Punjab Diary: Rise of the radicals

People in Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot seem to be voting for Amritpal in the hope that he can resume his social work, especially against drugs

AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann during a roadshow in Amritsar
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann during a roadshow in Amritsar

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

On paper it’s a four-cornered contest in all 13 Lok Sabha constituencies in Punjab, which went to polls on Saturday, 1 June. The four mainstream political parties— Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress, BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)—have fielded a larger number of candidates in every constituency. (Faridkot for instance has 28 candidates in the fray.)

In 2019, the Congress had bagged eight seats and the BJP and SAD (Badal) two seats each. AAP had won a single seat from Punjab. The Congress is hopeful because of the anti-incumbency working against AAP. Inaccessibility of ministers and legislators, sleaze charges against two ministers and failure to fulfil promises have put AAP on the backfoot in the state.

The Delhi liquor policy case and subsequent arrest of several AAP leaders including Arvind Kejriwal also cast a cloud on the AAP campaign. Although the Congress is contesting the election in neighbouring Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat in alliance with AAP, State Congress leaders had opposed this in Punjab.

The campaign so far has been listless, partly because of the heat wave sweeping through the northern plains. Amritpal Singh and Sarabjit Singh Khalsa, the two independent candidates contesting from Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot have, however, gained the people’s sympathy. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of Punjab, where the scorching summer combined with disillusionment about politics, politicians and party-hoppers has led to something like indifference.

Amritpal, a former social media influencer turned preacher and a votary of Khalistan, was sent to Dibrugarh jail last April after he and his supporters attacked policemen and captured a thana (police station). The National Security Act (NSA) was invoked against him and he was charged with sedition. He gave several media interviews claiming that since the BJP openly advocated a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, he saw nothing wrong in espousing the cause of Khalistan.

This however is not the reason for the widespread sympathy for him. Amritpal Singh’s largest support base comes from the rural Sikhs of Majha area who perceive his incarceration as unduly harsh and consider him to be a social reformer who was waging a war against drugs.

His supporters and family have staged a number of protests for his release in vain. While many, especially in the national media, may interpret this as a revival of the demand for Khalistan, people in Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot seem to be voting for Amritpal in the hope that he can resume his social work, especially against drugs.

Mainstream political parties, they believe, have failed to effectively counter the drug menace as politicians are themselves involved in the drug trade. Amritpal, they point out, had redirected the youth to the ‘panth’ and rescued a large number of drug addicts. Following his arrest, they claim, the youth have once again turned to drugs. Sarabjeet Singh, the 45-year-old son of Beant Singh (former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassin) is also riding the crest of a sympathy wave from Faridkot (SC) seat.

There is visible antipathy towards candidates of mainstream political parties. The largely rural parts of the constituency are swayed by the logic that the victory of Sarabjeet Singh would be an apt tribute to Beant Singh, who is seen as someone who restored Sikh honour after Operation Blue Star.

Banners have come up in the two constituencies asking candidates of other parties to desist from campaigning since people would be voting for the independent candidate.

Another notable feature in Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot is the decentralised nature of the campaigns for the two independent candidates, driven by the common people and characterised by the use of gurdwaras and religious appeals to mobilise the masses.

The campaign for both was launched first on social media. Influencers, NRIs and youth from all parts of the state flocked to these areas to boost the campaign on the ground— tractors, cars and motorcycle rallies being the preferred method of campaigning.

Since Amritpal Singh, who headed the organisation Waris Punjab De is still in prison in Dibrugarh, Assam, his campaign was directed by his father Tarsem Singh, his uncles, NRIs and local gurudwaras. An old woman sums up the popular sentiment: “Had Amritpal been out of jail, no youth would have dared to smoke or take drugs, but these days cigarettes, tobacco and drugs are being sold openly.”

The decline of the moderate Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), the emergence of the charismatic duo of Deep Sidhu and Amritpal Singh, restless youth, hopes of badlav (change) belied, revulsion at turncoats, and the efficacy of social media have combined to galvanise mass support for radicals who expect to do well in the three constituencies of Sangrur (Simranjit Singh Mann), Faridkot (Sarabjeet Singh) and Khadoor Sahib (Amritpal Singh). Observers say they will not be surprised if one or two of these seats are actually wrested from mainstream political parties.

The radicals can also potentially do well in Bathinda (Lakha Sidhana) and pockets of the Ludhiana (Kamaljeet Brar) Lok Sabha seats. If these radical Sikhs potentially secure 10-12 per cent of the votes, this will introduce a fifth force into the already crowded electoral scene of Punjab.

The rise of radical Sikhs could lead to increased polarisation in the state’s politics. It may also stimulate the BJP, which is on the upswing in the state and is likely to improve its vote share in these elections.

Sukhbir Badal’s SAD is likely to be the most affected by this development, as it begins to lose leaders, workers and supporters to the BJP, radicals and AAP. Centrist parties like the Congress and AAP, which have so far had the upper hand in state politics, are also likely to suffer from the growing assertiveness of both radical Sikhs and radical Hindus.

The biggest beneficiary of the rise of the radicals is likely to be the BJP. The saffron party, which has failed to make a breakthrough in the state, is widely perceived to be behind the move to introduce Amritpal Singh as an ‘independent’ candidate from Khadoor Sahib to serve a radical cocktail which could trigger the fears and anxieties of the Hindu community and polarise it in favour of the BJP.

The BJP’s frustration in Punjab during this Lok Sabha election is palpable. On the one hand, it is facing a backlash from the farmers in the rural areas, on the other the Ram Mandir is not working the way it had imagined. Moreover, its reliance on turncoat candidates like Ravneet Bittu (Ludhiana), Sushil Kumar Rinku (Jalandhar) and Preneet Kaur (Patiala) has largely been counter-productive.

With its small social base, thin organisation and reliance on ‘outsourced leadership’, the BJP will be lucky if it opens its account this time, considering the opposition of the farmers and the absence of its traditional ally—SAD (Badal). Even its traditional bastions of Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur are proving a challenge.

Considering its bleak immediate prospects, unleashing the radical cocktail is its desperate bid to secure a foothold in Punjab. In the last few days before polls, there were already signs of the BJP gaining some traction in urban areas. A gameplan that might bring the BJP some immediate gains but will surely cost Punjab a fortune if its social fabric is ruptured once again, as happened in the 1980s.

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