The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) can claim high moral ground on the issue of drugs by dropping two leaders in Doaba — former minister Sarwan Singh Phillaur and former chief parliamentary secretary Avinash Chander — as candidates in the list of 69 announced on Wednesday. But a revolt by both has raised some uncomfortable questions for SAD president and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Following claims by “druglord” Jagdish Bhola in 2014, four Akali leaders had come under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate for money-laundering related to the illicit drug trade — Sukhbir’s brother-in-law and revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, Ajnala MLA Amarpal Singh Bonny, Phillaur and Chander, owing to their alleged links with Goraya-based businessman Chunni Lal Gaba.
Bhola had named Majithia before the media, and later his name figured in a “confessional” statement by Amritsar-based pharma company owner Jagjit Singh Chahal that was attached by the ED in its March 2015 chargesheet. Bonny’s name had also appeared in a “confessional” statement by Chahal, as “a player in the sand mining business of Majithia”. While Majithia was summoned by the ED once, in January 2015, Bonny has not been summoned so far. Name of none of the four figures as accused in challans filed by the ED in the Bhola case so far.
But Sukhbir has retained Majithia and also Bonny, son of former Rajya Sabha MP Rattan Singh Ajnala, who was earlier denied the ticket from Khadoor Sahib in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Phillaur termed this as discrimination against Dalits, an argument that the Congress would be happy to latch on to, as it tries to woo Dalits for the polls due early next year. At 32%, Punjab has the country’s highest proportion of Dalits in terms of population, and 34 of its 117 seats are reserved.
“Majithia was named by other accused in the drug case; I was not. Then, why have I been denied the ticket? The SAD is digressing from its basic principles, including Dalit protection. It is now Sukhbir’s and Majithia’s Akali Dal, with no place for the old guard or Dalits like me,” Phillaur said after joining the Congress. “Majithia was not happy with the rise of a Dalit in the party. They want Dalit leaders to beg and bow before them,” he added.
Sarwan Singh said he had earlier been shifted from his stronghold Phillaur to Kartarpur, yet he was able to breach the Congress bastion. “Nobody had won on Akali ticket in Phillaur. Even though I was winning it, I was shifted to Kartarpur, which too I won. But I am not a landlord’s son. I am weak and a Dalit. I was made a scapegoat when the drug case exploded on Majithia,” he said.
But, while upsetting some leaders, Sukhbir has taken extra care on the Dalit front as such. He has fielded a Scheduled Caste (SC) candidate, Paramjit Singh Pamma, from the unreserved seat of Kapurthala. Pamma is a brother-in-law of Sufi singer and SAD-turned-Congress leader Hans Raj Hans. He has also roped in close associates of Jalandhar-based Dera Sachkhand Ballan, which has sway over the Ravidassia sect.
Of the six MLAs replaced as candidates by the SAD this time, four are Dalits. Besides Chander and Phillaur, Gurtej Singh Ghuriana has been replaced from Balluana and Rajwinder Kaur Bhagike from Nihalsinghwala. Bhagike has threatened to contest “at all costs”.
Spokespersons from the Akali Dal were not available for comment.