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Jalandhar: The last leg of campaigning in Punjab, ahead of the February 20 poll, witnessed a dramatic shift in terms of issues that had been raised until then. Political parties traded barbs against their rivals over “Khalistan” and “separatism” while issues of people took a backseat.
Starting from Tuesday, February 15, until Friday, February 18, when the election campaign concluded, the narrative in the poll-bound state shifted from Dalit politics, Congress infighting and a wave in favour of AAP to “separatism” and “Khalistan”. In fact, this is reminiscent of exactly what happened before the state voted in the 2017 assembly polls.
The shift in the narrative was necessitated by the statements of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, ex-AAP leader Kumar Vishwas and the action taken by chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
On February 15, addressing a press conference in Ludhiana Arvind Kejriwal said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security lapse led to fear in the hearts of people, particularly the Hindus. I want to assure the people of Punjab (Hindus-Sikhs, Muslims and Christians) that when we will form the government, your security and that of every single trader will be our responsibility. Since Punjab is a border state and a sensitive one, we will not compromise on national and internal security.”
Videos of Kejriwal’s statement went viral on social media, inviting sharp reactions from people not just in Punjab but across the country.
Before the discussion over Kejriwal’s comment could settle, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was in Barnala district to address a rally on February 15, said, “Arvind Kejriwal can be found at terrorists’ homes.”
“Whatever happens, a leader of Congress will never be seen at the house of a terrorist. The tallest leader of Jhaadu [election symbol of the AAP] can be found at the home of a terrorist,” Rahul Gandhi added.
He also said that those who desperately want to come to power will destroy Punjab, and “the state will burn”. His comments in a way referred to the dark period of militancy, witnessed in the state from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.
Rahul Gandhi’s comment was an obvious attack on Kejriwal, who had stayed at the house of an ex-Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) militant Gurinder Singh in Punjab’s Moga district days before the Punjab assembly elections 2017.
Further, on February 16, poet and ex-AAP leader Kumar Vishwas while talking to ANI said, “AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal was supportive of separatists in Punjab. One day, he told me he would either become CM (of Punjab) or first PM of an independent nation (Khalistan).”
Kumar Vishwas also challenged Kejriwal on February 17 to prove that he was wrong. He blamed the media for not questioning Kejriwal on the issue and targeted AAP leader Raghav Chadha for threatening the media if they played his video.
Meanwhile on February 17, additional CEO (chief electoral officer) Punjab, DPS Kharbanda issued a letter restraining the telecast of Kumar Vishwas video on Arvind Kejriwal. However, the same night, S. Karuna Raju, the chief electoral officer of Punjab, withdrew the letter with immediate effect and said it was issued “inadvertently”.
Soon after this development, Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi tweeted a letter and wrote, “As CM Punjab, I request PM Narendra Modi to order an impartial inquiry in the matter of Kumar Vishwas video. Politics aside, the people of Punjab have paid a heavy price while fighting separatism. Honourable PM needs to address the worry of every Punjabi.”
Fake letter and AAP’s rebuttal
But amidst this, another controversy erupted after a letter surfaced on social media on February 17 night, in which it was claimed that ‘Sikhs for Justice’, a Khalistani outfit has announced its support for AAP in Punjab assembly polls. The letter went viral on social media, leading to various comments from people at large.
Later in a video, the SFJ founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannu denied backing AAP and said that the letter was forged by AAP’s chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann to gain votes.
The BJP led a scathing attack on AAP blaming them for “doing politics” for the sake of elections in Punjab. Union minister of information and technology Anurag Thakur who was in Jalandhar for campaigning on February 17 said, “Kejriwal should clarify if he harbours any dreams related to Khalistan.”
In response to separatist allegations, AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal held a press conference in Bathinda on February 18 morning, where he said, “They call me a terrorist. I am the world’s sweetest terrorist who builds hospitals, schools and fixes electricity. Britishers used to fear Bhagat Singh, that is why they would term him a terrorist. I am Bhagat Singh’s follower.”
Notably, Punjab has 19% Jat Sikh, 31.94% Dalits, 38.49% Hindus and 10.57% other castes. The total population of Sikhs in Punjab stands at 57.75%.
Speaking on the shifting of the political discourse to separatism and Khalistan, Jalandhar-based Sikh scholar Gurbachan Singh says it is being done by parties out of desperation.
“It was AAP which played the Hindu card, fearing the prospect of losing polls. It is generally assumed that Hindus align with the BJP. This time around Hindu vote will be shared by AAP, Congress and the BJP. On the other hand, the Sikh vote is united and silent as well. While the Dalit factor is already explored by all parties, including Congress and the SAD-BSP, it is the Hindu vote on which parties are pinning their hopes,” he adds.
On Congress raking up “Khalistan” and “separatism”, the Sikh scholar feels it came in reaction to Kejriwal’s “illogical” remark on Hindus.
“Congress is an expert in polarising voters. But when AAP realised that its position could be weakened, it began to play the Hindu card. There is no such separatism in Punjab. If it ever existed, it was during slain PM Indira Gandhi’s tenure, which was later exploited by the BJP,” he says, adding that the idea of terming Sikhs as “Khalistanis” and consolidating Hindu votes has entirely been the brainchild of Congress.
Gurbachan also feels that the death of Punjabi actor, model and activist Deep Sidhu in a car accident on February 15 cannot be seen in isolation. As per Gurbachan, “It will play a big role in the outcome of the polls.”
“Deep Sidhu’s video of campaigning for SAD (Amritsar) candidate Simranjit Singh Mann from Amargarh seat in Malerkotla has gone viral for a reason after his death. In the video, he is seen holding a sword in one hand and a broom in the other. He is asking voters to decide whether they want a sword in their hand or a broom. The way he raised Sikh sentiments would definitely go against AAP in the rural belts. Even though Sidhu died in a car accident, a larger section of the Sikh community was not willing to accept it. They are terming it as a conspiracy, which goes in sync with an ideology that Sikhs continue to face oppression. It will play a big role in deciding the Sikh vote,” he adds.
Gurbachan points out that author GBS Sidhu in his book The Khalistan Conspiracy: A Former RAW Officer Unravels the Path to 1984 had exposed that “Khalistan bogey” was created to target the Sikhs. “These sentiments have been playing against Punjab from 1984 to 2022,” he said.
Canada-based journalist Gurpreet Singh Sahota, who has closely studied various movements in Punjab and owns a Punjabi newspaper Chardi Kalan in Surrey, British Columbia says, “The developments of the last three days ahead of polls will become a challenge for Punjabi Hindus. It will be interesting to see whether they fall for the ‘Hindu card’ or decide wisely whom to support.
Since all parties had played the Dalit card, the only section that was left untouched was Hindus in Punjab. As everybody knows that Hindus traditionally support the BJP, Kejriwal started polarising Hindus that they were worried, which was not the case at all. Rahul Gandhi’s statement also came as a reply and further raised the poll pitch.”
Even in 2017, the Maur Mandi blast took place days before polls and Kejriwal had stayed at the house of ex-Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) militant, changing the poll game in favour of Congress. “This time too similar factors are at play. But as it is a multi-cornered contest, it is difficult to predict, which way Hindus will cast their votes,” he adds.
Sahota has also raised Deep Sidhu’s death. “The way Deep Sidhu’s video is going viral among Sikhs, and the manner in which hysteria is being created, AAP is likely to face some losses. The way he raised the issues of river water sharing, farming woes, sacrilege, drugs and Sikh religious affairs, it appealed to everybody.”
He says that it is for this reason that the Punjabi diaspora across the world has been asking families back home in Punjab to vote for someone who raises “real issues”. “Punjab elections have reached an interesting phase,” he concludes.