In memoriam: Parkash Singh Badal
Former Punjab CM's long reign was founded on the common touch, his understanding that politics was more soccer than tennis and treating his post as a sarpanch's fiefdom
Parkash Singh Badal, the former chief minister of Punjab, passed away on April 25, 2023, at the age of 95, leaving behind a legacy that is both admired and criticised. Badal was a titan who dominated Punjab politics for more than half a century, starting his political career as a sarpanch and becoming a five-time CM of the state.
Parkash Singh Badal hailed from the semi-feudal, arid south-west Mukatsar belt of Punjab. Son of a wealthy landowner, Badal—a graduate from Lahore—was mentored by his uncle Teja Singh and ushered into politics with the help of close relative Baldev Singh (a former defence minister of India) and Giani Kartar Singh. Making his debut in the Punjab Assembly in 1957, Badal became CM in 1970 for the first time and a union minister in 1977.
After a long period of oblivion in the 1980s and early 1990s, he stormed back in the late 90s and enjoyed a further 15 years at the top.
Badal slugged, survived, prospered and eventually triumphed in the fierce and competitive world of Sikh and Punjab politics due to his flexible, moderate and pragmatic style of operation. A lifelong member of the Akali Dal, Badal knew how to swim with the tide and times.
He began as a loyal 'Panthic' Akali volunteer in the 1950s and '60s, became a crusader for farmers and state rights in the 1970s, a 'Sikh nationalist' in the '80s, a champion of Hindu–Sikh unity in the '90s and a "bijli free, atta dal" (free electricity, flour, legumes) populist in the 21st century. It was this flexibility and many avatars which allowed him to take centrestage and shift left or right according to the situation—or to even take a backseat like he did in the 1980s, when prudence demanded that he pose as the most reasonable choice for the Akali leadership.
Lacking a firm set of core convictions or a rigid ideology, the readiness to compromise and political flexibility remained Badal's signal traits. This, allied with his soft-spoken nature, made him the classic centrist and moderate politician. In turn, this helped Badal to present himself as a reasonable voice, acceptable to allies like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in an Akali world dominated by more Panthic voices like 'Master' Tara Singh, Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Jagdev Singh Talwandi.
Other traits of Badal's that were admired by both friends and foes included hard work, humility and accessibility to all. Badal was undoubtedly the greatest 'mass politician' of the Punjab. In the age of politics predating social media and television, and especially among regional parties such as the Akali Dal, personal interactions and staying accessible to supporters were of paramount importance. No one could beat Parkash Singh Badal at this game.
Badal kept a punishing schedule. He rose early, was disciplined in his diet and exercise regimen and worked non-stop till late into the night. Wherever he was—at his residence in Chandigarh or in the secretariat or on tour—every day there would be hundreds of petitioners lined up, seeking favours such as transfers, jobs, pensions and more. The astute Akali obliged each by telephoning the relevant authorities or writing recommendations. It was very rare for a petitioner who came to Badal to leave disappointed or unheard.
He also pioneered the concept of Sangat Darshan, which saw him visiting different parts of the state with administration in tow, directly listening to people’s grievances and disbursing grants. This practice—lambasted by detractors as sheer wastage, arbitrary and feudal—was something Badal used to strengthen bonds with his core support base. At the same time, such direct interaction enabled Badal to have his ears very close to the ground.
When out of power in an official capacity, Badal still made it a point to attend a number of events daily—including marriages, funerals, bhogs (religious feasts), jagratas (overnight prayer meetings), etc. Badal was considered one of the pioneers of the 'MBA' (marriage-bhog-ardas) study in politics. By attending numerous such events in different parts of the state, Badal ensured the consolidation of his support base through interaction with and empowerment of his adherents.
These personal visits and Sangat Darshans also enabled Badal to develop a personal relationship with other members of the party, to listen to their grievances, soothe ruffled feathers, conciliate divergent interests and win over detractors and opponents.
He was courteous to both friends and foes and had the rare ability to make everyone who met him feel special. It was widely said that rare was the man who would defy Badal once he had visited them personally.
Long before Arvind Kejriwal's slippers, oversized shirts and colloquial Hindi arrived, Parkash Singh Badal’s crumpled kurta-pyjama, ruffled peasant turban and common touch made him the original 'Aam Aadmi' of Punjab politics. All the way to 1997, Badal’s image was that of a common, accessible and honest mass politician, which further helped to burnish his legend.
Besides that common touch, one of the greatest reasons for Badal's success was that he was a team player who had the wisdom to share power with his supporters and cadres.
His ascent to power was facilitated by the likes of Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, Balwinder Singh Bhunder, Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and Captain Kanwaljit Singh, who helped Badal to edge out rivals like Tohra and Surjit Singh Barnala. His citadel in Lambi village was protected by the ruthless Dyal Singh Kolianwali, while Harcharan Bains and Daljit Singh Cheema were the erudite and reasonable faces of his regime.
It was this understanding of Badal's, that politics is more soccer than tennis, that ensured his long reign. Failure to understand this difference has hurt many Punjab politicians, such as Bir Devinder Singh, Jagmeet Singh Brar and Sukhpal Singh Khaira.
Badal was also one of the first politicians to realise the importance of money power and resources for durability in politics, considering that fighting elections, procuring tickets, winning allies, holding rallies and silencing detractors all involve crores these days. Badal's family is thought to be one of the richest in the Punjab region, having accumulated large tracts of agricultural and urban property in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Rajasthan. Their Orbit Aviation and Dabwali transport companies have the largest bus fleet in the state. Until recently, their PTC network monopolised the news network in Punjab. They also own luxury hotels in Gurgaon and Chandigarh. Apart from these, the Badal family were strongly suspected to have stakes in cable, liquor and sand mining during their stint in power.
Among Badal's substantial legacies are his roles in championing Hindu–Sikh unity and his alliance with the BJP, which helped to defuse communal tensions in the post-militancy phase and brought the Akali Dal back to power in 1997. The transformation of the Akali Dal from a Panthic to a 'Punjabi' party after the Moga Declaration of 1996 helped the party to broaden its base among the masses. Later, through the Atta Dal scheme and samaraks, Badal tried to appeal to Dalit voters. These tactics helped the Akali Dal to 15 years of power between 1997 and 2017.
During his various regimes, his achievements included rural development (roads and focal points), infrastructure development (highways, electricity surplus), the Bathinda refiner, social welfare (including the Atta Dal and Shagun schemes) and heritage sites (Virasat-e-Khalsa, Chappar Chiri).
Parkash Singh Badal's political life can be seen as a two-act play. The first act spans from the 1950s to 1994, and the second from 1994 to
2017. In the first act, Parkash Singh Badal is a mass leader, struggling and suffering for the people, spending time in jail as a champion of farmers, Sikhs and Punjab. In this phase, he has to wage a titanic battle against fellow Satraps and survive the radical onslaught. This phase sees him ascending to power briefly, and then being relegated to the wilderness for a while. He is largely untainted during this phase.
The second act sees him rise to dizzying height. He is finally able to defeat and decimate all his opponents—moderate and radical—and enjoy a long 15 years in power, enshrining his extended family as well. All his political capital carefully earned in the first act is now traded in during this second phase, as he becomes a prisoner to power, family and politics. Punjab descends from its glorious heights to become one of the begging bowls of India. The Akali Dal is reduced to a mafia organisation and the Badal family becomes an epitome of corruption, nepotism and arrogance.
Whence the fall from hubris, in this tragedy? Despite his long spell in power, Badal's greatest failing was that he lacked a broad vision for the state. His politics remained largely self-centred, narrow and parochial.
Badal had made his political debut as the village sarpanch and despite five stints as the state’s chief minister, his essential style remained that of a sarpanch.
The village headman in rural Punjab typically presides over a highly competition-ridden, internally divided and factionalised village. He has to utilise all the arrows from the famed sama-dama-danda-bhed (collaboration, dominion, punishment and divisiveness) quiver for survival. Maintaining his personal power at all costs remains the sine qua non of a sarpanch's politics. Dependence upon close kin and toadies, giving more weightage to loyalty than competence, ensures his control. Dividing and destroying his opponents remains his prime concern. Maintaining personal accessibility to voters and keeping them dependent upon freebies ensures their support. Control and usurpation of village resources for his personal benefit augment his power. Constant backroom manoeuvres and reliance on henchmen to do the dirty work keeps the rivals down. Maintaining a façade of reasonableness, humility, moderation and affability keeps both supporters and opponents beguiled. Shrinking away from hard decisions and being ever willing to compromise keep dissent and acrimony from boiling over.
A narrow, short-sighted, opportunistic and constrictive worldview instead of firm convictions or a long-term vision remain the classic traits of a sarpanch. Badal showed all of these traits while heading the state. His brand of economics included a mixture of populist schemes (like free power), institutionalised bribery (like the Sangat Darshans) and blatant loot of state resources (creating a variety of mafias in bus, cable, sand mining and other industries) and impoverished the state in the long run. Large-scale bribery of voters during the elections and showering money on the fiefdoms of Lambi and Bathinda kept the family citadels strong, but discriminated against other areas.
As an administrator, Parkash Singh Badal was never known to take tough decisions. His dilly-dallying tactics and proclivity to advancing favourites, sifarshis (petitioners), dubious characters and moneybags at the behest of jathedars (community leaders) was notorious. However, initiatives like Suvidha centres and RTS (right to services) during his fourth term were noteworthy in removing red-tapism and improving delivery of government services to citizens.
In his quest for personal power, however, he presided over the destruction of most Sikh institutions—the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Akali Dal and the Akal Takht—and filled them with his own loyal henchmen. The SGPC ceded space to assorted babas (holy men) and deradars (chiefs of institutions) in dharam parchar (propagation of the faith). The Akal Takht became a parking space for pliant nobodies like Gurbachan Singh.
Once firmly settled into power, Badal privileged family and close kin over old stalwarts, which saw the Akali Dal becoming a fiefdom of Badals, Majithias and Kairons. His son Sukhbir Singh Badal and Bikram Singh Majithia further transformed it into a corporate mafia comprising moneybags as well as operators in the sand, cable, liquor and bus transport industries.
Badal’s quest for power and narrow familial interest ensured that he repeatedly compromised the core principles of Akali Dal and transformed the once proud agrarian and regional outfit into a handmaiden of Hindutva forces. The remarkable capitulation of the Akali Dal on the Dera issue, the farmers’ agitation and Kashmir highlighted the hollowing out of this once-proud outfit.
That Badal lived to see the collapse of that vast political and personal empire he had worked so assiduously to erect must have been very painful for him in the end.
Parkash Singh Badal, along with Partap Singh Kairon and Captain Amarinder Singh, had the longest reign at the top in Punjab politics. Where Kairon will be remembered for his vision, development and institution building and the Captain for his firmness and administrative acumen, Badal provides a useful template on how to connect with the masses and govern a diverse state with moderation.