With Harmail Singh Tohra and his wife, Kuldeep Kaur Tohra, joining the Aam Aadmi Party on Tuesday, the sidelining of the Tohra family and loyalists from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) saw a significant turn.
Kuldeep is the adopted daughter of the late Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who famously fell out with chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in 1998.
At that time, Harmail was one of the five ministers who quit the Badal cabinet. But the legacy is not on the line now.
In the larger scheme of things, Harmail’s ambition appears limited to Sanour assembly constituency for now, from where his chances of getting the SAD ticket were dashed after the party high command made Harinder Pal Singh Chandumajra, son of MP Prem Singh Chandumajra (once also a Tohra loyalist) the halqa (constituency) in-charge. With barely six months to the assembly polls, deputy CM and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal recently announced that “99% of the halqa –incharges will get the SAD ticket”.
In fact, after a victory in 1997, Harmail was never successful in any poll. In 2012, his wife Kuldeep Kaur contested unsuccessfully from the Patiala-rural constituency. Akali leaders say he is not “electoral politics material”.
However, on the perception plank, it is significant that Harmail is the first known Akali leader to switch to the AAP bandwagon. For many, he is the face of the Tohra legacy, and thus his exit weakens the Panthic (religious) pitch of the Badal-led Akalis. For the same reason, it comes as a shot in the arm for the AAP, which is in the middle of a controversy after removing state unit chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur.
But some of those close to Gurcharan Tohra say Harmail may have become the owner of his property but not the legacy. “He is not the heir to Tohra saab. Going to AAP is a political decision. Tohra’s legacy will continue to be with the SAD,” said old-time Tohra confidante Manjit Singh Calcutta, who has been in political wilderness ever since he fell out with the Badal-led SAD after Tohra’s death.
Harmail’s political heft stemmed from having married Tohra’s adopted daughter Kuldeep Kaur, after which he joined the SAD in 1996, resigning from the Food Corporation of India where he was a senior assistant. He contested from Dakala in 1997 and became minister for the public works department (PWD) in Badal’s cabinet. Tohra and Badal fell apart in December 1998, during the tercentenary celebrations of Sikh panth, as Tohra demanded Badal’s resignation from the headship of the SAD.
Harmail and Calcutta were two of the five ministers in the Badal cabinet who resigned in 1998 after Tohra fell out with the CM. Others were Maheshinder Grewal, Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Kohli. In March 1999, Tohra stepped down as SGPC president.
“He (Harmail) has the right to do politics, but he has nothing to his claim except the Tohra name,” said Balkar Singh, a retired Punjabi university teacher, who was close to Tohra and is director of Gurcharan Singh Tohra Sikh Institute, Bahadurgarh, that was announced by CM Badal at Tohra’s bhog (last rites) in 2004.
Others of the five ministers who resigned in 1998 have charted different routes to their current positions. Grewal is political adviser to CM Badal, Zira is in the Congress, the Kohli family has been sidelined, while Calcutta appears irrelevant.
After the Tohra-Badal patch-up in June 2003, Tohra again became SGPC chief and remained that till his death on March 31, 2004. Since then, the Akalis have been commemorating Tohra’s death anniversary but sidelined his family.
Harmail was seeking zila parishad chairmanship for his son Harinder Pal Singh; instead, the family has ended up in another party altogether.
Note: An earlier version of this report misspelt Harmail as ‘Harmel’. The error is regretted.