Under shadow of sacrilege row, Punjab rural polls today
The first round of rural polls in Punjab will be held on Wednesday amid competitive religious populism between the traditional rivals in state politics — the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
The main opposition — Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — is contesting nearly a third of the seats in 22 zila parishads and 150 panchayat samitis in the state as it battles rebellion by a faction led by Bholath MLA Sukhpal Khaira after he was removed from the post of leader of opposition. The gram panchayat polls are likely to be held in October or November.
As the ruling party, the Congress has its advantages. But it has pulled out all stops and cornered the Akalis on their own panthic turf. The Justice Ranjit Singh (retd) commission report on sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib and police firing on Sikh protesters in 2015, which was tabled and debated in the Punjab assembly a day before the polls were announced, has indicted the previous Parkash Singh Badal government for securing Akal Takht pardon for Sirsa dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim and ordering police firing at Kotkapura. The panthic sentiment resonates across rural Punjab dominated by Jat Sikhs.
Akalis cry foul over, Congress ‘muscle power’
With change of political fortunes, it is the Akalis who are now crying foul over the Congress allegedly using muscle power as 33 of its candidates have been elected unopposed in zila parishads and 369 in panchayat samitis. A third of the candidates have won without a contest in the Majha belt, where the party leaders are spearheading a campaign against former CM Badal and his son and SAD president Sukhbir Badal on the sacrilege issue.
With parties whipping up religion into frenzy, the polls have been marred by clashes between Congress and Akalis and Akalis and radicals. A sit-in protest by Sikh hardliners since June 1 this year at Bargari had brought the sacrilege row back into the spotlight.
Badal brought out from hibernation
After Sukhbir came under fire from senior leaders of his own party over boycotting the debate on the panel’s report in the assembly, the Akali Dal has tried to regain lost ground by bringing its patron Parkash Singh Badal back from political hibernation to take on chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh while Sukhbir responded to state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar’s open dares. SAD says it has been able to change the poll narrative by exposing the Congress’ modus operandi.
“The polls were announced a day after the House session ended. People know the Congress is trying to take political mileage from the report as there is a deep resentment against the government for its failure to keep its pre-poll promises. It is due to this fear that nominations of our candidates were rejected and many were not allowed to file their papers,” SAD spokesman Daljeet Cheema said. Nominations of 38% candidates were rejected or withdrawn for both zila parishad and panchayat samiti polls.
Leader of opposition Harpal Cheema too accused the Congress of using “drugs and muscle power to hijack the polls” and said their appeal for deploying paramilitary forces was not accepted by the state election commission. The counting will be held on September 22.