Will Dera Factor Help BJP in Punjab? Here's a Ground Report From 4 Key Seats
BJP is openly playing the Dera card but its impact needs to be seen based on seat-level dynamics.
"Premi nahi bateyenge, lekin unke vote bohat hain," says Tinku Madan a resident of Balluana, a large village in Fazilka district in the south west corner of Punjab.
"Premi" here refers to the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, whose head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been convicted for rape of an erstwhile Dera Sadhvi and for the murder of Sirsa-based journalist Ramchandra Chhatrapati.
He has recently been granted 21-day furlough by the BJP government in Haryana, a move that many see as the party's attempt to win Dera Sacha Sauda votes ahead of the Assembly elections in Punjab.
The Haryana BJP's links with the Dera Sacha Sauda are well known and more details on this can be found in this story by The Quint.
Dera Sacha Sauda (commonly known as Dera Sirsa as it was established in Sirsa) claims to have over 40 lakh followers in Punjab and a great deal of influence in the politically crucial Malwa region of Punjab.
In this report, we will look at whether the Haryana government's furlough to Ram Rahim could have any impact in four seats in South West Punjab: Balluana, Fazilka and Abohar in Fazilka district and Firozpur City seat in Ferozpur district.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of seats where Sirsa Dera has influence but they are among the most important seats where the Dera's influence and BJP's own support put together could alter political equations.
However, there are many local complexities that need to be taken into account.
Named after the biggest village in the area, Balluana is a predominantly rural seat falling near Punjab's border with Rajasthan.
Many families in Balluana are followers of Dera Sirsa. Outside some of their homes, they have put up stickers of the Dera Sirsa symbol — symbols of Sikhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all inside the number 1. A couple of homes also had 'Insan' written on them.
We spoke to a few Dera Sirsa supporters in Balluana. While they expressed happiness at the furlough being granted to Gurmeet Ram Rahim, they said that it should not be seen from the point of view of politics.
"We are obviously delighted. But don't bring politics into this. This is a great moment for us," said one such supporter, who didn't want to talk about this further.
Tinku Madan, not a Sirsa Dera supporter, says, "Premis won't say but obviously his release will have some influence."
Madan further explains that support for BJP is less in the village and the battle is mainly between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
An influential figure here is former Sarpanch, Manphool Chaudhary, who belongs to the Kamboj caste, a dominant community in the region.
"He (Manphool Chaudhary) has done a lot of work in the area. He is well off but never behaves arrogantly with others. The seat became reserved but the current Sarpanch is also Manphool Chaudhary's representative," Madan explains.
Many here support the Congress mainly due to Chaudhary and not sitting MLA Nathuram, who they say doesn't visit often.
Dera Sirsa supporters also admit Chaudhary has worked in the area but say that may not impact the way they vote.
"It's an MLA election so we will have to see what work the MLA has done," says Surinder, a Dera Sirsa follower in Balluana constituency.
Most of those who are dissatisfied with the Congress seem to be gravitating towards AAP in Balluana. At least publicly, very few people in the village said they support the BJP.
The Dera Sacha Sauda factor has led to a churn in Balluana constituency. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) candidate Hardev Singh Megh visited the Dera and was dropped by the party because of it. Megh later joined the BJP.
The SAD, which got Dera Sirsa's support in 2012 is now trying to distance itself due to the Dera supporters' involvement in the 2015 sacrilege incidents that greatly harmed the Akalis' standing among the Sikhs.
Fazilka is perhaps the most important seat to understand the links between BJP and Dera Sirsa because the party's main face here, Surjit Kumar Jyani, is a self-decalred Dera Sirsa follower.
In a recent interview to News18 Punjab, Jyani heaped praises at Dera Sirsa. "I come from a border area. So many families there were destroyed due to drugs. But when these people joined the Dera, their homes transformed from hell to heaven. That's why I'm part of the Dera. Not just now, I have been associated with the Dera for a long time," Jyani emphasised, in response to a question on his recent visit to the Dera.
The visit was on 25 January, the birth anniversary of the second Dera head Satnam Ji Maharaj.
Regarding Ram Rahim's conviction, Jyani said, "He's only been convicted in the lower court. We'll see what happens in high court and Supreme Court".
Throughout the interview Jyani referred to Ram Rahim as sant (saint).
In Fazilka, Jyani is locked in a tight contest with sitting Congress MLA Davinder Ghubaya, AAP's Narinderpal Singh Sawna and SAD's Hansraj Josan.
The seat has a sizable concentration of Rai Dalit Sikhs. Congress' Ghubaya and AAP's Sawna are both Rai Sikhs. The sitting MLA is the son of Sher Singh Ghubaya, one of the most influential Rai Sikh leaders in Punjab who was earlier with SAD and is now in the Congress. Jyani is a Hindu Jat and Josan is Kamboj.
Jyani is struggling in the rural pockets in Fazilka, mainly due to the anti-BJP atmosphere created by the farm laws.
To make up for this, he is relying on urban votes and Dera Sirsa support. The Dera has influence in both rural and urban pockets in Fazilka.
We spoke to Fazilka-based businessman Rahul, who says he "respects" Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. He is also a committed BJP supporter.
"The law is equal for everyone. The three weeks (furlough) that he (Ram Rahim) has been given, is his right as per law. No political motives should be attributed to it."Rahul, Fazilka-based businessman and BJP supporter
Rahul further alleged that there is a conspiracy to malign BJP in Punjab.
"The leaders of the farmers' protest have joined politics. This shows that it was a politically motivated protest to malign the BJP. The same thing is happening now, people are saying that BJP released him (Dera Sirsa chief) for the elections," he said.
Fazilka is one of BJP's best bets in this part of Punjab. The city is over 80 percent Hindu and has a very high proportion of people who identify Hindi as their language. It has a strong, locally recognisable face in Surjit Jyani.
Besides Dera and Hindu support, the BJP is also counting on a split in Rai Sikh votes between Congress' Davinder Ghubaya and AAP's Narinderpal Sawna.
However, Jyani could be in danger if AAP wins a sizable chunk of the urban Hindu votes in addition to the rural Rai Sikh vote.
"In the city, the competition is between BJP and AAP, Davinder Ghubaya isn't liked here," says Mr Abrol, a retired pensioner living in Fazilka.
"But Sher Singh Ghubaya is a wily leader and will ensure that his son does well in rural pockets," he adds.
This brings the second worst case scenario for BJP, of Ghubaya dominating the rural vote and AAP cutting Jyani's urban votes.
It is in the context of these two scenarios that the Dera Sirsa support for BJP is crucial. Even a few thousand Premi votes could help Jyani in what seems to be a close contest in the border seat.
Another prominent leader to visit Dera Sirsa for the 25 January event along with Jyani was BJP MLA from Abohar, Arun Narang.
In 2017, Narang had won a surprise victory against senior Congress leader Sunil Kumar Jakhar. Some say that besides Dera's support, the victory was due to the role of controversial liquor baron Shiv Lal Doda, serving a life term for the murder of a Dalit youth, Bhim Tank.
Jakhar had been a known critic of Doda, formerly close to the SAD.
This time Narang is up against Jakhar's nephew Sandeep, in addition to AAP's Deep Kamboj and SAD's Mahinderpal Rinwa.
Unlike Jyani, Narang has become a bit unpopular even in Abohar city and many locals say that he hasn't worked much.
Support for Sandeep Jakhar is on the rise. There is an element of sympathy too for him as some locals feel Sunil Jakhar unfairly lost in 2017 and didn't get his due in the Congress.
Dilip Sachdeva, whose family owned Abohar's first cinema hall, set up here in 1938 and praises the Jakhar family.
"You can't accuse anyone in the Jakhar family of corruption worth even Rs 1. They have been thoroughly honest, be it Sunil Jakhar or Surinder's son (Sandeep Jakhar)," Sachdeva says.
Sachdeva speaks highly of BJP's Narang as well but says that things may get difficult for him due to the "larger anti-BJP atmosphere in Punjab".
It is in this context that Dera Sirsa votes become crucial for Narang.
But locals say that given BJP's weakness in rural areas, Narang cannot afford an erosion of votes in the city and even Dera support may not help him beyond a point.
Interestingly, Sunil Jakhar has spoken out against the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) for opposing the furlough given to Ram Rahim. This is what he tweeted on the matter:
Some say this is Jakhar's olive branch to the Dera, given the centrality of their votes in Abohar.
However, one Congress supporter we spoke to in the city said that Jakhar isn't trying to woo Dera votes and that the main concern is that there should be no clear directive in favour of Narang.
In terms of personalities, the contest seems to be between Narang and the Jakhar family but support for AAP is also on the rise.
In Firozpur, the Dera Sirsa issue seems to be adding to the slightly polarised atmosphere surrounding the BJP.
Harjinder Singh, a voter from Firozpur Rural seat visiting the city, said "Why is BJP relying on people like Ram Rahim to make inroads in Punjab? Wasn't it bad enough that they made the state suffer due to the farm laws? Now they want support from people jailed for rape and who have a history of hurting Sikh sentiments."
On the other hand, BJP supporters are pushing the same argument that Rahul from Fazilka made in his conversation with us, that there is some kind of conspiracy against the party.
Jeevan Lal, a local merchant, spoke at length with us, first beginning by praising former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, then complaining about the Congress MLA in Firozpur City. But as he opened up, he expressed his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and accused the farm unions of conspiring to defame him.
"They (protesting farmers) were politically motivated from the beginning. Many of them were Khalistanis and all they wanted is to malign Modi. It is only Modi who has kept such people under control. Only he can protect us Hindus."Jeevan Lal, a businessman based in Firozpur
On being asked about the BJP's alleged equation with Dera Sirsa, Jeevan Lal said, "This is being exaggerated by the same sections to malign the BJP."
He further went on to say that there is a very "strong anti-BJP sentiment among Sikhs".
"I wouldn't say all Sikhs, but a majority of them don't like BJP and Modi," he clarified.
This sentiment was echoed by Monty, a youth we met at a tea-shop in the city.
"We are kattar Hindu, so we will have to vote for BJP. But in Punjab, people don't like BJP," he said.
Regarding Dera Sirsa supporters, he said, "It is a masterstroke by BJP. Now it can win seats no one would have expected."
However, he questioned the party for the candidate it had fieled in Firozpur City, Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi, a recent import from the Congress.
"He was MLA from Guru Har Sahai for so many terms. So why did he shift? Did he not work there?" he asked.
THE BIG PICTURE
BJP, in particular, has known Dera Sirsa supporters like Surjit Jyani. Though they may be playing the Dera card most strongly, other parties are also not completely distanced from it.
Besides Surjit Jyani and Arun Narang, the 25 January event was also attended by a BJP candidate from Sardulgarh Jagjit Singh Milkha, BJP ally Punjab Lok Congress candidate from Patiala Rural Sanjeev Bittu, and Mangat Ram Bansal, husband of the Congress candidate from Maur Manju Bala.
There was also an event on 9 January at Dera Sirsa's biggest branch in Punjab, at Salabatgarh in Bathinda, that was reportedly attended by Congress' Sadhu Singh Dharamsot and AAP's Jagroop Singh Gill, along with Jyani and his party colleague Harjit Grewal.
Not just the Congress, the AAP has also adopted a safe approach towards the Dera, with Bhagwant Mann refusing to comment on the matter terming it "sub-judice".
Among the mainstream parties, SAD seems to be treading the most cautiously, afraid that any association with Dera would revive memories of the 2015 sacrilege and ruin its efforts to revive its Panthic image.
The main criticism of the Dera is coming from outfits like Dal Khalsa.
From the point of view of Dera's critics in the Sikh community, Ram Rahim's furlough has made things murkier. There's a context to this, that goes beyond Ram Rahim's acts that many Sikhs deem blasphemous.
Just before the 2017 Assembly elections, a blast took place at Maur Mandi in Bathinda district, killing seven people. At that time, sections of the media created the impression that Khalsitanis were behind it. This led to a consolidation of Hindu voters towards Captain Amarinder Singh's Congress. Eventually, it turned out to be the handiwork of Dera supporters.
Then the probe into the 2015 sacrilege incidents allegedly done by Dera supporters hit a roadblock under Captain's watch and there has been little action on it. Captain is now a BJP ally.
And now Ram Rahim has been released by the BJP government in Haryana, one that had adopted a hostile approach towards the farmers' protest.
When put together, all this makes the timing of Ram Rahim's release suspicious and it could harm the BJP's outreach in the Sikh community.
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