Why Punjab's 2017 vote might be a referendum on Akali Dal

Punjab's grand, old party faces its moment of truth.

 |  4-minute read |   27-01-2017
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In the cacophony of town criers, bands of religious parades and traffic honking, Kiranjot Kaur walks quietly into her party office in Amritsar.

She's one of the key coordinators of the Akali campaign in the Sikh religious centre, home to the Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple), the holiest of the faith's spiritual shrines, and the Akal Takht, its highest temporal authority.

But Kaur's legacy matters more than her canvassing for a party candidate in the holy city.

A face of the Sikh community in international religious forums, she's a granddaughter of Master Tara Singh.

Born in 1885 near Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, Singh was jailed for civil disobedience 14 times after he joined Mahatma Gandhi's "satyagraha" movement.

He evolved as one of the towering leaders of the Sikhs and their principal political grouping, the Shiromani Akali Dal, as well as their top religious administration, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).

Singh, who died in 1967, is still remembered as a champion of Sikh political and religious rights.

His granddaughter is a born Akali.

sikh-protests_012717054938.jpg 2015 was the year when Punjab erupted into protests over recurring incidents of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib. 

But as she stood along a busy Amritsar street on a dark, cloudy winter day, her eyes looked worried.

For someone whose political and ideological proclivities are rooted in her genes, Kaur could sense the ground might have shifted beneath Punjab's grand, old party.

It appears to be a moment of truth for an organisation that guided the Akali movement of the early '20s to successfully win religious power from the British, that actively participated in India's independence movement, and whose primary objective remained promotion and protection of Sikh rights.

Drugs, accusations of widespread corruption and the stranglehold of the Badal family on the key sectors of Punjab's governance had already dented public perception about the Akalis in their second term.

But 2015 marked a turning point in the party's history. That was the year when Punjab erupted into protests over recurring incidents of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib.

In the middle of Sikh anger, the Akal Takht, whose chief head or jathedar is appointed by the Badal-controlled SGPC, suddenly pardoned Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Raheem.

The Dera leader had been accused of blasphemy for dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh in an advertisement.

Many believed the religious pardon was orchestrated by the Badals in order to win support of his massive following in Punjab.

The Akal Takht revoked its so-called remission later in the face of Sikh resistance, but the Akalis lost face in their core constituency.

Kaur, therefore, has a profound reason to be worried about the future of the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Occasional electoral losses aside, parties essentially survive on the loyalty of their committed vote-blocs.

Until now, the SAD has never been politically bankrupt even in the worst crisis, largely because of the support of devout Sikhs, who would regard it as the custodian of the Akal Takht. This time is crucial though.

"Those were hard times," said Kaur, referring to the 2015 pardon to Gurmeet Ram Raheem by the Akal Takht.

"The decision to forgive Baba Ram Raheem was taken, I was quite vocal that it was something that was not done in the correct way. The procedures that should have been followed were not followed. And there was a lot of resentment within the Sikh community," she admits.

A former first woman general secretary of the SGPC, Kaur also acknowledged her party leadership "messed up" in its handling of Sikh protests over the so-called pardon and over the repeat attacks on Guru Granth Sahib in 2015.

"...the way the whole situation was handled by the government at that point in time, everything was messed up. There was a whole chain of events that should not have happened but happened. They left ramifications that we may have to face in this election," she remarked.

Herself a campaign coordinator for her party in Punjab, she could see the writing on the wall.

But she also fears longer-term implications that the year 2015 might have on the SAD - beyond the vote of 2017.

"I met some of the Sikhs who might not have been very political, but who had this thing in their mind that they would never ever vote for a party other than the Shiromani Akali Dal. But now they are thinking whether or not they should vote for the Akali Dal. This, I think, is very damaging," she said. "The kind of core vote bank we had is somewhere offended."

She's also clear leaders can no longer be imposed. They, Kaur says, are a product of public perception. "Leadership just grows. I don't think we can impose any kind of leadership," Kaur said when asked if she foresees a change at the helm of the SAD post-elections.

"It is the people who have to decide their leader. It's for the people to decide what kind of leadership they want," she concluded.

Also read: 4 reasons SAD-BJP alliance will flop in 2017 Punjab polls

Writer

Harmeet Shah Singh Harmeet Shah Singh @harmeetss

The writer is Editor with India Today TV.

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