At stake in Bathinda’s Sadbhawna rally was prestige and leadership of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal. Also linked to the size and scale of this rally billed as “game changer” was the critical test of the SAD’s grip in its traditional citadel.
And the beleaguered party leadership, which has been battling back-to-back religio-political crises, ostensibly succeeded in achieving the twin symbolic but vital objectives by mobilising crowd in an impressive strength—whether forcibly or otherwise is debatable.
Monday’s show of strength was crucial for the party to bounce back as it was being held in the backdrop of two-month-long public unrest and anger, primarily against the ruling SAD. What was weighing heavily on the party spin masters was how to overshadow or at least match the spontaneous and massive participation of the agitated people in the November 10 ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ spearheaded by Sikh radicals and hardliners and held in Amritsar that had set the alarm bells ringing in the rank and file of the SAD.
The outcome of the Bathinda show is likely to give the much-needed breather to the SAD leadership and restore the morale of the party cadre. The first phase of the rally will be wrapped up on December 20 in Amritsar—coinciding with the foundation day of the Akali Dal.
More than anything else, the party was anxious to send a political message across of its “mass base”, especially in the rural pockets—its core constituency. In this backdrop, the deputy chief minister dared former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh to hold a rally at the same venue and test the Congress’ popularity. “No one can finish Akali Dal. The battle for the 2017 assembly elections has begun from this rally,” he thundered, even as the crowd response was not electric. “There is no current in the Congress,” he said.
The party took a clear line against Khalistan, while linking the Congress with the moves to revive the secessionist movement.
Both Sukhbir and party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal repeatedly underlined their pet catch phrase “aman aur shanti” and pointedly lambasted the Congress, reminding the gathering that the opposition Congress was responsible for sowing seeds of terrorism. Conscious of the fact that the youth was getting swayed by the radical fringe, the father-son duo also repeatedly reminded the youth about the dark decades of terrorism when people were scared of stepping out of their houses after twilight.
While Sukhbir was ballistic and direct while attacking the Congress, the senior Badal took indirect hits at the Congress. “The Gandhi family nurses enmity with Punjab and people of the state,” Sukhbir told the crowd, cautioning the crowd of “Congress designs” to disrupt peace again.
Operation Bluestar and anti-Sikh riots were used to the hilt to attack the Congress. “Capt Amarinder wants to head the party that attacked the Akal Takht. He had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi that Partap Singh Bajwa had links with terrorists. Now again to weaken the Akali Dal, Congress is playing politics Giani Zail Singh had played in the 80s because of which terrorism took roots here,” Sukhbir said.
“I appeal to Amarinder and Bajwa…stop playing with peace and tranquillity of Punjab… peace-vitiating forces are uniting again,” Badal said, while referring to the gathering as “the biggest ever in my 70-year political career” mobilised for “love and peace in Punjab”.