Those who are crediting Captain Amarinder Singh and his leadership for the Congress’ surprise performance in the Lok Sabha elections, where it won eight out of 13 seats, need to look at the win more closely.
In reality, the Congress should actually give credit to the BJP’s overt Hindutva agenda which motivated Sikh voters to shun the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine.
The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah brand of majoritarian politics has had an unexpected impact on elections in Punjab, dismantling traditional voting patterns, consolidation of the Hindu votes and creation of an insecure Sikh community. Punjab is India’s only Sikh majority state and here, religion and politics have been working hand-in-hand much before the BJP gave Hindutva to the nation.
For long, the SAD-BJP alliance worked well, its arithmetic based on the premise that while the SAD – which claims to champion the rights of Sikhs – brought in the Sikh votes, the Hindus, at least in urban areas, mostly voted for the BJP and the combine had smooth sailing for a while, wining election after election.
The SAD, led by former chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, controlled all major Sikh religious institutions. But in recent years, the Sikh electorate has begun to question the party’s control of these institutions and how they are used for political ends.
For more than a century, the SAD represented Sikh politics in Punjab, in line with the Sikh concept of ‘miri piri’ wherein in wielded political power to watch over the political interests of Sikhs while the Akal Takhat and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) looked after the spiritual aspects.
Just how deep the SAD’s alleged ‘misuse of Sikh religious passions for its politics’ was unravelled last year when the Justice (Retd) Ranjit Singh Commission appointed by the Congress government indicted former chief minister Badal for not taking action against culprits of desecration of the Sikh religious texts at Bargari in October 2015, when he was in office.
In subsequent protests, two Sikh youth were killed in police firing and the matter seriously dented the SAD’s long-held position as the political arm of Sikhism – to the extent that many senior leaders left the party or were thrown out for attacking Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal for their ‘mishandling’ of the Bargari sacrilege incident.
Conservative Sikhs are clearly angry with the Badals for not doing enough to protect their religious interests and a perception has gained ground that the SAD is playing into the hands of the BJP and RSS and their majoritarian agenda.
Sikhs are also extremely wary of the RSS view that Sikhism is but a sect of Hinduism. Radical elements in the community have often warned that its status as a separate religion can be in danger if the RSS- BJP combine gets a free hand in the state.
This explains why the RSS’ Sikh arm the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat has not been able to gain a foothold in Punjab and operates from neighbouring Rajasthan or Haryana. Radical Sikhs killed one of the most active RSS leaders of Punjab – Brig (Retd) Jagdish Gagneja – in 2016 and followed it up by killing several other Hindu leaders. With sacrilege as a major issue in this election, played up of course by a canny Capt Amarinder Singh, there was no way that the Sikhs would vote for SAD-BJP.
This is more than evident in conservative Sikh areas like the ‘panthic seats’ of Khadoor Sahib and Faridkot and Amritsar, where Sikhs voted in Jasbir Singh Dimpa, Mohammed Sadique and Gurjeet Singh Aujla of the Congress, respectively.
Aujla defeated Hardeep Singh Puri, a minister in Modi’s cabinet by almost one lakh votes. Says Major Singh, a veteran Punjabi journalist, “Sikhs did not want to vote for the Akalis this time because of the sacrilege issue, which is what has benefited the Congress.”
The Akalis lost in eight of the ten seats that it contested on, and won only two – Sukhbir Badal from Ferozepur and his wife and union minister Harsimrat Badal from Bhatinda.
If the duo has registered victories from here it is due to the unexpected support from the Hindu areas in their constituencies because the Sikhs had more or less left them. Harsimrat Kaur benefited from the consolidation of the town’s Hindu traders and those from neighbouring Hindu-dominated Mansa, whose only aim was to aid in the ‘Modi jeetao’ mission. Hindus of Bhatinda urban represented by state minister Manpreet Singh Badal walked over to her camp only because she was Modi’s choice. She barely scraped through with a margin of 21,000 votes because Sikh voters had deserted her.
If Sikh voters shunned its traditional party, the SAD, and walked over to the Congress camp, Modi’s Hindutva led to the consolidation of Hindu voters leading them to vote for the SAD in Hindu-dominated assembly segments of Jalandhar North and Jalandhar Central in Jalandhar parliamentary constituency.
These segments have never voted for the SAD, but this time the SAD candidate Charanjit Singh Atwal led from here. Though he eventually lost to the Congress’ S.S. Chaudhary by a slim margin of 19,491 votes, the shift in votes is a talking point in Jalandhar.
In the Hindu dominated constituency of Gurdaspur, where film actor and last minute candidate of the BJP, Sunny Deol, won, he did so by defeating the Congress’ amiable state president Sunil Jhakhar, a Hindu. Congress-held constituencies of Pathankot and Dinanagar voted for Deol in huge numbers. Similarly, Hoshiarpur also went to the BJP kitty on the strength of its Hindu voters. Both the SAD and BJP are now at two each, so it is anybody’s guess how the balance of power between the two allies will work out now.
The other story from Punjab is the consolidation of its Dalit votes in the Doaba area. Though the BSP which does not have much of a base in the state did not win any seats, its candidates polled more than a lakh votes in Jalandhar, Adampur and Anandpur Sahib, which is also being perceived as an anti BJP vote.
For the last two elections in a row, 2014 and 2019, Punjab has bucked the national trend. In 2014, it surprised everyone by reposing faith in the newbie, Aam Aadmi Party and sent four of its candidates to the Lok Sabha. That was when the people were looking for a viable third alternative and enchanted with the party’s promise of clean politics turned out in large numbers to give it a stunning debut.
This time around, its minority Sikh population seems to have demonstrated that in order to protect their religious interests they can turn on their own Sikh party the SAD and its alliance partner the BJP. The consensus opinion here is, that never before has an election polarised the two communities so much.
Meanwhile chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh is contemplating action against half a dozen ministers who performed poorly in their constituencies. So much for his assertion that good governance and development led to a Congress victory in Punjab.
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.