The Shiromani Akali Dal is caught in an anti-incumbency wave, thanks to the corruption allegations against the Badals.
Sukhbir Singh Badal alleged that the AAP had promised to support Sikh radicals in the SGPC polls.
The AAP has initiated ‘Bolda Punjab’, a series of dialogue with different social groups, to understand the depth of the drug problem.
Everything has become frightfully expensive in the past five years, laments Bant Singh of Burj Jhabbar village in Punjab’s Mansa district. A dalit singer and activist, Singh became famous in 2000, when he dared to file a case against the upper-caste men who had raped his daughter, a class 9 student. In 2004, three of the culprits were sentenced to life. Two years later, he lost both his arms and a leg in a retaliatory attack.
Today, Singh supports a family of eight, including his chronically ill wife. They work on daily wages, but often are not able to find work. “Punjab was the granary of the country. Now, ordinary Punjabis, including farmers and dalits, are struggling to have two square meals,” he says. “Everything is expensive, and the government has totally neglected health care facilities and medicines for the poor. So many promises were made, but not even 1 per cent fulfilled. Politicians always mislead people, so that they can plunder the rich and exploit the poor. They are not to be trusted.”
The sorrow and exploitation of ordinary people form the theme of his ballads, which clearly strike a chord with the masses. “You will have to vote for someone, even though NOTA [none of the above] is an option,” he says. In April, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi offered him a cash prize of Rs 1,00,000 on B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, but he declined it. The reason: He does not trust politicians.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, which has ruled Punjab for the past 10 years, is caught in an anti-incumbency wave, thanks to the corruption allegations against the Badals and their relatives—Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, Power Minister Bikram Singh Majithia and Food and Civil Supplies Minister Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon. Many people believe they have “got greedy”. “Chief ministers in Punjab had always wanted 20 per cent share of all wealth created in the state. But, from the second tenure of the SAD-BJP government, Sukhbir wants 80 per cent. That is the problem,” says a college teacher, who does not wish to be identified.
A colleague of his shared a story that could not be verified: the ruling clan wanted a share of “25 paise per rupee” in a big tractor-making unit in the state. The company okayed it and asked them to put the money on the table, only to learn that they did not expect to pay for the share. “The owner sent word that he would move his entire plant out of Punjab in a month, and that he would take care of employees. The intermediary did not come back,” says the colleague.
Kitty Mann of Patiala recites the name of a few big companies in Punjab that were forced to raise prices of their products so that they could pay the Badals. She alleges that the ruling family “looted the state, and captured every trade”. “They eye every successful business, and want a share,” she says. “That is why there is no incentive to set up a good enterprise in Punjab.”
Reta bajri (sand and gravel) are words one hears all over the state. It is the mining of these two, without any adherence to either the location or the limit specified in a licence, that has given birth to the “Badal mining mafia”. People say the ruling family demands a piece of the pie in all businesses—from bread-making units to dhabas, from land and liquor vends to transport and hospitality—and gets it, too. “It is all about converting black [money] into white,” says a former SAD member.
Mohali is built as a continuation of the Union territory of Chandigarh. But it is only about 40km away, in Ropar, that the first political poster is visible. “Join CYSS,” says a poster showing Arvind Kejriwal, inviting volunteers to join the AAP’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti. The odd SAD poster showing Parkash Singh Badal, 88, can also be seen on the highway to Jalandhar.
“Why are we fed up with the SAD government? The style of governance, the high-handedness,” explains Chander Suta Dogra, AAP spokesperson and member of the party’s manifesto committee. “They have become extremely arrogant, insensitive even to the day-to-day problems of people. There is rampant corruption and, to top it all, the drug menace.”
The AAP has initiated ‘Bolda Punjab’, a series of dialogue with different social groups, to draw ideas and suggestions for its manifesto and to understand the depth of the drug problem in the state. One such session was recently held at a private de-addiction centre run by a doctor couple at Raikot near Ludhiana. “Very few of the 50 to 60 people present spoke openly,” says Dogra. “Yet, four or five families claimed that children were murdered if they came out of the rehab cleaned up and wanted to reveal the modus operandi of the supplier. The drug mafia eliminates anyone who wants to expose them. They catch them, give them an overdose, and call it a drug-related death. They say they are purana amli [old addicts]. The doctor couple lost their 21-year-old to drugs.”
According to Dogra, the AAP manifesto will have a full section on how the party will deal with the drug menace and finish off the supply chain. The party plans to guarantee education to rehabilitated victims, and work towards a law that gives life imprisonment or death to drug dealers.
The drug problem notwithstanding, a large section of the youth in rural areas seem to be obsessed with bodybuilding. Vanit Kumar, 24, has just finished a workout at a fitness centre near Jalandhar. A physiotherapist by training, he wants to migrate to Canada. “The biggest issue here is corruption. You cannot do anything without paying someone. That applies to getting documents to go abroad and getting government jobs,” he says. Kumar and his friends believe every word of the stories of corruption by the Badal family.
Dhabas abound with such stories. The owner of a big dhaba near Jalandhar says the Badals have taken over two very successful private transport companies. “It hardly matters whether they have retained the names or changed it to theirs or some other benami company is running them. But every child in Punjab knows that they have taken over,” he says. “These stories come out when people who have been pressured into parting with their means of livelihood talk. Otherwise, why will they single out the Badals? We want anyone but the SAD.”
Dharamvira Gandhi, MP and AAP rebel, says the Badals have undermined the interests of the state. “The SAD had espoused regional interests. But, after the 1990s, it squandered the interests of Punjab and aligned with crony capitalists and the power centre at Delhi. A regional party should be like the two Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu or the BJD [Biju Janata Dal] in Odisha, which have never let a national party into their states,” he says.
Gandhi has an interesting view of his party’s chances in the Punjab polls. He recently went to Canada and interacted with the Punjabi diaspora in a dozen places. “All of them said one thing: ‘If the elections were to be held today, the AAP stands a good chance of forming the government. But the polls are about eight months away, and we fear the AAP will spoil its own chances’,” he says.
Last month, the AAP removed Sucha Singh Chhotepur as convener of its state unit after a sting operation showed him allegedly selling party tickets. Chhotepur said he often received donations from volunteers, and that the money was used to run the party. Hours before he was stripped of the post, he said Kejriwal had wanted him to take responsibility for showing a broom, the AAP’s poll symbol, along with the Golden Temple on the cover of the party’s youth manifesto—something that had outraged devout Sikhs and gave credence to the view that the AAP did not know Punjab or its ethos. Chhotepur said he told Kejriwal that he would not do so, because he could be excommunicated. “So what?” Kejriwal apparently asked him.
Sukhbir Singh Badal alleged that the AAP had promised to support Sikh radicals in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee polls due in November, in return for pushing the party to victory in the assembly polls. He asked Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to probe the source of the funds the AAP had been receiving from abroad.
The AAP’s entry into Punjab has ended the state’s traditional bipolar politics—with the Congress on one side and the SAD-BJP alliance on the other. While the AAP tries to make corruption a major poll issue, state Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh is focusing on “people’s issues” such as employment, education and health care.
The 74-year-old has the advantage of being perceived as a man of action. He quit the Congress in 1984 to protest Operation Blue Star. In 2004, when he was chief minister, he passed a law abrogating all water-sharing agreements that were seen as detrimental to the interest of farmers in the state. He is also accessible: he skypes with college students and visits constituencies every day. He recently told a gathering of farmers that he would pass a law to save the auctioning of their land and property to reclaim unpaid loans.
It remains to be seen which party will benefit from the anti-incumbency wave—the AAP or the Congress. “The AAP has no historical baggage, so they have no historical advantage,” says Pramod Kumar of the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh. “Punjab has history, while Delhi has footloose population.”