State has nearly 300 religious sects which command a large following

As Punjab prepares for the January 30 elections for the 117 seats in the State legislature, the role of religious sects or ‘deras' assume importance for the candidates who seek the support of religious leaders to bolster their electoral fortunes.

Punjab has nearly 300 major deras across the State, as well as in neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan. Political observers say that most of the deras command a substantial following and any political party or candidate who manages to get the support of a dera stands an excellent chance of securing a good number of votes. Some deras are open about their political leanings, while others prefer not to come out directly in support of any particular party or candidate. The deras of Dalit communities also have a large following in Punjab.

The controversial Dera Sacha Sauda, which is headquartered in Sirsa (Haryana), enjoys a large following in the Malwa region of Punjab and parts of Haryana. The region lies between the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers. The Malwa area makes up a majority of Punjab, consisting of 11 districts. Cities like Ludhiana, Patiala, Bhatinda and Mohali are all located in the Malwa region.

During the Assembly elections in 2007, the dera factor played a crucial role in the Congress winning a good number of seats in the Malwa region. However, this time around, going by the recent utterances of the deras' political wing members, they are still to make up their mind to support just one political party.

Indications are that Dera Sacha Sauda may opt for a please-all formula by giving its ‘blessings' to more than one political party in the coming elections. Though the Maharaj (dera head, Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh) is a close relative of Bathinda MLA Harminder Singh Jassi of the Congress, the political wing of the dera has sought the opinion of its members in all districts and blocks across the State to take a decision over the issue of lending support to one or more political parties.

According to Ram Singh, a member of the dera's political affairs wing, the decision would be taken unanimously after getting their opinion.

The Dera Sacha Sauda has a seven-member political wing which goes through the opinion of its members and takes a decision which is conveyed to the followers of the dera.

Political observers say that Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh and People's Party of Punjab (PPP) chief Manpreet Singh Badal, who broke away from the Badal clan, have already met the Dera Sacha Sauda chief.

In the recent past, the dera has found itself involved in unsavoury controversies. Punjab had also witnessed communal violence between the dera followers and Sikhs.