In Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Loses a Mass Leader

The Union government has announced a two-day state mourning period for the Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch, who leaves behind a mixed legacy. While he helped restore peace in Punjab, he also succumbed to nepotism.

Chandigarh: Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, who remained a central figure of Punjab politics for nearly half a century, passed away at the age of 95 on Tuesday, April 25, after a brief illness.

He was admitted to a private hospital in Mohali on April 21 after experiencing chest pain and breathing difficulties. Since then, he was in constant observation in the intensive care unit.

As the news of his demise spreads, tributes pour in for the veteran politician. The Union government has declared a two-day mourning period on April 26 and 27 as a mark of respect.

He was just 42 years of age when he first became Punjab CM in 1970. He was 88 years when he demitted office for the last time in 2017. In total, he Was the chief minister of Punjab for a record five times. He also served as the Union minister of agriculture and irrigation in the Janata Party government in 1977.

Badal, who was president of the SAD from 1995-2008, was elected as an MLA 11 times (out of 13 times contested), a record in Punjab. He began his political career in 1947 as a sarpanch of his native village Badal.

Since then, the identity of his village became permanently etched in his name. Badal first entered the Punjab assembly in 1957 from the Malout constituency in Muktsar district on a Congress ticket.
Later, he joined the SAD and became a central figure of anti-Congress politics within the state and outside, after the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966.

While he was a moderate Akali leader who remained committed to peace in the border state, he has a mixed legacy. Some say that he was a people’s politician, while others accuse him of making the SAD a family-driven party. His son Sukhbir Singh Badal is the current president of SAD.

Badal’s mortal remains will be placed at the SAD head office in Chandigarh from 10 am to 12 noon on Wednesday. Thereafter, his body will be taken his native Badal village, where he will be cremated on Thursday.

Conferred with the Padma Vibhushan in 2015, Badal returned it in 2020 as a mark of protest against the three contentious Central farm laws which were opposed by farmers in the state.

Complicated legacy

Pramod Kumar, a political commentator who is the director of the Institute of Development and Communication in Chandigarh, told The Wire Badal’s demise marks the end of an era. “He belonged to that generation of politicians who handled every situation with political maturity, unlike reactionary politics today. He represented a moderate voice of Punjab politics and did not encourage divisiveness in society,” he said.

According to Pramod, the SAD patriarch was one of the main architects of restoring peace in Punjab after a decade of militancy in the state in 80s.

He referred to the SAD’s Moga Declaration in 1996 under Badal’s leadership, which projected the Akali Dal as the party of Punjabis of all faiths.

Harjeshwar Singh, a history professor, also said that Badal was a mass leader and a humble politician who contributed to the development of the state through his record five times as CM. But during his time, he reduced the SAD, the second oldest political party in India, to a family party, Singh said. His opponents in the party were either shunted out or became politically irrelevant.

After serving the Akali Dal as president for 13 years, he handed over the baton to his son Sukhbir Badal and other members of his family.

“He is also often accused of degrading Sikh institutions,” said Harjeshwar, adding that the SAD has a history of struggle to protect regional interests of Punjabis and the state. Sadly, the party under his leadership did not live up to it. “SAD, which once was a strong regional party, plunged into existential crisis during Badal’s own lifetime, ” he added.

In 2022, when the most recent assembly elections were held in Punjab, the party was reduced to just three seats in the 117-member house, a record low for the 103 year old party.

Senior journalist and writer Jagtar Singh also told The Wire that while Badal might have been longest serving chief minister of the state, his legacy is questionable, especially in Sikh panthic (religious) domain.

However despite all his weaknesses, he was considered a humble politician and had kept his ears to the ground.

He was a 24×7 politician who understood his electorate very well. His sangat darshan – weekly meetings with the public in their villages – were hugely successful.

Badal’s strategic alliance with BJP helped him form three governments after the 90s, he said. Some called it Sikh and Hindu alliance – with the SAD seen as a Sikh party and BJP as a Hindu party – which was also important after 15 years of militancy in Punjab, Jagtar said.

The SAD patriarch’s populist schemes like free power to farmers and the atta-daal scheme for dalits brought relief to farming and poor communities. But for many, it was a short sighted vision and did not help uplift the farming community in the long run. Giving free power to farmers, which Badal started in 1997, is also blamed now for depleting groundwater levels to record lows in the state.

Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal. Photo: By arrangement

Tributes pour in

Top functionaries of the country, meanwhile, have paid tribute to Badal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Badal’s passing a personal loss. In a tweet Modi said, “I have interacted closely with him for many decades and learnt so much from him. I recall our numerous conversations, in which his wisdom was always clearly seen.”

President Droupadi Murmu also stated in a tweet that Badal was one of the tallest political stalwarts in independent India. “Though his exemplary career in public service was largely confined to Punjab, he was respected across the country. His demise leaves a void,” she said.

Union home minister Amit Shah said in statement that the passing away of the veteran is deeply saddening. “His career spanning several decades was dedicated to the welfare of the poor. His demise is an irreparable loss to Indian politics,” he said.

BJP national president J.P. Nadda said Badal was a towering political figure whose contributions to the development of Punjab are immense and will always be remembered.

In his statement, Congress national president Mallikaarjun Kharge said Badal was a veteran of Indian politics. “Although we differed in our ideologies, he earned immense respect among the people of Punjab for his simplicity and loyalty to his cadre, as he served multiple terms as CM,” said Kharge.

Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann said in a condolence message, “Received the sad news of the demise of former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.May Waheguru give place to the departed soul in his feet and give strength to the family to bear the loss.”

Note: This article was originally published at 10 pm on April 25, 2023 and republished at 11:55 pm on the same day.