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Punjab after Parkash Singh Badal: An era passes and a new one begins

His son Sukhbir will face his first big test in the Jalandhar bypoll next month

Parkash Singh Badal

Parkash Singh Badal, Photo: Wikipedia

Aditi Phadnis New Delhi

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When former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who passed away on Tuesday, is laid to rest on Thursday, an era will have come to an end.

Badal was the tallest leader in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and possessed not only the moral and political authority to negotiate with Sikh religious leaders, but also the acumen to strike deals with mainstream parties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Chandigarh on Wednesday to the SAD office, where Badal’s body was kept, to pay last respects. The government has announced two-day national mourning. Badal’s son Sukhbir, who has been managing the party for several years, was not present, having contracted Covid earlier this week.

But backchannel diplomacy between the BJP and the SAD – the best of friends till the farmers’ agitation in 2020, when the alliance broke up – has already begun. A call this morning from a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to top-ranking members of the SAD seeking a meeting suggests that a rapprochement should not be ruled out, however unlikely it might seem at this point.

Unlikely because the SAD and BJP are fighting each other in the byelection to the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat due May 10. Santokh Singh Chaudhary of the Congress held the seat until his sudden death during Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, creating the vacancy.

“The Jalandhar election is absolutely crucial because it will be a test of Sukhbir’s leadership. If we win the election, dissidents like SS Dhindsa (who left SAD protesting at the senior Badal’s promotion of his son) and Bibi Jagir Kaur could consider returning. Frankly, the Hindu and Sikh vote in Punjab is completely polarised. The BJP has put up a candidate in Jalandhar, and they are pouring effort to ensure a respectable result. If their candidate performs poorly, it will show how badly they need the SAD,” said a senior office-bearer of the SAD.

Jalandhar has nine assembly constituencies, of which five are held by the Congress, and the rest by the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Traditionally a Congress stronghold, Jalandhar has been won many times by the party on the back of the strong scheduled caste (38 per cent) presence. The Ravidas community dominates.

To win them over, the SAD has an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It has fielded Banga MLA Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi. The Congress’s candidate is Chaudhary Santokh Singh’s widow Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary. But the BJP’s candidate is Inder Atwal, the son of former speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal, who left the SAD to join BJP, in itself a cause of friction between the erstwhile allies.

The stakes are equally high for the current AAP government. Sushil Kumar Rinku, a former Congress member and a prominent face of the Dalit community in Jalandhar, is the party’s candidate. AAP’s welfare policies in the state will be put to the test in the election.

The outcome of the Jalandhar bypoll will test whether Sukhbir will be able to step into his father’s shoes, however big, and the resultant change in political equations.

“Badal saab was a farmer leader, in the mould of Chaudhry Charan Singh and Devi Lal. Much before the National Food Security Act was passed by the Manmohan Singh government and carried forward by the Modi government, the Punjab government had already announced the Atta Dal scheme. It was Badal who realised the importance of rural roads for farmers and had them built and strengthened. The mandi system in Punjab was a gift from Badal saab. Free electricity to farmers was his idea,” said Naresh Gujral, former MP from SAD.

When Sukhbir Badal took over SAD, he saw the state from the vantage point of a farmer’s son, beyond the farm. Gujral says Punjab is a power surplus state today because of the efforts Sukhbir made to bring industry to the state, realising that farm jobs needed to be diversified. Punjab today has two international airports in Chandigarh and Amritsar, recognising the needs of a younger population, not necessarily employed on farms.

Leaders in the state agree that Sukhbir is struggling with the transition that others in his party, as well as potential alliance partners like BJP, are uncomfortable with. Sukhbir’s recent visit to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassin Satwant Singh’s house in Gurdaspur and his attending the wedding of militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s grandson last year raised eyebrows. “All he was trying to do was step into a void to prevent people like Amritpal Singh from occupying it,” says a former colleague.

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First Published: Apr 26 2023 | 7:16 PM IST

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