By Prabhjot Singh | Opinion |
If politics was his passion, contesting elections was his pastime. From panchayat to gurdwara elections, state legislature to parliament, Parkash Singh Badal figured prominently in almost every election that took place in Punjab at least since the reorganisation of the State in 1966.
His slogan “raaj nahin sewa” met with same overwhelming popularity as were his “atta-daal” and “free water for farmers” schemes.
He was a master appeaser. He knew people’s pulse. Staying in power was his biggest ambition that he successfully achieved by serving this border State as Chief Minister for five times, besides leader of Opposition thrice and Member of Parliament and Union Agriculture Minister in Morarji Desai’s government.
His demise at the age of 95 will make a huge difference not just to Punjab or Akali politics but also to national polity and coalition politics. He scripted the success of coalition politics in the country, first with the Jana Sangh, then during JP’s movement Janata Party and later with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though subjects like centre-state relations were dear to his heart, he died seeing Centre becoming more powerful than what it was at the early stages of his political career. The decision to walk out of the SAD-BJP coalition was not by choice but by compulsion. And the defeat in the 2022 assembly elections to an unknown political entity of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) marked an end to a glorious political career that shaped the destiny of present Punjab.
He was no different than most of other Akali stalwarts or “Taksali” leaders. He, too, started his political career as a Congressman. He, however, moved to the Shiromani Akali Dal fairly early, but always remained a “moderate” without allowing himself to be swayed by the demand for a separate Sikh State or Khalistan.
Though the Shiromani Akali Dal came out with the Anandpur Sahib resolution in 1973 for more rights to States, he was one leader who refused to give in to separatists. If the Shiromani Akali Dal, the oldest regional party in the country, witnessed divisions and partitions as the State of its influence, Punjab, did, he always stood for cordial centre-state relations.
Various initiatives of the Centre, including Indira Gandhi award, Shah Commission report and even the Rajeev-Longowal accord saw the moderates confronted both in Punjab and SGPC politics, he remained steadfast and was the last to get into politics of confrontations. It is why lots of criticism was heaped on him for not getting any of the long standing demands of the State conceded by the centre.
He always believed that the Akali Dal was the political face of one of the most affluent, patriotic and hardworking minority communities that made more than 80 percent of total sacrifices in the freedom struggle and was not only left without a capital but also lost some of its prestigious projects it built after independence.
As a staunch supporter of peaceful negotiations for resolving the long standing demands, he was successful in carrying not only the Sikh community but also the Hindu community in the State as well. With the centre dilly dallying on conceding any of the demands, he had the difficult job of representing the interests of a minority community that had at times the growing influence of hardcore elements demanding separate Sikh state without being in opposition to the majority community, or seeking to mobilise its own support in hostility to the majority community. This was a herculean task that not many Akali Dal leaders, including only other Akali Chief Minister in last more than four decades, Surjit Singh Barnala, tried to handle with tact while performing this balancing act.
The demand for a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, even after more than 75 years of independence, has refused to die down. Governments of the time may have tried to dismiss it as an extremist slogan but none has ever tried to resolve it amicably. Sikh leaders, especially those representing the Shiromani Akali Dal, have never lent any support to the demand but also did nothing to get the other long standing demands of the State, including transfer of Chandigarh and water works to Punjab.
Parkash Singh Badal always played safe and subscribed to the philosophy of peaceful coexistence maintaining universal brotherhood, tranquillity and peace after more than two decades of bloodshed that ravaged the State. Intriguingly, his name remained associated with some of the major controversies, including the start of Sikh-Nirankari clashes on Baisakhi day that ultimately pushed the State into militancy as the demand for the acceptance of Sri Anandpur Sahib resolution grew louder and clearer.
He always believed that peace and progress would put behind the demand for Khalistan. He needed the centre’s support that came at times but conditionally.
Punjab is the only state in the country that has witnessed two partitions in the last 75 years. First of these came with the Independence, and second followed Sikhs’ continuous demand for a separate Punjabi speaking or lingual State.
The Akalis, who in coalition with Congress were generally ruling the State between the first and the second partition in 1966, had their political aspirations upped and parted ways with Congress before an interim government was stalled in the State. As a sequel to that clarion call, many Sikh leaders came out of the Congress government and Parkash Singh Badal was one of them.
After non-Congress governments took over from where Congress left before the 1966 reorganisation, Akali’s started gaining political ground. After initial reluctance, the Centre too was forced to reorganise some states on linguistic basis. The Centre, however, played a game by drawing a long list of concurrent subjects, in which the Centre and the states both have the right to legislate, and the automatic right of the Centre to prevail over a state in any concurrent legislation.
Some of the demands Punjab subsequently raised were at the core of the 1973 Anandpur Sahib resolution. There was a lot of hue and cry after the resolution hit the public domain. It had several additional points that sought to placate more extreme elements which wanted to combine regional autonomy with religious exclusivity. In 1978, fresh resolutions that proclaimed themselves to be based on the Anandpur Sahib resolution were passed, but they eschewed ambiguous language that could lend itself to separatist interpretations. The Akalis became champions of states’ rights, and it was during this time that the baton passed into the hands of Badal.
Events elsewhere in the country set in motion a debate over centre-state relations. A few non-Congress governments supported the federal structure before various Opposition-led states came together to demand restructuring of Centre-state relations. This led to the appointment of the Sarkaria Commission. The recommendations were just shelved in the cold store. The only positive, though theoretical, was the creation of the Inter-State Council. Badal had been a votary of implementation of the Sarkaria Commission recommendations, especially with regard to the consultative appointment of a state’s Governor. But then his efforts bore no success and he continued to enjoy power.
Badal’s alliance, first with the Jan Sangh, and later with its successor party, the BJP, stood at odds with his championing of states’ rights. Still, until last year, continued to stand by his alliance partners.
Badal as a man had a multi-faceted personality. Reading newspapers was his very priority every morning. Clips of news reports were regularly filed and maintained at his instance.
OPEN TO CRITICISM
I used to interact with him regularly. He was not averse to criticism but at times insisted on getting his version played prominently. Sukhbir Singh Badal, after a brief stint in central politics, wanted to make a flashy arrival in State politics. Those days, lots of stories were planted and played prominently about his imminent elevation as Chief Minister. He started calling meetings of bureaucrats and even Ministers and legislators. The old man stood cool and calm and made certain decisions that made it obvious who was the boss. Besides, it also cleared all speculations of his making room for his son. I did a special story saying that Badal remains firmly saddled. To my pleasant surprise I got a couple of calls early in the morning from CM’s house. Since I used to go for my morning game, and there were still no cell phones, I got a message that he wants to talk to me.
I called and he quickly came on line to acknowledge my story saying that factual position has been highlighted.
Otherwise, there were only a couple of other occasions when I got calls from him. One such occasion was when I was doing my story on how politicians were holding the public transport system to ransom. He called to say that he would love his version to go as prominently as parts of my serialised stories were going. Afterwards, the government went with full page ads in support of its transport policy rather than seeking a rejoinder to my series. Our relationship, as always, remained truly professional and criticism, if any, was taken sportingly.
One of his programmes, Sangat Darshan, though popular with masses, provided a lever to opposition parties to criticise him for diverting public funds to serve political constituencies of his party members. Since, some parties, including Congress, also held him responsible for accepting money for the controversial SYL canal, he tried to silence his critics by notifying the acquired land and returning it to original owners. It, however, did not end the ongoing dispute between Punjab and Haryana.
Staunch supporter of ideology and commitment to public services, he always denounced vendetta politics.
Whatever his critics may have to say, he was not one of but the tallest of all politicians the State has produced in the post-independence era. It is one reason he commanded respect from leaders of all opposition parties for his secular and national outlook.
Tailpiece: He always held he was doing “sewa” and not “raaj”. Interestingly, this “sewa” mostly came when he was in “satta” (raaj).
(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)
Former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal dies at 95 (Asia Samachar, 26 April 2023)
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