An image can sometimes be more powerful than a thousand election stories. So, to get an idea of what is happening in Punjab, picture a meeting of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders.
Behold a few dozen of them sitting in a jail in Fazilka, a Punjab district on the Radcliffe Line, listening in rapt attention to Shiv Lal Doda, a liquor baron facing murder charges. Imagine the liquor baron holding his darbar, holding forth on election strategies, while the Akalis, who have driven up to the jail in a cavalcade of SUVs, courtesy and nod and a senior police official stands guard to ensure the deewan-e-khas is not disturbed.
Picture this Punjab going to polls in a few weeks. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine the result.
From Fazilka in the southwest to Gurdaspur right up in the north, there is a fierce wind blowing across Punjab. Unless there is a miracle, or the rumoured stocks of gold “tikkis” — dots of precious metal that have reportedly replaced cash as pre-poll sops — work their magic, the winds of change would blow away the Badals.
Who would win the election, race ahead to majority is not clear. But who is getting booted out is writ on every voter’s face. From the moment you land at the Chandigarh Airport — a desolate, dark, gloomy place that seems perfect for shooting horror flicks after sunset, all you hear is whom the voters don’t want.
“Everywhere you go, people talk of how drugs have ruined lives,” says Manpreet Singh, 23, cab driver who charged a ransom for the journey from the airport to the centre of the city. “They have ruined it,” he says and then starts tapping his fingers to the rhythm of the song Chitta Ve from Udta Punjab.
“The Badal family has become a metaphor for the current state of Punjab. This is 2014 redux with the SAD being the UPA government. Change is coming,” says former DGP (Punjab prisons) Shashi Kant.
The ex-cop, a known crusader against drugs, offers another analogy. He says the Badals have become what Hosni Mubarak was to Egyptians. “If they are not dislodged democratically, people would come out on the streets to hound them out,” he says.
Shiv Lal Doda, the liquor baron who held a meeting with Akali leaders in his Fazilka jail cell this January before it was busted by an election commission squad, is a perfect example of the rot in Punjab and the reason behind the rising anger against the Badals.
Starting out as an ice vendor in the 80s, Doda made rapid strides to become a Don Corleone-like figure in western Punjab within a decade. For years, he was seen as an ally of the Akalis, before the party tried to disown him after he was named as the main accused in the brutal murder of a Dalit allegedly at his palatial farmhouse.
To this man with a tainted past and alleged criminal record is tied the electoral fortune of the Akalis. A few days ago, Doda filed his candidature from Abohar, the constituency he had contested from unsuccessfully in 2012 against Congress heavyweight Sunil Jakhar. But after the meeting in the jail, he decided to withdraw his candidature in support of the BJP, which has been allotted the seat as part of its alliance with the Akalis. In a comic twist, due to some technical errors, Doda could not withdraw his candidature in time and still is in the fray in spite of publically withdrawing in favour of the BJP.
Voters say almost all of Punjab is now being run by the Badals and their cronies like Doda. The Badals are spread all across Punjab literally like a cloud cover over the state skyline.
Chandigarh is the seat of their power. Bathinda is their political turf, the family pocket borough. In Amritsar, Bikramjit Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, has his hand in every pie.
It is a dynasty that is forever in self-perpetuation mode. Father is the chief minister, son is the deputy chief minister. Family bahu Harsimrat Kaur Badal is entrenched in Delhi as a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government. Badal’s son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon is an influential minister in the state cabinet. So too is Sukhbir’s brother-in-law, Majithia. Only Rajasthan’s Raje dynasty — represented by chief minister Vasundhara and parliamentarian son Dushyant Singh — currently has access to equal, if not less, power.
With so much power concentrated in just one family, it was inevitable that when the electoral tide turned, the family became the first target. “The general gets the bad name if his army is seen as inefficient and corrupt. Today, Punjab is rotting because of drug cartels, high unemployment, agrarian crisis and organised loot and plunder. People blame the Badals for all this,” says Shashi Kant.
So, after ten years of incumbency, the Badals are in trouble. Their traditional vote bank of hardliners swayed by the panthic agenda is under threat. Young voters are being torn between AAP and the Congress. The development plank that had earned them a victory a decade ago has slipped from under their feet. Such is the outline of the battle that the family is now stuck in its bastions, fighting to save them before dreaming of venturing out.
In Lambi, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is facing a resurgent Captain Amarinder Singh. In Jalalabad, Sukhbir is caught in a triangular contest with Bhagwant Mann (AAP) and Ravneet Singh Bittu, Congress MP from Ludhiana and son of former CM Beant Singh. In Majitha, Bikramjit Singh is on a shaky turf in a triangular fight.
A combative Kejriwal, whose party has suddenly got a second wind in the state, is promising to not just pack off the Badal dynasty but also send its members to jail.
The joke in Punjab is that if this happens, Doda would be guaranteed a bigger audience in his Fazilka jail darbar.(FP)