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Silent vote that may tilt Punjab

Dera Sacha Sauda may be caught in the eye of a storm and its popularity may be on the wane, but its chief can still influence poll outcome in Punjab. Manish Tiwari reports.
By Manish Tiwari | Hindustan Times, Bathinda
UPDATED ON APR 28, 2009 12:20 AM IST

Dera Sacha Sauda extended its support to the Congress in the 2007 Assembly election. The Congress’ showing improved and it won 18 seats with the Dera’s help. The group has again come to haunt the ruling Akali Dal.

True that the Dera has run into trouble since that time. The Dera chief, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is caught in a controversy and is facing a CBI probe. But, still it still remains a major factor that could influence the poll outcome in the state.

The Dera, a centre for spiritual learning based in Sirsa, has a strong following among the farmers and dalits in the Malwa region of Punjab and parts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttaranchal.

In 2007, the Akalis lost a majority of seats in the Malwa region, considered as its traditional stronghold. The shocker was due to Dera followers voting en-masse for the Congress. The Akalis haven’t forgotten or forgiven the Dera even as the region prepares for the May 7 ballot.

The Akalis are also a worried lot. Even SAD president and Punjab’s deputy CM Sukhbir Badal (47), who was perceived to be spearheading a campaign against the Dera, likes to avoid questions on the issue. “Please don’t ask me this question…it’s between the Dera and SGPC,” he says.

Akali's worries spring from their running animosity with the Dera, which has been at the receiving end of Sikh bodies after the sect chief allegedly imitated Guru Gobind Singh two years ago. After the controversy, the Dera followers — mostly dalits — were frequently attacked by Sikh groups, and subjected to humiliation and police action.

In Punjab, the followers have been keeping a grudge against the SAD-BJP government, especially Sukhbir Badal who is seen as spearheading a campaign against them.

But the “enraged” followers are unlikely to vote for the ruling party unless the Dera chief himself asks them to do so.

Politicians who are aware of the Dera influence have already started making a beeline at the Dera headquarters in Sirsa. Among those who recently paid a visit to the Dera included former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Haryana minister Randeep Surjewala and CM Om Prakash Chautala’s son Abhay Chautala, besides some Lok Sabha candidates such as Congress nominee for Bathinda Raninder Singh, Sangrur Congress pick Vijay Inder Singla.

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