One of the least discussed yet most influencing factor in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Punjab is neither development nor national security or demonetization. It is
be-adbi or blasphemy. In fact, according to a study conducted by media students of a leading university in the state, be-adbi was perhaps the most searched and used word online and on social media by majority of the youth.
The word gained currency in 2017, when Gurmeet Singh alias Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of the influential Dera Sacha Sauda sect, impersonated Guru Gobind, the 10th and last Sikh guru and drew widespread condemnation from the Sikh community. However, the Sikh community felt betrayed when in September 2015, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages key Gurudwaras in the state and is dominated by leaders affiliated to the then ruling Akali Dal, granted general pardon to Gurmeet Singh.
Subsequently, torn pages of the Granth Sahib, considered a living Guru by the pre-dominant Sikh community in the state, were found littered in a Faridkot village during a farmer agitation, leading to widespread protests and police firing in which couple of people were killed. Similar incidents of sacrilege were reported from other parts of the state prompting non-Akali leaders to join hands and hold the ruling dispensation responsible for the desecration. The issue was exploited to the hilt in the subsequent state Assembly elections and the Akalis lost heavily. The Sikh angst was so much against the Akalis that they forgave the Congress party, which is often accused of backing the notorious anti-Sikh riots across the country in 1984 following the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Pathankot: Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh with Congress partys Gurdaspur candidate Sunil Jakhar during an election campaign rally for the ongoing Lok Sabha polls, in Pathankot, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (PTI Photo)(PTI5_11_2019_000074B)
Coupled with this were the issues of nepotism, massive corruption and drug abuse, with which names of top Akali leaders were linked.
Though people in Sangrur, Patiala and Barnala allege that many of the welfare schemes initiated by the Akalis have now been abandoned by Punjab chief minister Captain Amrinder Singh, people are yet to forgive and forget the ‘
While Modi is recognised by people at large as a strong leader, the shrewd Captain has played the soft nationalist agenda not only by repeatedly attacking Pakistan but also distancing himself from the controversial pro-Pakistan stance of his cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu. Moreover, in the border districts such as Amritsar and Gurdaspur, people are not keen about a conflict situation with Pakistan, though the state sends a large number of personnel to the armed forces. They seem more bothered about its impact on border trade.
Bathinda: Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra speaks with Punjab leader Navjot Singh Sidhu as party's Bathinda seat candidate Amrinder Singh Raja Warring looks on, during an election rally ahead of the last phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Bathinda, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI5_14_2019_000117B)
Unemployment and agrarian crisis too are important issues this time around and riding on the Modi image both BJP and Akalis are aggressively raking up these issues but people at large feel BJP should severe its ties with the Akalis rather than play a second fiddle if it dreams of a future in the state. While the partnership between the two parties served to cement the ties between the two communities post the Punjab terrorism phase, many feel the Akalis have become a liability for the saffron party as it has not even allowed the latter to nurture a credible Sikh leadership. In fact, even BJP workers rue that Sidhu’s exit was a big loss to the party and blame the Akalis for the same. Thanks to Akalis, the party remains on the defensive notwithstanding the Modi factor in the rest of the country.
However, they see a ray of hope in actor Sunny Deol, who is drawing huge crowds in Gurdaspur. Deol with his machismo image and nationalist appeal can make a difference to the party’s fortunes in the state if his services are utilised properly, they believe. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rallies in the state and its campaign on the surgical strikes against Pakistan post Pulwama is certain to fetch the saffron party votes but the gains remain to be seen in terms of seats.
Sangrur: Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal during an election campaign roadshow for the seventh and last phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Sangrur, Punjab, Monday, May 13, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI5_13_2019_000141B)
The Aam Admi Party, which sprang a surprise by winning many seats last time, is banking this time only on Bhagwant Mann, who continues to have an appeal among the masses.
Rebels of both AAP and Akalis are also likely to turn the tables on their erstwhile parties in constituencies such as Khadoor Sahib.
Despite the anti-incumbency, the Congress has an apparent edge, with the Captain asserting himself as a powerful regional satrap who does not need the backing of the high command and the opposition unable to put up any credible resistance. In fact, he is looking forward to a sweep of all the 13 seats at stake.
But then, it’s not going to be a walkover either with issues such as agrarian crisis, drug abuse and massive unemployment continuing to haunt the state Government. The powerful Deras too are expected to back the Akali-BJP combine.
KG Suresh is a senior journalist & former director general, Indian Institute of Mass Communication.