Religion again to the fore before polls in Punjab
By Jaideep Sarin, Chandigarh, Sep 13 : Religion holds centre-stage in Punjab's murky politics, especially in the run-up to important elections, be it assembly or parliamentary polls.
In 2015, less than 18 months before assembly polls in the state, the sacrilege cases mysteriously increased. The incidents led to protests and the government of the day -- of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance, which had been in power since 2007 -- reacted to these. The result was violence and police action which left two persons dead and many others injured.
The opposition Congress took full advantage of the simmering situation to nail the Akali Dal. Sikh religious organisations, except for the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and some other bodies which derive patronage from the SAD, too, were upset with the handling of the situation by the government led by Akali Dal stalwart and five-time Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
The Congress romped home in the assembly polls with 77 seats in the 117-member assembly (the Congress strength now is 78 seats after winning another by-election). Of course, the party also used issues like rampant drug abuse and corruption to nail the SAD-BJP government.
With the general elections just months away, the present Congress government in the state led by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has timed the inquiry commission reports on the sacrilege cases and the police firing related to it in a way that has forced the SAD to go on the defensive.
The Akali Dal, which has always depended heavily on its "Panthic" (Sikh religious) agenda over the past few decades, has been defending itself following accusations that its government did little to stop the sacrilege of the Sikh holy book and the violent incidents in the aftermath of all this.
Badal, who is over 90 years old, has been forced to defend the action (or inaction) of his then government in the sacrilege incidents.
It is not for the first time that religious matters are dictating electoral politics in the state.
The Akalis are themselves master players in this as their control of Sikh organisations, particularly the cash-rich SGPC, that have control over Sikh religious affairs.
The SAD, in the past, has never lost an opportunity to highlight the "Panth nu khatraa" (threat to the Sikh religion) from the Congress party and others. The SAD has also used the 1984 Operation Bluestar attack of the Army on the Golden Temple complex and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots against the Congress party to serve its political interests.
The Congress has tried several times in the past to break the stranglehold of the Akalis on the SGPC and other organisations but has largely remained unsuccessful.
Even now, the Congress has been accused of covertly playing games against the SAD and SGPC through Sikh religious preachers, who have their own limited following in the state.
With the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is now the main opposition in the Punjab assembly (relegating the SAD to the third slot), also being in the fray in Punjab's electoral politics, things have changed a lot for the traditional Congress and SAD opponents.
The AAP too has tried its hand at mixing religion with politics in Punjab by aligning itself before the February 2017 assembly polls with radical elements. Of course, the move backfired and the AAP, which at one stage was expecting to win the assembly elections and form the government, had to contend with being in the opposition.
The numerous "deras" (sects) and preachers who have cropped up in Punjab in the last two or three decades have given a new dimension to the mix of religion and politics in the state.
Amidst all this politics of religion, the real issues of lack of development, drug abuse, industry running away, no fresh investments, unemployment and agriculture taking a hit in the agrarian state have been relegated to the background.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at [email protected])