Mr. Badal's triumph

CYNICAL MANIPULATIONS AND intrigues are by no means new either to Punjab's Akali politics, notorious for factional feuds, or elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the apex body that controls the administration of Sikh shrines in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. But what marked out the elections to the SGPC's executive this time is the new benchmark these ugly features registered in the run-up to the poll, with the Congress Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, contributing not a little to the murky development by his intrusive role, both at the political and governmental levels, his protestations notwithstanding. In the event, Mr. Amarinder Singh ended up not only getting a stiff note of warning from his party chief, Sonia Gandhi, against any attempt to overplay the Government's role but also suffering the embarrassment of seeing his bete noire and former Chief Minister, Prakash Singh Badal, reasserting his control over the SGPC. Mr. Badal's nominee and incumbent president, Kirpal Singh Badungar, got elected for another term defeating the candidate fielded by the rival Gurcharan Singh Tohra faction and by a margin that put paid to all talk of a serious erosion of his support base in the institution. To an extent, the Chief Minister's misadventure on the SGPC front, which reflected a not-so-subtle attempt to neutralise the authority of Mr. Badal by propping up the Tohra faction against him and using the levers of governmental power for that purpose, has blotted his record and may well blunt the edge of his campaign against the erstwhile Badal Government's misdeeds.

For Akali politics, the outcome is a clear testimony that Mr. Badal continues to hold the field in the SGPC without a real challenger. It was on becoming Chief Minister that through cleverly sequenced deft manoeuvres he got his own persons at vantage points in the Sikh religious structure, marginalising his arch rival, Mr. Tohra. The SGPC saw Mr. Tohra, who reigned supreme for two decades and more, being replaced by Bibi Jagir Kaur as its head and the Akal Takht too witnessed a similar change of guard. That Bibi Jagir Kaur had to step down under unedifying circumstances is a different matter. But the fact remains that, despite all the factional squabbles and allegations of violations of the Sikh religious code, it is Mr. Badal who has had a decisive say in the matter of appointments and nominations to key positions. Neither the loss of governmental power nor desertions from his party, Shiromani Akali Dal, would appear to have made any significant dent, as of now, in Mr. Badal's sway over the SGPC or other centres of religious authority.

More basically, Akali politics, which has for historical reasons an underpinning of religion, has deteriorated to a level at which the various factions have few compunctions about totally obliterating the divide between the two domains and, worse, using priestly office and edicts to serve partisan political ends. In fact, if the institutions of supreme spiritual authority such as the Akal Takht — or even the SGPC for that matter — have had their stature and sublimity diminished, it is primarily because of this cynical game the political class has been playing, with even the high priests of gurdwaras remaining divided and acting according to their factional loyalties. This came into full view more recently during the chief ministerial tenure of Mr. Badal himself and some of its fallout is still lingering. Now, in the latest SGPC poll, while it may be true that Mr. Amarinder Singh had his own axe to grind, there could be no question of the Government being restrained from discharging its constitutional duty of ensuring that the fractious fight between rival Akali factions did not lead to any breach of public peace and order, apprehensions of which arose from the sort of mobilisation the two camps had threatened to make at the poll venue in the Golden Temple complex. In fact, the Badal faction too felt it expedient to indent on the ruling coalition at the Centre to send a team of "observers". The real remedy lies in divorcing religion and politics and scrupulously respecting the divide.

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