Sometimes, politics can border on the bizarre.
The preventive move to evacuate villagers along Punjab’s border with Pakistan has triggered a political skirmish between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the opposition Congress in the poll-bound state.
The evacuation exercise, which started on Thursday after the Indian Army’s surgical strikes in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is set to alter the political discourse in the run-up to the assembly elections. So far, the tussle is confined to 16 assembly segments, from Abohar in Fazilka to Bhoa in Pathankot, in the six districts along Punjab’s 553-km border with Pakistan.
The SAD and the Congress are evenly placed with seven MLAs each in the border constituencies. SAD ally BJP has two legislators in Bhoa and Fazilka.
The Congress sees a design behind the evacuation. Dera Baba Nanak Congress MLA Sukhjinder Randhawa says CM Parkash Singh Badal is creating panic and playing politics by creating a war hysteria with an eye on the elections.
“I saw the 1971 war. Artillery guns were placed in front of my house near the border. There is no army movement this time. The frontier has not been mined either. So, why are people being evacuated?” Randhawa says.
The evacuation is a double-edged weapon for the SAD-BJP government. Any political or administrative slip has the potential to give ammunition to the Congress. Neither party is taking any chances. Both are using the evacuation as a public relations exercise.
Badal, who was indisposed, lost no time in rushing to the border areas on Saturday for a three-day whirlwind visit. He despatched Akali leaders besides senior bureaucrats to the border areas to oversee the evacuation and arrangements in camps.
Not to be left behind, Capt Amarinder Singh was initially critical of the evacuation and said “Don’t try to create refugees without a war”. But now he plans to visit Amritsar on October 4 and will camp there from October 7.
The Congress has put its campaign on hold and asked leaders to stay put in their border constituencies and help residents. Amarinder’s remark that “we didn’t evacuate people up to 10 km of the border during the 1965 war” is being echoed by the Congress rank and file.
Party leaders want to know why residents of neighbouring Rajasthan’s border villagers have not been evacuated.
“Why is this evacuation happening only in Punjab?” says Abohar Congress MLA Sunil Jakhar. “Villagers are being displaced, while the army is in the barracks. People are ready for any sacrifice but they don’t want petty politics in the guise of evacuation,” Jakhar says.
Fatehgarh Churian Congress legislator Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa says: “We hope and pray there is no politics behind the evacuation. It is all quiet on the BSF and army front but people are being asked to leave their homes.”
Akali MLA from Khem Karan Virsa Singh Valtoha counters the Congress fears saying, “Preventive steps cannot be dubbed as politics.”