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Parkash Singh Badal's Leadership in Punjab is One for the Books

Like any true-blooded politician, PSB had sifted, maneuvered, and manipulated his own personal/partisan relevance.

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When the Prime Minister tweeted about the passing away of Parkash Singh Badal, there was something prescient at the end of the condolence message that gave away the real relevance of the giant in Punjab politics. Narendra Modi tweeted, “He was a colossal figure of Indian politics and a remarkable statesman who contributed greatly to our nation. He worked tirelessly for the progress of Punjab and anchored the state through critical times”— the anchoring through ‘critical times’ points to the wounds and tribulations of Punjab, which started with the horrific massacres during partition. 

Regrettably, Punjab continues to suffer a lingering perception of hurt and diminishment that can (and did) flare up into a full-blown insurgency, earlier. Green shoots of that pernicious sentiment were writ in the ensuing Amritpal Singh saga, which challenged the integrity of India, yet again. The colossus (five times Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal) had lived through, participated, and impacted the discourse through the vicissitudes of time and politics in Punjab. 

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The likes of Badal Saheb (as the nonagenarian was respectfully addressed) cannot be slotted into a binary space of relevance, as like any true-blooded politician, he had sifted, maneuvered, and manipulated his own personal/partisan relevance, as indeed of Punjab, and by that extension, India.

Parkash Singh Badal’s Illustrious Political Legacy

Whilst a steadfast member of the Sikh-centric Akali politics, a lesser-known fact is that he actually stood for his electoral debut on a Congress ticket— a tactical arrangement that was pursuant to an Akali Dal resolution to desist from harbouring political agenda, then. Badal Saheb won, but it was to be the first and last time he was associated with the Congress and made it a lifelong political battle to be stridently anti-Congress.

However, he was given to internal Akali intrigues that bore factionalism, irreconcilable ambitions and culminated in his ascending to the role of chief minister in 1970 with the support of Jana Sangh—a quixotic arrangement with yet another religio-centric party, which continues to date, albeit, in its evolved avatar.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the BJP (successor to Jana Sangh) got into a formal alliance in 1996 that was sustained formally for a record 24 years, till Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) was compelled to pull out of the NDA alliance with pressures from the farmer community. However, the way political parties are stacked in Punjab currently, the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) would still have the least dissonance amongst each other, as compared to the other parties. 

Political fleet-footedness ensured that Badal Saheb had the distinction of being the one-time youngest and the oldest chief minister. More importantly, he singularly created the most powerful and sustainable of the various Akali brands with the ‘Badal’ suffixation ie, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) or the Supreme Akali Party. 

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To reach this stage of popular prominence, he outwitted many competitive Akali strains of moderation and immoderations, leaders, and issue positions to remain forever foremost and ubiquitous. It was an important skill of deft political navigation that ensured that his party could simultaneously stand for local-religious ‘Panthic’ issues, as also remain alliance-worthy for an ostensibly ‘nationalistic’ party like the BJP.

Roadblocks and A New Template for Regional Parties

It wasn’t a smooth ride and entailed taking many positions that either impacted his core/regional base or the comfort of his alliance partners. Occasionally darting out of his essentially-anchored ‘moderation’, he was a participant in the making of Punjab’s tumultuous political history. 

As the second oldest party in Indian Politics (founded in 1920), Akali Dal in general (and Badal Saheb specifically) created the vital template of regional parties that could espouse ethno-religious causes as a critical imperative. It was an important ‘ventilation’ means as it allowed the tabling of the restive ethno-religious concerns that could get otherwise get drowned in majoritarian impulses in a democracy—hence, the platform of asserting ethno-religious-regional concerns and avoiding a dangerous sense of alienation and diminishment.

Parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), National Conference (NC), All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Shiv Sena, etc, were also subsequent expressions of other regional ‘voices’.

Often strident in expression and tenor, these platforms champion ignored concerns to disallow a pressure-cooker-like situation of societal dissent to go unaddressed and out of hand, and then slide towards insurgent movements.  

Akalis historically championed their Panthic causes as their genealogical roots are traced as a task force of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh religious body. Control over the SGPC affairs managed by the Badal faction had given it maximum leverage, legitimacy, and political clout. From the Punjabi Suba movement, agrarian and riparian concerns to even protecting the rights of Punjab, Punjabis, and Sikhs had been their leitmotif.

Reading the direction of the wind and adapting to the times that be, Prakash Singh Badal led Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) oscillated from ‘Panthic’ to ‘Progress’ (socio-economic) to back to ‘Panthic’ to continuously endear itself to the shifting moods of the electorate. 
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How Delhi’s Intervention Affected Punjab Politics

As it happens frequently in the context of Indian politics, the metaphorical ‘Delhi’ interferes recklessly to usurp the regional space, only to unleash the proverbial Frankensteinian monster. It happened so in Punjab in the late ’70s that imploded violently in the 80s. The competitive efforts by ‘Delhi’ to dislodge the Akalis only resulted in a far more militant and ultimately secessionist persuasion that fed on the disgruntled concerns, aided immeasurably by the missteps of ‘Delhi’ and then latched on perversely by Pakistan, to fan the same. 

The Akalis were caught in the literal crossfire, with them struggling to nuance their political spiel and space, somewhere in between. For a brief period, even Badal Saheb’s later date rival Captain Amarinder Singh, was associated with him in the 80s, though later parted ways to make his faction.

Captain later rejoined the Congress only to shake hands with the BJP, last year. However, Prakash Singh Badal successfully pushed out the other Akali stalwarts like Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jagdev Singh Talwandi, Surjit Singh Barnala, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, and many others to emerge as the dominant face. 

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From making smart strategic alliances to even controversial decisions like calling for mutiny by Sikh soldiers following Operation Blue Star (jailed for sedition), attending ceremonies of militants, boycotting elections (e.g., 1992), failing to prosecute Dera Sacha Sauda over alleged sacrilege, to even allowing construction of memorial commemorating Bhindrawale under his watch, etc, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) tested the patience of ‘Delhi’ and the elasticity of the generous contours of Indian constitution to carve his political appeal, but invariably stopped short of a calling for a ‘Sikh State’ or Khalistan

Age, local circumstances (eg, Kotkapura firing case), accusations of corruption, nepotism, and mishandling of the drug menace in Punjab all took a toll and in the 2022 Punjab Legislative Assembly Elections, SAD got only 3 seats out of 92, with the added ignominy of Parkash Singh Badal losing a rare election at the ripe age of 94 from Lambi (a seat that the 11-time MLA had won five times before!). It was an inglorious electoral end to an otherwise glorious, hugely successful, and unmatched career in Punjab politics. 

Prevailing times in Punjab are testy again. It has re-germinated a so far unsubstantial insurgent movement that needs careful handling and nipping in the bud – but with the likes of Badal Saheb passing away, it is hoped that the political rhetoric does not get ‘muscular’ and polarised, yet again. History will judge the personal contributions of the doyen of Punjab politics, though his contribution towards managing a regional political platform (Shiromani Akali Dal – Badal) that offered an alternative route (to secessionism) is presumably what the Prime Minister alluded to in his tweet of ‘anchored the state through critical times’.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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