Even as Punjab seems to be recovering from the shock waves caused by a series of religio-political episodes, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has now adopted carrot and stick tactics to quell the anger against the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government.
Finally, political activity in this border state has begun gaining new momentum and direction. Though the current phase of ‘peace’ looks deceptive, public tempers are on the ebb following the more than month-long tremors triggered by a host of Sikh issues, including what looked like a systematic sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib across every region of the state to fuel public anger.
Shaken by the unrest and dazed by the fact that Sikh radicals and hardliners received massive response from the public during the statewide protests and rallies, the chief minister and his son, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, have begun blunting the ‘anti-Badal sentiment’ by bringing focus back on governance, keeping in view the 2017 assembly elections.
The unceremonious exit of Sumedh Singh Saini as Punjab police chief was among the government’s first decisive damage-control steps after registering an FIR against the police over the killing of two Sikh protesters in police firing at Behbal Kalan village in Faridkot district. The CM and his deputy made DGP Saini the proverbial ‘sacrificial lamb’ when the public unrest reached its zenith and the father-son duo began losing their grip over the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
Crackdown on radical outfits
On the back foot, the government finally came down hard on radical outfits in the run-up to and after the November 10 ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ in Amritsar, where the massive presence of people was testimony to the prevailing anti-government mood of the public. A section of Sikh hardliners were put behind bars and the government decided to stop succumbing to pressure tactics of hardliners, who were raising one contentious demand after another.
A distinct pattern emerges from Badal’s ‘carrot and stick’ policy. While the CM himself has been trying to placate the public by stopping just short of apologising for the mistakes his regime has committed, Sukhbir has been openly wielding the stick and repeatedly warning the trouble-makers.
Now, in a series of tough steps, the latest is Monday’s cabinet decision to amend Section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class) of the Indian Penal Code, making sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib punishable with life imprisonment. Earlier, this offence attracted three years’ imprisonment.
Another move of giving 1.13 lakh jobs in 40-odd government departments within a year — despite severe resource crunch is clearly part of Badal’s policy to ride out the storm of protests and win over the youth.
Sops for multiple vote banks
Yet another decision to sprinkle direct and indirect financial benefits in the form of doubling social security pension from Rs 250 to Rs 500 or raising the annual health insurance cover for the poor and farmers is part of a calibrated approach the Badal dispensation has put in place with an eye on multiple vote banks and to retrieve lost political ground.
According to party insiders, the CM is finding ways to recover from the series of blows received in the past nine weeks and is making attempts to pinpoint the factors that caused the unrest. The bad phase began in September with the Akal Takht – the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs — granting pardon to Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a blasphemy case dating back to 2007 (the pardon was later revoked).
Monday’s sadbhawna rally in Bathinda will be the litmus test of the ‘trust’ people have in the SAD as party leaders are pulling out all the stops to mobilise crowds to show that its mass base is still intact.
But Sukhbir, who is also the SAD president, has the complex task of rebuilding his party’s morale and its base that has eroded at the grassroots level.