'Non-Sikh' PM comment has Punjab politics fired up
What the Congress could not do in Punjab - making Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's credentials as the first Sikh PM an issue - the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the ruling Akali Dal have done.
Remarks by SGPC President Avtar Singh Makkar at political rallies for the Akali Dal and alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that "Manmohan Singh is not a Sikh as he has done nothing for the community" have given a new direction to politics in the run-up to the two-phase poll on May 7 and 13 for Punjab's 13 Lok Sabha seats.
It has given the Congress a stick to beat the Akalis with and has put the Akali Dal on the defensive.
Makkar, who is best known in Punjab's political and religious circles as a mouthpiece of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal-dominated Akali Dal, heads the SGPC - the mini-parliament of Sikh religious affairs that manages Sikh shrines in the state.
As Makkar's remarks turned out to be immensely controversial, the SGPC president changed his stance from "PM is not a Sikh" to "PM is not a true (or good) Sikh".
Ironically, Makkar sat next to the prime minister when Manmohan Singh visited Amritsar's 'Harmandar Sahib' (popularly known as Golden Temple), the holiest of Sikh shrines, just a month ago for a thanksgiving prayer after a successful heart surgery.
Makkar remained seated next to the same "non-Sikh" for a good 30 minutes while the prime minister, with his eyes closed, listened to hymns and prayers inside the sanctum sanctorum.
"What sewa (service) has he done for Sikhi (Sikhism)? We don't want a Sikh PM like this. The list of Manmohan Singh's failures is long. From past experience, we would not like to have any Sikh on the top post as prime minister or president. Even Giani Zail Singh (India's first Sikh president) failed when it came to Sikh issues," Makkar reportedly said.
The outburst from Makkar came during rallies where he said that the prime minister failed to fulfil any of the 20 points raised by the SGPC.
The SGPC chief's remarks against Manmohan Singh's religious beliefs have not only given the Congress a handle to beat the Akalis with but have left the Akali Dal on the defensive.
Chief Minister Badal and Akali Dal President Sukhbir Badal have refrained from supporting Makkar.
A calculated Badal senior said: "We don't want a Congress prime minister. It is a non-issue whether the PM is a Sikh or not. Our fight is political and not directed against any person. He (Manmohan Singh) is an honourable person. I have great regard for him."
Badal senior had got continuous prayers organised at the Golden Temple for the speedy recovery of the prime minister when he underwent heart surgery in New Delhi in January.
Sikh leader and SGPC member Manjit Singh Calcutta termed Makkar's remarks "politically immature".
Congress legislator Sukhpal Singh Khaira called the outburst a "smear campaign". "He (Makkar) does not have a mind of his own and blindly follows the Akalis. Manmohan Singh's leadership is internationally acclaimed, even by President Barrack Obama," former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh said.