The image of a police officer stooping to touch the feet of Jagir Kaur as she drove into Kapurthala jail is an apt summary for the current state of Punjab. A state cabinet minister, she has been convicted for abetting a forced abortion that led to the death of her daughter. Yet, just a month ago when she was sworn in, there was little outrage, either in the state or in Delhi, where in any case Punjab gets little attention till one of those periodic outbreaks of fundamentalism that remind the country of the years of terrorism.
A lot was written in the aftermath of the Akali Dal’s return to power about Sukhbir Badal’s inclusive agenda and management style that brought the party an unexpected victory. Little attention was paid to the hara-kiri that the Congress committed as each senior leader fought to get party candidates from another faction defeated. Suddenly, the Akali Dal was being seen as a party of Punjabis rather than Sikhs, and one that had been rewarded for its performance in power.
But within weeks of the election, the hardliners were back in business after a Chandigarh court ordered that Balwant Singh Rajoana, condemned to death in the assassination of Beant Singh, be hanged. While it is true that as a country we must challenge the death penalty, which has little reason in its support, the hardliners were only being opportunistic. In the name of a progressive idea, the abolition of the death penalty, the most narrow-minded and bigoted of the people of the state suddenly found ways to appear relevant. The vast majority of Punjabis, both Sikhs and Hindus, have no sympathy with Rajoana, but the handful of fundamentalists who still espouse absurd dreams were enough for the Akali Dal to forgo its claim of representing all the people of the state.
Soon after, we had the sorry spectacle of the Sikh clergy declaring Rajoana a ‘living martyr’ (when he mocked them, they backtracked on the claim) and asking Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to seek a reprieve for Rajoana. This simple sequence of events hides a fact often ignored outside Punjab. Ever since Badal’s fight with veteran Akali leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra, now dead, more than a decade ago, the Sikh clergy have not even dared to cough without asking for Badal’s permission. If they directed him to intervene with the Centre or if they thought of declaring Rajoana a living martyr, it is because they were doing what Badal wanted them to do. After all, the same Sikh clergy thought nothing of letting Jagir Kaur head the SGPC, the body controlling all gurdwaras in Punjab, while she was accused of the crime of killing her daughter. The clergy’s recent stand allowed Badal to once again present himself as man seeking to moderate passions in a volatile state. Once again, he was successfully carrying out the very acts of subterfuge, ably aided by the Congress and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, that had led Punjab to its mess of the 1980s.
This subversion of Sikh institutions and the clergy is a strategy Badal has carefully and successfully replicated as far as the state bureaucracy is concerned. It was no surprise that PS Gill, Director General of Police for much of the last Badal tenure, contested the recent election on an Akali ticket, as did the CM’s former Principal Secretary DS Guru. Both lost but not before a signal had been sent to the bureaucracy that if they were willing, Badal was willing to help them well beyond retirement. Throughout his first term, the entire focus was on ensuring that only those bureaucrats who were clearly seen to be doing the party’s bidding were rewarded. In this manner, Badal has ensured that institutions ranging from the SGPC to the police and everything that lies in between have become part of the politics of patronage now practised in the state. For all the claims that the party has made a strong bid to expedite services for citizens, the truth remains that only services for those who support the Akalis have been expedited.
This politics of patronage extends to how the party has governed and contested the recent polls. The CAG has only recently noted that schemes such as the provision of 25 kg of wheat and 2.5 kg of dal for poor families was done by diverting 550,000 tonnes of wheat worth Rs 648.69 crore meant for Central schemes elsewhere in the country. Subsidised electricity has also ensured that the state electricity board is in bad financial shape, which is going to worsen after a court order has raised Himachal’s share of cheap electricity from the Bhakra-Nangal project at the expense of Punjab and Haryana. The state will have to start paying for such lavishness very soon, but for Badal the election results were only a reaffirmation that the politics of patronage works. It was a message not lost on anyone in the state, least of all on the policeman who bowed to touch Jagir Kaur’s feet in jail.