Punjab elections 2017: Of deras, dynasties, and drugs

Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh has announced that his government’s first priority would be to deal with the problem of drug abuse. The Punjab CM and Congress leader Asha Kumari in Chandigarh.   | Photo Credit: Akhilesh Kumar

During the campaign period, the 2017 Assembly election in Punjab was hailed as a harbinger of change. However, the March 11 verdict signals nothing more than an usual electoral turnover. Issues that have dominated politics in the State in the last few decades such as electoral influence of deras, the stranglehold of political dynasties, and the problem of drug trafficking will continue to shape political dynamics in future too.

Why will Punjab politics continue with its heady cocktail of deras, dynasties, and drug cartels? The short answer is that these three elements are politically and economically interlinked. It is unlikely that any party would want to commit electoral harakiri by disturbing this apple cart.

Electoral significance of deras

Deras are religious organisations centred on a spiritual leader or a guru who provides guidance to the followers. Most followers of deras come from marginalised sections of society. A study conducted by the Punjabi newspaper, Desh Sewak, in 2007 estimated that there were more than 9,000 deras in the State, though only a few such as Dera Radha Soami, Dera Sacha Sauda, Dera Nurmahal, Dera Nirankari, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and Dera Namdhari have a large following.

While some deras maintain partisan preferences and commit their allegiance to a party, none of them do so explicitly. Support is usually communicated indirectly a few days before polling through religious sermons. In a pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), close to one-fourth of the respondents (23%) said that they were followers of a specific dera. This perhaps explains why leaders from across the political spectrum approach deras for support before every election in Punjab. As the data show, among those who regularly visit a dera, 13% said that they would vote in accordance with instructions given by their deras, and 12% said that they may do so. In a close triangular contest, this alignment of dera followers with one party or the other could have a decisive impact on election outcomes.

Punjab elections 2017: Of deras, dynasties, and drugs

For example, Dera Sachkhand Ballan, with a huge following among the Ravidassia community, supported the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2012 Assembly election, which benefited the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine by cutting into the traditional Congress vote. This was the first dera visited by Arvind Kejriwal when he started campaigning in the State. Radha Soami Satsang, popularly known as Dera Beas, has its followers spread all over the Doaba and Majha regions. Like other deras, it has never openly supported any particular party though it did show a tilt towards the Congress. In the 2012 election, however, the dera shifted its allegiance to the SAD. This was largely attributed to the marriage of Bikram Singh Majithia, a Cabinet Minister and brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, to the daughter of the former chief of the dera.

Intricate network of dynasties

This sort of intricate network of relationship between deras and politicians has sustained the rule of a few families in Punjab politics. According to some estimates, Punjab has one of the highest proportions of MLAs with dynastic links. Six families — the Badals of Muktsar, the Patiala royal family, the Majithias of Amritsar, the Kairons of Tarn Taran, the Brars of Sarai Naga, and the Manns of Sangrur — have dominated the State political landscape for more than three decades. These families are linked to each other through marriage. Captain Amarinder Singh and Simranjit Singh Mann are married to sisters Preneet Kaur and Geetinder Kaur, H.S. Brar with Pratap Singh Kairon’s niece, while Kairon’s grandson Adesh Pratap is married to Parkash Singh Badal’s daughter. Harsimrat Kaur, daughter of Satyajit Singh Majithia, who was the deputy Defence Minister during Jawaharlal Nehru’s regime, is married to Sukhbir Badal.


There are new political families rising on the political scene whose members have been elected from various parties. For example, the Ludhiana-based Bain brothers, who had aligned with the Aam Aadmi Party this time, won their respective seats second time in a row by a significant margin.

Financing elections

Why do we see many political families in Punjab? Many social activists have said that the practice of widespread abuse of drugs in the State has been controlled and nurtured by the drug cartels which have close ties with some of these political dynasties. The election campaigns of many politicians have been financed by these cartels. There are also allegations that this network has close ties with certain deras and this facilitates smooth operation of this business across the State.

The data suggest that the drug abuse problem in Punjab is highest in India. Voters also view this as a serious problem. In an open-ended question on what is the most important issue that would affect their voting decision, approximately one in every six voters mentioned problems related to abuse of drugs. Data suggests that a large proportion of respondents have held the Badals and their government responsible for this menace, while close to one-third held others — smugglers, Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the youth, and politicians in general — as responsible.

Despite a sustained campaign by the AAP on this issue, the party could not reap the benefits. More voters in Punjab thought the AAP would be a mere spoiler (47%) rather than a serious contender for the ruling party in the State (32%). It remains to be seen how effective an opposition the AAP emerges in Punjab.

While the Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, has announced that the first priority of his government would be to deal with the problem of drug abuse, we are not holding our breath. Punjab politics is likely to continue with its usual mix of deras, dynasties, and drugs. Politicians may continue to make the right noises to be in the news cycle, but there was nothing in the campaigns of the SAD-BJP combine, or of the Congress, or of the AAP that promised radical change or an arrival of a new dawn.

Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta are associated with Lokniti-CSDS, New Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 2:38:58 PM |

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