Chander Suta Dogra
Senior Journalist & Author
There is never a dull moment in Punjab politics. Unlike its staid neighbours Haryana and Himachal Pradesh where political activity, by and large, seems to take naps between elections, Punjab is that restless sibling always in search of an elusive salve to settle its angst. What we are seeing now is yet another bout of political turmoil in the history of this troubled state, where, for as long as anyone can remember, religion and politics have been two sides of the same coin.
On Sunday, as huge crowds preferred to ignore the shows by the ruling Congress in Lambi and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Patiala and joined, instead, a march to Bargari, the site of desecration of Sikh scriptures in 2015, there was a tremor in the political circles. The import of the upsurge, and its implications for the future of the state, has been the subject of endless speculation since. The village of Bargari, situated in the dusty outback of Faridkot district, meanwhile, has quietly taken its place as the newest landmark in the state's chequered politics.
First things first: There are similarities between the Bargari march of Sunday and the Aam Aadmi Party's political conference at Maghi Mela in Moga held in January, 2015. At that time also, people abandoned the grand podiums of the Congress and the SAD and walked over to the AAP tent to listen to Bhagwant Mann and others wearing the AAP cap. The AAP was just beginning to show Punjabis a vision of alternative politics. The turnout at the Moga conference cemented the arrival of AAP on Punjab's political scene and the spellbound crowds listening to Bhagwant Mann in the winter chill sent shivers down the spine of established political parties. Mann had just won the 2014 Lok Sabha election with a stunning margin of over two lakh votes and the party's three other MPs with him that day also had impressive victories behind them. They dangled their legs from the stage like schoolchildren and the people just loved the whiff of freshness.
In the next one year, it seemed as if Punjab's quest for a viable alternative to the stale, manipulative politics of conventional parties had ended. The kind of politics which had taken the state on the path of terrorism and separatism, the dark days that no one wanted to relive. The disenchantment of the people with conventional political parties grew more pronounced in the post-terrorism stage as the state sank into a morass of despair and its economic engines began to de-rail. The parties which formed governments post the nineties did little to address these issues. In hindsight, conventional parties need not have worried because the AAP soon surrendered to the constraints of realpolitik and became like them. The hopes of Punjabis stood crushed.
A few years earlier, it was Manpreet Badal's People's Party of Punjab which had similarly captured the imagination of the people with its message of change and opposition to the VIP culture in 2011-12. Punjabis watched with dismay as the PPP floundered and sank into political oblivion in the succeeding years. Some of its leaders went back to the Akali Dal. Manpreet briefly contemplated joining the AAP, but by then the AAP had its head in the clouds and a miffed Manpreet merged his outfit with the Congress in 2016.
Cut to August, 2018 and the release of the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report which indicted former CM Parkash Singh Badal, patriarch of the SAD, for his mismanagement of the Bargari desecration incident and the police firing in Behbal Kalan in October, 2015 which led to the death of two persons. The commission also noted that though the Punjab police had cracked the desecration case by zeroing in on the involvement of men of the Dera Sacha Sauda, it was asked not to arrest the men. These findings confirmed what everyone had for long suspected: that the dera head all along had official patronage.
The SAD-supported Akal Takht had controversially pardoned the dera head for sacrilege at that time and the resultant furore led to the pardon being withdrawn. But veteran Akalis were furious. As the commission's report became public, the SAD's religious moorings and claim of being the guardian of the Sikh Panth lay in tatters and everyone, including senior leaders of the party, began to look accusingly at Badal senior. The rumblings in the party are loud and clear, and most old Taksali leaders with roots in the Sikh constituency have either abandoned the Badals or are in the process of doing so.
The cries of thousands of people to arrest the 'enemies of the Sikh Panth' at Kotkapura and Bargari has unnerved old Akali leaders steeped in the Sikh ethos. They can sense that the masses have seen through Badal's game, and the inevitable political erosion of the base is unnerving for even his hardcore supporters.
A 100-year-old proud legacy is collapsing before our eyes and it is not a pretty sight. It is as if SAD was waiting for a trigger to unravel. The disintegration of SAD coincides with the emergence of new political formulations centred around Bargari. The site of a protest morcha in the village has become a ground for people to rally around the old war cry of alternative politics, secular politics, meaningful politics.
There is no discernible leader as of now. Dissident AAP legislator Sukhpal Singh Khaira, quick to capitalise on the anger at Bargari, led the huge march from Kotkapura on Sunday. The official AAP in Punjab is smarting at being upstaged, but can do very little, as it has lost the confidence of the ordinary Punjabi. There is a clutch of radical Sikh groupings led by religious preacher Dhyan Singh Mand and others who are drawing the crowds.
Notably, the organisers of the morcha at Bargari (who incidentally are more surprised at their success than anyone else) are careful to talk of secularism and taking people of all religions along with them. Two things to watch out for are: firstly, whether significant parts of the disintegrating Akali Dal will gravitate towards the Bargari warriors. Secondly, how quickly will the nebulous political formulation take shape and cross the first hurdle of anointing a leader. No political outfit can survive and thrive without political sagacity, a spirit of accommodation and financial heft. Previous political experiments in Punjab, like the PPP or the AAP, lacked one or the other ingredient.
Additionally, there is the overriding fear that the anger and emotions fermenting in Bargari could lead to civil unrest in the state. The organisers have given 15 days to the Amarinder Singh government to arrest the accused. It will require all the skills of the Bargari groups to keep the religious outrage within acceptable limits if the government does not act. Mass upsurges have muscle and momentum. This one, worryingly, has some hardline, radical Sikhs at its core.
Through all of this, Punjab will be keenly watching to see what shape eventually emerges and, more importantly, whether it has the wherewithal to fulfill the state's long-held dream of a viable, serious, third political alternative that can rid it of venal politics of the old order. The kind of politics which led to the desecration of holy scriptures and protection of the offenders for political reasons.