Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister of Punjab, is possibly the most criticised, if not hated, man in the state today. Talk of any case of corruption or high handedness or browbeating the poor, his name is mentioned in the same breath.
It was not always like this. He started out as a member of his father Parkash Singh Badal's cabinet. It used to be rumoured that his mother, then on her deathbed, wanted her husband to name her son the chief minister, and retire. But the smart politician with an eye on the popular sentiment, did not give in to his wife's wishes. He did the next best thing. He made Sukhbir the deputy chief minister. Many senior Akalis who have trudged the difficult path in Punjab with senior Badal understandably felt disappointed and humiliated. But they knew they could do nothing.
When assembly elections were held in 2012, Sukhbir was the defacto chief minister, albeit deputy cm on the face of it. He was the acting president of the Shiromani Akali Dal. He took far reaching decisions that would change the face of the party. For the first time, Hindus got tickets, as did Dalits. This Jat-Hindu-Dalit troika was hailed as Sukhbir's social re-engineering, the need of the hour in a Punjab that was changing with the rest of India. He ditched the “Panth is in danger” cry, and spoke development, presented a manifesto that promised education and infrastructure, jobs and hospitals, among others. The age old issues of Punjab's claim to the territory of Chandigarh and the waters of the Sutlej were not raised, nor was the pain of Operation Blue Star or anti-Sikh riots recalled. The party did the unimaginable. In a state where even political parties believed that the Congress and SAD-BJP will rule turn by turn, the SAD under Sukhbir returned to office. It broke the jinx that no ruling party in Punjab gets a successive second term.
And a few months after that his slide downhill began. As jobs failed to come, people who had sold agricultural land to educate children in colleges and private universities that now dot the countryside got disillusioned. To add to that, the Badals unabashedly took the major share of every successful business—be it transport or hospitality, education or healthcare.
It is not that there has been no development. Even governance has improved. Those who are close to Sukhbir say he may actually ask for money from the biggies. His critics say that is why industrialists are not coming to Punjab. But worse now is the fact that the SAD, a regional party, stands compromised in terms on anti-centre stance that Sikhs hold dear from the dawn of their history. Remember the Akal Takhat is facing a bit away from Delhi. And somehow, people say, the party has diluted its anti-Congress stand too.
Sukhbir's campaign this time is largely against what he calls the pack of jokers—the AAP. And he announced the SAD's first ticket, the Barnala seat, to top industrialist Rajinder Gupta. Gupta tweeted that he was not contesting the election. But those watching Sukhbir's politics see this as a repeat of his Jat-Hindu-Dalit formula.
Incidentally, this could be the last time that he will get to seek votes in the name of his father, now in his 90s. Ironically, it will also be the time when people will judge Sukhbir on his own strength.