The bhog ceremony for actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu at the Fatehgarh Sahib Gurdwara in Punjab attracted a huge crowd running into thousands. This massive crowd at Fatehgarh Sahib and the gathering of people across Punjab to pay tribute to Sidhu bore testimony to the following he acquired during the farmers' agitation and more so after his untimely death in an alleged road accident on 15 February.
For many, Sidhu's death represents an unfinished mission of addressing certain grievances in Punjab.
Elections are only one part of politics in Punjab. Political mobilisation in the state happens at different levels, and Sidhu's bhog ceremony is only the latest example of how many figures outside the electoral sphere end up acquiring a significant public appeal.
A number of questions are important here:
What was Deep Sidhu's politics?
What lies at the root of the public support for him?
What could be its impact on Punjab politics, especially the elections which took place less than a week after Sidhu's demise?
What Was Deep Sidhu's Politics?
Though Deep Sidhu's earlier association seems to have been with the family of film actor Dharmendra – who are with the BJP – his political views appear to have changed by the time he became part of the Shambhu Morcha protest against the Narendra Modi government's farm laws.
What set Sidhu apart from much of the farm unions was his insistence that the protest shouldn't be about "concessions" but about changing the entire power equation between Punjab and the Centre.
He frequently spoke about geo-politics and invoked Sikh history in his speeches.
Sidhu's views and his consistent presence at the Shambhu Morcha resonated with a section of Sikh youth who were not associated with the Kisan Unions.
The events of 26 January 2021 at Delhi's Red Fort – the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort as well as the violence that took place – polarised opinion around Sidhu.
Many in the Kisan Unions accused him of destabilising the movement and provoking a crackdown on protesters. On the other hand, the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib – for which Sidhu had claimed responsibility – was received with admiration among certain sections.
For some, it was a symbolic throwback to a very important even in Sikh history – the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib at Red Fort after the Sikh army led by Baba Baghel Singh defeated the Mughal forces in 1783.
Sidhu was arrested in February and was in custody until he got bail in April.
He continued to support the farmers' protest but kept a low profile.
The farm unions continued to remain suspicious of Sidhu, while the latter grew closer to a section of Panthic organisations.
What Lies at the Root of the Support for Deep Sidhu?
While the Shiromani Akali Dal led by the Badals has dominated the mainstream Sikh institutions and Panthic politics in the electoral sphere, other outfits like Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), United Akali Dal, and Dal Khalsa also wield influence, though it may not manifest electorally.
The 2015 sacrilege cases significantly harmed the SAD's credibility in the Panthic sphere, and pushback manifested itself in the Sarbat Khalsa of November 2015. At the Sarbat Khalsa, a parallel Akal Takht Jathedar and SGPC chief were appointed, and Parkash Singh Badal came under heavy criticism.
While some may find it tempting to portray this strand of politics as "radical" and "pro-Khalistan", it needs to be acknowledged that it is driven by certain grievances among Sikhs: such as lack of justice for victims of police atrocities in the 1980s and 1990s, lack of justice for victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, no action in sacrilege cases, issues concerning federalism and Punjab's water-sharing, to name a few.
The Bargari Morcha – demanding action in the 2015 sacrilege cases and the Kotkapura firing – is also part of the same strand.
The ability of this strand of politics to mobilise huge crowds also stems from the fact that mainstream parties have failed to address these grievances. This was particularly clear during the recently concluded Punjab elections.
In his speeches at the Shambhu Morcha, Sidhu would address some of these issues, and this helped him gain some traction among Panthic outfits. For them, Sidhu – being an actor, lawyer and model – became an effective poster-boy to reach out to the youth.
Did Deep Sidhu's Death Have an Impact on Punjab Elections?
Sidhu and gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana were both viewed with suspicion by farm unions, and they coordinated for a brief while.
But Sidhana later made peace with Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Balbir Singh Rajewal and became one of the candidates from the latter's Sanyukt Samaj Morcha from Maur in Bathinda district.
Sidhu, on the other hand, remained distant from the SSM and even more so from the mainstream parties.
He found common cause with SAD (Amritsar) chief Simranjit Singh Mann. He saw Mann as a leader who has been uncompromising on issues concerning Sikhs and Punjab.
He campaigned extensively at Amargarh from where Mann is contesting.
Deep Sidhu's last few speeches, which are now going viral on social media, were all made during the campaign trail for Mann and his party.
In one video he warned that the hijab ban by the BJP in parts of Karnataka would eventually extend to Sikh turbans as well.
The speech that went most viral is one in which he held a sword in one hand and a broom in the other and asked the audience to choose.
His attack was clearly on the Aam Aadmi Party and his argument was that one symbol stood for self-respect and the other for servility. The sword is important for Mann because when he was elected MP in 1998, he had insisted that he be allowed to carry his Kirpan to Parliament.
Sidhu's speech represented a larger concern among Panthic outfits regarding the AAP. This concern is at two levels: first that the AAP would reduce politics to service delivery and nothing would really change in Punjab, especially on matters of justice.
The second came from the perception, whether justified or not, that the AAP may share a good equation with the BJP, RSS, and the Centre and would compromise on Punjab's interests.
Sidhu's death intensified the Panthic outfits' campaign in favour of Simranjit Singh Mann's party and against the AAP.
It is not clear how many seats this would affect.
Mann definitely seems to have gained in Amargarh though it's not clear if this would be enough to guarantee his victory on the seat.
Since the SAD (Amritsar) may be in the race mainly in Amargarh, it is not clear what may have happened due to the Deep Sidhu factor in other places.
Since the dominant narrative may have been to defeat AAP, it may have benefitted the Congress and the SAD in other seats. The extent is not clear, but in seats where the battle is three-cornered or four-cornered, even a loss of a few thousand votes could prove crucial.