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How History Will Remember Parkash Singh Badal

The five-time chief minister witnessed the outcome of his brand of politics during his lifetime.

Image credit: The New Indian Express

In 2008, at a press conference in Ludhiana, Punjab, I asked Parkash Singh Badal if his party would privatise the public sector and make contractual appointments the norm as the Capt Amarinder Singh government had. Badal responded, “It is difficult for a government to run all institutions, so some departments are privatised or contracted out. There is no harm in this.” I asked Badal again in a sarcastic tone, “According to you, if a party is unable to rule, should it also contract out governance to a private company?” Other Akali Dal leaders and supporters and some journalists with a pro-Akali bias were upset by my query, though Badal did not react. He asked his supporters to calm down, telling them my “question was asked in the spirit of my youth” and then fielded questions from other journalists. He did not lose his cool or look ruffled.

The exceptional quality of this great leader of the country, who breathed his last on 25 April, and had an active political career spanning over seven decades, was that he never groped in the dark for answers—he was never caught unawares nor appeared stumped. He changed his strategy with time and circumstances, constantly kept in touch with people, and heard everybody out. People in Lambi, Badal’s Assembly constituency, say that he knew the names of 90% of its residents.

Born 8 December 1927 to Mata Sundari Kaur and Raghuraj Singh, Badal attended schools in Longhi and Ferozepur, then enrolled in Sikh College, Lahore. After migration, he joined Forman Christian College, and soon after he graduated, though he wanted to join government service, he entered politics. The inspiration was his uncle, Teja Singh, and Akali leader Giani Kartar Singh. Thus began his political career in 1947, first as sarpanch of his village, Badal, then as chairman of the block committee.

In 1956, the Congress party and the Akali Dal jointly contested the elections in the former PEPSU or Patiala and East Punjab States Union. In 1957, Badal was elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly for the first time on a Congress ticket. In 1967, he lost the election by a margin of below 100 votes. He won the 1969 Legislative Assembly election and became a minister in Justice Gurnam Singh’s Cabinet. He got the Panchayati Raj, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairy Development departments. In 1970, at 43, Badal achieved the distinction of becoming the youngest chief minister when Akali Dal president Sant Fateh Singh expelled Gurnam Singh. In Badal’s regime, fake police encounters took place in the name of suppressing a Naxal wave. The first police encounter was of Baba Bujha Singh, a leftist freedom fighter associated with the Ghadar movement, then 80 years old. Badal was chief minister for a year, and in 1977, when the Akali Dal formed the government in alliance with the Janata Party, he became chief minister again. In this term which lasted about two and a half years, Badal gave farmers some facilities, such as new focal points near mandis, and it also faced the Nirankari scandal. Badal was Agriculture Minister in the Union Cabinet for some time.

The Akali Dal is a party born out of struggles. It launched major agitations for federal rights to States and over the language issue. It gave the Congress government at the Center a tough battle with the “Punjabi Suba Morcha” and the “Dharma Yudh Morcha”, in which Badal was an active participant. He was also involved in the “Kapoori Morcha” and “Dharma Yudh Morcha”. In 1983, copies of the Constitution were burnt, demanding an amendment to Article 25. The Akali Dal widely opposed the Emergency imposed in 1975, and many of its leaders were arrested. Badal then spent 19 months in jail. Though many Akali Dal leaders say he has spent 17 years in prison, many political experts say it is an exaggeration.

During the era of terrorism in Punjab, Badal kept changing his political moves. Senior journalist Jagtar Singh, who has covered Punjab’s politics for a long time, says, “Prakash Singh Badal learned to always go with the wind, never against the trend. In 1989, his party was on the sidelines, and radical Sikh politics was gaining ground. At that time, he went to the extent of signing a letter demanding Khalistan, which was submitted to the United Nations. These aspects of Badal Sahab are never discussed. Badal also attended the bhog (last prayer) of Khalistani youths killed by the police.”

Prof Harjeshwar Pal Singh, an expert in Punjab’s political history, says, “Badal was a loyal Akali volunteer in the fifties and sixties, a militant leader fighting for the rights of farmers and [against] the State in the seventies. In the eighties, he was a ‘Sikh nationalist’ and emerged as a leader symbolising ‘Hindu-Sikh unity’ in the nineties. In the 21st century, he gave farmers free electricity and rations to the poor. By the mid-nineties, he had transformed the Akali Dal from a cult party to a Punjabi party.”

In 1996, Badal broke his party’s alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and tied up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the Lok Sabha election, then gave it unconditional support at the Center. To Badal, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance represented “Hindu-Sikh unity”. Some political thinkers say this alliance reconnected Sikh politics with the mainstream, while others say it was based on the self-interest of both parties. In some Sikh sections, their coming together launched the interference of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Sikh affairs.

In the 1997 Assembly election, the SAD-BJP alliance won 93 of 117 seats (BJP got 18), and Badal became chief minister for the third time, this time for a full five year-term. Farmers got free electricity at this time, but the pre-election promise to investigate fake police encounters was put in cold storage. Punjab’s concerns over water-sharing, language concerns and the Chandigarh issue were also forgotten. There was a pretence of being anti-corruption in the initial days of coming to power, but through Akali MLAs and ministers, corruption reached the Badal household.

In 2002, the Congress party led by Amarinder Singh defeated the Akali-BJP alliance, but Badal became chief minister for the fourth time after the next election in 2007. The SAD-BJP alliance continued the Congress regime’s liberalisation and privatisation policies. From now to 2017—the SAD-BJP alliance won the 2012 elections too, after which Badal became chief minister for the fifth time—much fanfare accompanied the privatisation drive. Agriculture and farming were remote to the government agenda now, and the personal business interests of the Badal clan flourished. More family members joined the Badal Cabinet, and people grew critical of this trend.

Sukhbir Badal became the Akali Dal president in 2008, relieving Badal senior for the first time since 1996. Later, Sukhbir was made deputy chief minister. In 2009, Harsimrat Kaur Badal became a Lok Sabha member and got a Cabinet post in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Sectarian issues and long-standing demands of Punjab drifted away from the Akali Dal’s agenda. The free ration and Shagun scheme expanded, and Badal built numerous religious buildings and developed cultural sites.

But the anti-people policies of successive governments started showing up as anger in every section of Punjab. To maintain their prestige, the rulers took the support of goonda elements—the kidnapping of a girl in Faridkot and the molestation incident in Chheharta near Tarn Taran became symbolic of how women were not safe in the Akali-ruled State. Desperate Punjabi youth started immigrating to other countries on a large scale.

In this decade ending in 2017, an allegation surfaced that the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee president and the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, chiefs of the two most prominent Sikh religious institutions, were elected at the behest of the Badal family. The Dera Sirsa controversy was also born and grew in proportions in these years. The 2015 desecration of the Sikh holy text Guru Granth Sahib also occurred during the Badal regime, which began the marginalisation of the Akali Dal. It suffered a crushing defeat in the 2017 Assembly election, getting only 15 seats. In 2018, Badal and his party leaders appealed for forgiveness from the Akal Takht on the sacrilege issue, but the people of Punjab did not believe them.

When Punjab’s farmers launched a struggle against the central government’s three agricultural laws, the Akali Dal initially supported the Centre. Badal issued a statement favouring the laws. Protesting Punjabis compelled the Akali Dal to break its connection with the BJP, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Union Cabinet. In the 2022 Assembly election, in which the Aam Aadmi Party won a landslide, the Akali Dal saw a historic defeat with only three seats. Sukhbir Badal lost by a margin of more than 30,000 votes; Badal senior lost to an AAP candidate by more than 12,000—his second defeat in a long political career and the last election he fought. Badal was shocked by this loss.

Prof Bawa Singh, who keeps a close watch on the politics and society of Punjab, says, “The Akali Dal has completely disappeared from the minds of the people of Punjab, and the reason is the Badal family.” Having abandoned its old principles like standing up for minorities, protecting the federal structure, and working for farmers, the Badal family allowed illegal mining and let the cable and many other ‘mafias’ spread,” he says. The Badal family is accused of using religion and power for personal interests while keeping silent on atrocities against the Muslims and Dalits during the Modi era. It was quiet when Article 370 was withdrawn from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir—and Parkash Singh Badal had to face public ire over this too.

Senior journalist Jagtar Singh says, “It is not an ordinary thing for a leader of a regional party to have a stature at the national level—and Parkash Singh Badal was one of the few leaders such leaders. He was chief minister five times, contested elections 13 times and won 11, including one Lok Sabha election.”

Explaining the political success of Prakash Singh Badal, Prof Harjeshwar Pal Singh says, “One reason was he took everyone along and had an efficient political team.” He adds that Badal had leaders who helped him rise to power, protected him from internal opposition, gave him the right advice on time, guarded his Assembly constituency, and so on. But a time also came when Sukhbir Badal dominated the Akali Dal and sidelined all old trusted leaders, some of whom said goodbye to the party.

Prakash Singh Badal saw the outcome of how he developed Akali politics—based on personal and family interests—during his lifetime.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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