Winter of discontent

Shano and her mother Siso, at a hamlet near Purkhali village, are Gaddi Lohars, nomadic ironsmiths from Ropar. They say that elections and political parties have never done anything for them.   | Photo Credit: Gurdeep Singh

Late winters are the best season to travel in Punjab. As the sun rises, the fog lifts; the fragrance of wood smoke tickles your nose while saag and makki di roti slow-cook on earthen fires. Gurdwaras, jatheras, temples, mosques, and brick-walled homes reveal themselves amidst the green wheat and yellow mustard fields. Punjab, the land of gurus and pirs, marks its winters with festive fairs and kabaddi matches. This year, demonetisation curbed the celebrations. In this winter of discontent over the two-term rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) government, no one was celebrating the big festival of democracy — the State Assembly elections. The Election Commission had been strict: there were regulations on billboards, posters, banners and flags, and paintings and slogans on private walls had been blacked out. For the most part, on-ground signs of the upcoming election were hardly visible.

Arvind Kejriwal at an election campaign in Amritsar.

Supporters of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during a road show in Amritsar.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Half a century ago, after a two-decade struggle with the Centre, the political party that seeks to represent the Sikh community — the Akalis — created a metaphorical fortress in North India. It used Punjabi, the language of the Sikhs, to define its walls. Punjab is the only region where Sikhs — a religious minority anywhere in the world — are a majority. Since its inception as a modern state, this fortress has been a site of battle between the Congress-dominated Centre and the Akali-dominated State. At stake are Punjab’s waters, its land use, its people, language and very identity. Until now, in spite of the attack on its sanctum sanctorum, the eruption of guns and the thousands dead between 1978 and 1992, the Congress and the Akalis have maintained a vice-like grip on the fortress. Today, the people of Punjab breached the walls with the elections. Punjab stood naked and exposed — without the fig leaf of ideas, ideology and religion.

“Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is gunpowder,” said volunteer Sudeep Dhariwal, in Jassi Pauwalli village near Bathinda, as I toured Punjab last month. “It can start a fire across the nation.” This found resonance in one of the hottest seats, Lambi, where AAP candidate Jarnail Singh was challenging five-time Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. Singh seemed to have captured the popular imagination until the former Congress Chief Minister, Maharaja and Captain, Amarinder Singh, also threw his turban into the ring. Standing by his fish pakoda stall, Pradeep Kumar said, “He did that to contain Congress votes.” I turned Devil’s Advocate: it would be sad to see the 90-year old Badal lose, I said. Kumar came up with a litany of complaints. I asked, “Why did you not oust him earlier? Why now?” Kumar said, “Because we had no choice then.”

Punjab Congress workers arriving in vehicles to attend a party rally in Majitha town on the outskirts of Amritsar. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Punjab Congress workers arriving in vehicles to attend a party rally in Majitha town on the outskirts of Amritsar. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar  

As I traversed Punjab, what struck me was the impassive and immense presence of camouflage-uniformed central security forces in every town and big village. When they stopped vehicles in Doaba, the drivers were polite. In Malwa, from where the Akali and Congress Chief Ministers hail, the commuters were aggressive: “We stopped; what else do you want?” In Majha, once Punjab’s power centre, drivers asked: “Did you ask us to stop?”

I couldn’t help but notice how the loud and boisterous Punjabi had suddenly become tight-lipped and secretive when it came to the elections. “Tilkan hai” — it is slippery, said Kashmira Singh, a former army sepoy near Ropar. “Teen aaye tan tilkan” (three have made it slippery). A traditional Akali voter who suddenly found himself adrift like the entire rural Sikh vote bank that has supported the party over decades in the name of religion and faith. I found no wave, just a sentiment against the Badals.

If there was a pattern in Punjab this year, it was young versus old, rural versus urban, and AAP versus Congress. At Hakam Singh’s home near Ludhiana, volunteers of all three parties had hoisted flags. When asked, he replied, “How can I say no to anyone? But whatever flags they plant, I will vote for whoever I want.” This response could be one of the secrets of the fortress called Punjab, but it might equally be true that no one really knew: people were splintered, they had either decided already or would decide just before voting, maybe with the help of money or liquor or other allurements. There was also the fear of the parcha — the police complaint — and the goondagardi of the Akalis if they scraped through again. Punjab was silent. Voting is over now, but the election is too close to call.

The voter might have found it relatively easy to say ‘no’ to the Badals but hard to repose faith in the other two parties. The Congress for its past — the matter of river waters, Operation Blue Star, years of militancy — and the AAP for being the new kid on the block, its recent past marked by multiple inner-party crises, sackings and the larger-than-life image of leader Arvind Kejriwal.

AAP tried to take the pro-people space that the Akalis occupied about a hundred years ago during their inception and the Gurdwara Reform Movement.

The deep disenchantment over the devastation of Punjab’s agrarian economy under the Akalis and the fact that the people no longer see the Akalis as the custodians of the Sikh religion drove this election. That is why ‘Save Punjab’ became the rallying point. AAP sought to save Punjab from SAD-BJP, the Congress, drugs, farmer suicides and loan defaults, and the overall penury in a State that topped human indices till a few decades ago.

AAP borrowed its agenda from the sections that have been agitating for decades now, since the after-effects of the Green Revolution came to light — farmers’ groups and labour groups, thermal employees and teachers. The Congress rode AAP’s campaign to expose the Akalis and promised stability and good governance through almost the same set of promises as AAP, but wanted to save the State from outsider AAP. SAD-BJP wanted to save Punjab from the topi-wallahs and promised more doles and subsidies along with atta-daal and free electricity units, tea, sugar, ghee, 25 lakh jobs, and one lakh acres of land abroad where Punjabis can go and settle.

The competitive promises made it seem as if the State is sitting on a gold mine but the fact is Punjab has a debt upwards of ₹2 lakh crore and has mortgaged its cremation grounds and old age homes. Over years now, the mafia, with political patronage, has plundered Punjab’s final resource — sand and gravel — devastating the environment.

It was fascinating to see how the three parties invoked the Sikh jaikara or slogan. Jo bole so nihal, Sat Sri Akal — whoever utters the following shall be fulfilled: truth is timeless. Two parties are involved in the jaikara — the person uttering the first half, and the group responding with the second. The larger the gathering, the louder is the jaikara. In these elections, the jaikara alone did not seem enough. AAP added Inquilab Zindabad; Congress added Jai Bharat and SAD-BJP added Jai Bhim. While AAP signalled its reliance on traditionally Left agendas, Congress tried to convey that it would not play to Khalistani sentiments, while SAD-BJP tried to reach out to the Dalits — at 32% the highest in the country.

The AAP speeches were cajoling. At Bhaini Sahib village, where the matriarch of Namdhari Sikhs, Mata Chand Kaur was assassinated in April last year, the AAP youth-wing president, and youngest aspirant, whose main qualification seemed to be that he is ‘closest to Kejriwal’ spoke of the colour white, its purity, how it is a colour of peace, how it can stop wars, and how the Namdharis wear white turbans. He urged his 250-strong audience to look at what the Akalis have done to the colour white — created chitta, a concocted opiate, grades lower than heroin, that slays Punjab; and the patron of the trade seems to be Punjab Minister Bikram Singh Majithia. It was an emotional pitch. The connect was instant.

The Congress used a friendly and conversational tone. Captain Amarinder Singh in his rally at Khanna addressed various issues, cracking jokes about Sukhbir Badal, the Deputy Chief Minister. “That fat one, what’s his name? (multiple prompts) Ah! yes, Sukhbir. What did I call him last time? Baloongda — kitten. But that was five years ago. Now he has become fatter. He can’t see where he walks. He does not know what he speaks.” He went on to reassure the arthiyas — commission agents. “When I say loan waiver, I mean the ₹55,000 crore farmers owe to banks. I know you have elaborate systems of loan and credits with farmers. Don’t worry, I won’t touch you.”

The Akali campaign was arrogant. Baldev Singh Khaira from Phillaur listed the doles: ‘Nanhi Chaan’ targeted at hygiene and sanitation for girls, cycle scheme, ambulances, road projects, free pilgrimages and so on. He asked for votes to continue the great work. I was struck by the irony: in 2017, the political wooing in what was once India’s most prosperous State and its food basket still revolved around roads and drains, subsidies and doles.

The reason was this: for too long the politics of the State has been in the grip of religious sentiment, and its grand patriarch, senior Badal, has failed to read it on the ground.

Three days before the elections, a bomb blast took place in Maur Mandi in Bathinda at the rally of Congress candidate Harminder Singh Jassi. Six people died. Jassi is related to Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, whose sect has a hold on the 20-odd Dalit seats in south Punjab. In October last year, at the peak of the farmers’ rail-roko over the whitefly devastation of cotton crops, incidents of sacrilege of the Sikh holy text, Guru Granth Sahib, came to light in Bargadi village and the whole State seethed in anger. The police killed two protesters. Sikh missionary leaders linked Gurmeet to the sacrilege, which had revived indignation over the government’s percieved unjust treatment of the Sikhs over the last three decades.

The Sikhs called for a Sarbat Khalsa, an indication of their displeasure with the Badal government for not probing the affront to the community. This emotion has found expression in AAP, which SAD and Congress accuse of being sympathetic to radical Sikhs and Khalistani elements. A day after the blast, Gurmeet pledged support to SAD-BJP. It revealed the absolute Akali volte-face when it comes to Sikh issues.

Even more revealing than all these parleys and manoeuvres was that the entire focus of the elections was on just one half of the society. Any woman anywhere in the State had only one thing to say: they would vote where the men asked them to vote. Little has changed in this feudal, patriarchal society: In 400 years, the Sikh religion has diluted but not demolished the hold of jatheras or ancestral worship.

To expect that AAP will open up the fortress and solve its complex problems is an overestimation. That is why the slogan that resonated most with me was the one that came from the huge gathering of small farmers and landless labourers on January 31 in Bathinda: votan wele Bapu kehnde, mudke saadi saar na lende — you plead with us for votes, later you don’t even turn to look at us.

Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:02:31 AM |

Next Story