to sons of Akali leaders to promote the hegemony of his own son.”
LONG INNINGS ON MIDDLE PATH
The Badal dynasty stems from the long innings of its patriarch, who still maintains a punishing schedule, starting his day with the sun at 5 and winding up at 11. His stamina is legendary. When asked about his age before the 2007 Punjab elections, he said: “Bhaj ke dikhawan (Shall I run and show you?)”
An MLA on a Congress ticket at 25, and the then youngest chief minister at 43, Badal Senior, as he is now known, has weathered 69 years in Punjab politics.
Badal recounts how he would’ve never entered politics had it not been for an influential relative, a minister, who acceded to his request for being made a tehsildar only to tear the appointment letter. He told me: “Become someone who appoints tehsildars.”
Ashutosh calls Badal’s middle path his greatest strength. Though he spent 17 years in jail in various Akali morchas – a fact that prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call him Nelson Mandela – he never went against India.
Calling him a shrewd reconciler, Ashutosh says: “He built bridges with the BJP despite their ideological differences.”
Another Punjab expert says it’s essentially a social alliance. Badal knew this was the only way to heal the wounds caused by militancy.
1996 was a watershed. With an uncanny sense of popular mood, Badal broadened the SAD’s ideological underpinning from a Panthic entity to a party of Punjabis, and stitched up an alliance with the saffron party that swept into power in 1997. That catapulted Badal on to the centre-stage after two decades in political wilderness. The made-for-each-other alliance has since been going strong.
An artful balancer of his core Panthic ideals with his political interests stretching to other communities, Badal is inarguably the most popular Akali leader among the state’s 42% Hindu populace that looks up to him as the guarantor of communal amity. But his rock-solid support base lies in the rural peasantry – a constituency that he has assiduously nurtured.
Dr Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication (IDC), attributes Badal’s long innings to his politics of moderation in a state riven by militancy, coupled with a strong understanding of the Punjab peasantry. “Also, most articulate leaders of the Akali Dal, like Partap Singh Kairon and Baldev Singh, joined the Congress.”
SHREWD POLITICIAN ENSURES SON RISE
Badal has always guarded his turf. Be it Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Baldev Singh or even Capt Amarinder Singh, he either kept them busy or cut them to size. In 1996, he denied the Patiala ticket to Capt Amarinder, pushing him back to the Congress. Badal has shrewdly sidelined potential challengers from within the party and drafted frontline Akali leaders’ progeny into Akali politics – all this, to consolidate Sukhbir’s grip on the party.
In a carefully choreographed succession politics, Sukhbir was anointed party chief, and heir apparent, in 2008 when he was barely 45. That laid the foundation of the first family-dominated rule in Akali history. Today, Sukhbir and Harsimrat are the fulcrum of Akali power politics.
LIKE FATHER, UNLIKE SON
Badal has also mastered the Panthic idiom. Dr Manvinder Singh of the department of Guru Nanak Studies at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, says what’s unique is the way he has continued to remain a committed Sikh, while giving equal respect to other religions and minorities. But other scholars criticise his appropriation of the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Akal Takht. It’s no secret that he appoints the SGPC chief.
Today, the Badal brand of politics is under fire by his son-heir apparent. An officer says: “If Badal is substance, Sukhbir is style.” Comparing them, an observer says: “While Badal’s politics sprouts from his actions, Sukhbir’s politics dictates his actions.”
LITMUS TEST FOR SPIRITED SURVIVOR
The charges of corruption against the family have been growing as has its conglomerate of businesses that include a transport company, TV channels and luxury hotels. An exponential growth of the Badals’s business empire has an overlap with their years in power since 2007 – an open secret that feeds an undercurrent of anger against the ruling family.
The family also saw a power struggle when Badal’s nephew Manpreet Badal, the finance minister from 2007-10, ditched the SAD to float his own outfit, the People’s Party of Punjab, and later joined the Congress. An insider says the family had decided to activate Sukhbir at the Centre and leave the state to Manpreet. Differences arose when Manpreet remained a passive spectator, while the Badals were hounded on charges of corruption by the Amarinder regime of 2002.
Harcharan Bains, a long-time aide of the chief minister, says that Badal doesn’t let professional (read political) events dictate his personal ties. While Badal Senior may continue to get along with his brother and Manpreet’s father Gurdas Badal, Manpreet and Sukhbir are not on talking terms.
Today, the man who draws his power from the common man faces a formidable challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party. Bains says Badal is a spirited survivor. “Every time the party is in trouble, he goes back to the people.”
In the 2017 assembly elections, however, the Akali patriarch, who turned 89 last week, faces his last test that will judge not only his chequered legacy but also the future of the Badal dynasty.
Meanwhile, Parkash Singh Badal is doing what he does best: Courting people.
THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE SERIES ON PUNJAB POLITICAL DYNASTIES. NEXT EDITION WILL BE ON CAPTAIN AMARINDER SINGH’S FAMILY.