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Parkash Singh Badal: A Giant Has Died, He Shaped Punjab For Better or Worse

In his 75-year-political career, Parkash Singh Badal rose from being a Sarpanch to a five-time CM of Punjab.

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At a time when the political middle ground in Punjab has been shrinking, the state has lost a leader who embodied this middle ground for decades - Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, who passed away at a Mohali hospital on 26 April at the age of 96.

The fact that Badal died on the day a supplementary chargesheet was filed against him in connection with the Kotkapura firing case, shows that the consequences of his rule will continue to be seen in Punjab even after his demise.

In his 75 year long political career, Badal has shaped Punjab's political trajectory.

From Sarpanch to Chief Minister

Born in a Jatt Sikh family in Abul Khurana village near Malout in 1927, Badal began his political career as the Sarpanch of his native village Badal in 1947. He was just 20 when he became Sarpanch, India had just become Independent and Punjab had just emerged from a catastrophic partition.

However through his tenacity and ability to impress people, Badal rose in politics - becoming chairman of the block Samiti in Lambi and then an MLA at the age of 30. He was initially with the Congress but later shifted to the Akali Dal.

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Badal also became an active part of the Punjabi Suba movement for the creation of an autonomous Punjabi-majority state. At that time, present day Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were also part of Punjab. The movement finally led to the creation of the three states in 1966.

By this time Badal had become a prominent leader in the Akali Dal and both Badal and his party rose in the changed dynamics of the new state.

He became a minister in 1969 and chief minister in 1970, heading a coalition of Akali Dal-Fateh Singh and the Jana Sangh, precursor to the BJP. But the government didn't last long as the Jana Sangh withdrew support to Badal over the position of Hindi in Punjab.

As Leader of Opposition in Punjab, Badal became one of the main architects of the protests against the Emergency and he had to spend considerable time in prison under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act. But he became CM again in 1977.

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Takeover of the Akali Dal

A lot is disputed about Parkash Singh Badal's role during the turbulent 1980s. His political rival Captain Amarinder Singh accused Badal of being aware about Operation Bluestar and wanting to get rid of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had become a major threat to the Akalis.

More known are Badal's machinations within the factional fights in the Akali Dal. He is known to have colluded with other senior leaders like Gurcharan Singh Tohra and MLAs against the then chief minister Surjit Singh Barnala. Then in 1994, Badal went against the Amritsar declaration signed by other Akali factions that called for greater federalism in India.

In his 75-year-political career, Parkash Singh Badal rose from being a Sarpanch to a five-time CM of Punjab.

Parkash Singh Badal with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Surjit Singh Barnala. 

PTI

The final coup by Badal came in the mid 1990s when he managed to secure the SAD's 'Scales' symbol by winning over Barnala's advocate while the dispute was still on.

By 1996, Badal had united most of the 'moderate' Akalis and taken control of the party. Under the Moga declaration that year, the party changed from being a 'party of Sikhs' to a party of all the 'panths in Punjab'.

However, Gurcharan Singh Tohra as head of the SGPC resisted Badal's direct control over Sikh bodies. But he was gradually eased out and Badal took complete control.

By this time, Badal had also emerged as a crucial part of anti-Congress coalitions at the national level, first with the Third Front and then with the BJP-led NDA.

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Balance Between New Delhi and Punjab

Badal understood, better than other Akali leaders, that New Delhi would never give a free hand to Punjab-based leaders so the only way out was to strike a balance between New Delhi and Punjab. This explained his decision not to be part of the Akali unification efforts and the Amritsar declaration.

Badal's masterful balancing between New Delhi and Punjab is clear from the fact that he had been in power either in Delhi or Punjab almost continuously from 1996 to 2020, except for three years between 2004 and 2007.

He used his political clout at the state and central level to ease out rivals and deepen his own dominance and that of his family.

However, despite being in power for so long, Badal always remained accessible and never lost his humble demeanour.

He also acted as a bridge between apparent binaries. By aligning with the Jana Sangh and then the BJP, he tried to create a Sikh-Hindu alliance which worked well electorally in Punjab. Despite this, he didn't allow the BJP to grow beyond a point in Punjab and contained many of their communal impulses.

In his 75-year-political career, Parkash Singh Badal rose from being a Sarpanch to a five-time CM of Punjab.

PM Narendra Modi shares a light moment with SAD leader Parkash Singh Badal, in May 2019.

(Photo: PTI)

Perhaps his closest political friendship was with the Chautala family, despite Punjab and Haryana often being at loggerheads.

However, this art of balancing often led to compromises that undermined Badal.

For instance, many of the police officers who were accused of atrocities during the 1980s and 1990s went unpunished under Badal. Some of them, like Sumedh Saini, were even given prominent positions.

Badal's rule, especially after 2012, also saw increasing corruption, drug trade and gang violence in the state.

But one compromise that Badal allegedly tried to make, proved to be too much for devout Sikhs.

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Political Downfall

In 2015, the Akal Takht decided pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in a 2007 blasphemy case.

The set in motion a series of events which eroded the political capital Badal had accumulated over decades.

He was accused by devout Sikhs of trying to broker a pardon for a blasphemer. When the pardon was revoked under public pressure, Dera supporters are said to have carried out a series of sacrileges in Bargari in Faridkot district.

When Sikhs protested near Kotkapura, the police fired upon them, killing two protesters. Sukhbir Badal was the home minister then.

This led to the 2015 Sarbat Khalsa in which Badal's Panth Ratan honour was withdrawn.

In his 75-year-political career, Parkash Singh Badal rose from being a Sarpanch to a five-time CM of Punjab.

Members of various Sikh panths at the Sarbat Khalsa at Chaba village near Amritsar, November 10, 2015.

(Photo: PTI)

The Badals didn't quite recover from that blow and rapidly lost support among a sizable section of Sikh voters. The Bargari-Kotkapura case became the albatross around the Badals' necks.

Even when they were out of power between 2017 and 2022, they were still seen as Punjab's 'permanent establishment' that is being protected.

Family dominance made matters worse - the last Badal government had four family members in the cabinet - Badal, his son Sukhbir Badal, Sukhbir's brother in law Bikram Majithia and Badal's son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon.

The Badal family didn't just dominate the political space but also key businesses like transportation and civil aviation in Punjab.

The Akalis didn't have a Tohra-like figure to act as a counterweight to the Badals and preserve the party's credibility.

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The Badals tried to rectify their image by snapping ties with the BJP over the farm laws - Parkash Singh Badal even returned his Padma Vibhushan. But this didn't help their political fortunes.

The negative sentiment towards the Badals and the desire for change eventually led to both Badal and Sukhbir losing from their seats in the 2022 Assembly elections.

Now with Badal gone, it remains to be seen how Sukhbir Badal retains control of the party as well as SGPC. Currently their dominance is being challenged from two sides - BJP's proxies on one side and hardline Panthic elements on the other.

Despite his mistakes and the allegations against him, Parkash Singh Badal will be remembered as a leader who fought against the Emergency and also brought stability to Punjab in the post-insurgency period. He will also be remembered as one of the strongest votaries of a moderate Panthic position.

His balance between New Delhi and Punjab became the template for other chief ministers as well.

For better or worse, his choices have shaped the political trajectory of Punjab more than any other politician.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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