Ritesh K Srivastava
Even though the Akali Dal and the Congress are both claiming to form the next government in Punjab, a lot depends on who managed to get the support of Deras or the religious sects, which have always played a big role in deciding the political future of the state.
Punjab has nearly 300 major Deras spread across the state and most of them command a massive following, so whichever political party or candidate manages to get their support stands an excellent chance of winning the electoral battle.
While some Dera are open about their political leanings, others prefer not to come out directly in support of any particular party or candidate. With a number of BJP leaders facing corruption charges, the right-wing party is unlikely to repeat its star performance in the 2007 Assembly polls when it bagged 19 of the 23 seats it contested.
This is likely to hamper the Akalis’ prospects of retaining power in Punjab. Meanwhile, the Congress too is not on a comfortable wicket either as Mayawati`s BSP is set to cut into its traditional voter base, making the electoral battle tougher this time.
The Akalis and the Congress both are positioned weakly, but the latter still enjoys a thin edge over the former as they had to deal with anti-incumbency factor and this is where the support of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim-led Dera Sacha Sauda can be a decider.
The Dera wields considerable influence in the Malwa belt of the state which has 65 seats and had supported the Congress in 2007 when it lost on account of anti-incumbency factor. The Malwa region makes up a majority of Punjab, consisting of nine districts. Cities like Ludhiana, Patiala, Bhatinda and Mohali are all located in the Malwa region.
During the Assembly elections in 2007, the Dera factor played a crucial role in Congress party’s remarkable victory in the Malwa region. This is the reason why candidates of all prominent political parties made a beeline outside the Dera premises ‘seeking blessings’ from Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh before the January 30 polls.
The Left parties have always shunned Dera politics, but former CPI legislator HardevArshi, who is contesting from Mansa, chose to visit the Dera this time.
Among the SAD candidates who had sought the Dera chief’s blessings were Saroop Chand Singla, Mantar Brar, former DGP PS Gill, Surjit Kohli, Surjeet Rakhra, Ajaib Singh Mukhmailpur, Amarjeet Singh Sidhu, Darshan Kotfatta and Deep Malhotra.
Congress leaders Sunil Jakhar, Amarinder Singh ‘Raja’, Ripjit Singh Brar, Avtar Brar, Jassi Khangura, Lal Singh, Gurpreet Kaur, Kewal Dhillon, Surinder Pal Singh Sibia and Isher Singh Meharban met the Dera chief as did BJP’s Raj Khurana and Vijay Luxmi Bhadoo.
Besides, BSP’s Mohan Singh Phallianwala and Hans Raj Josan, an Independent, also met the Dera chief. PCC chief Captain Amarinder Singh and PPP president Manpreet Singh Badalalso paid a visit to the Dera.
Although, the Dera chief maintains that politics should be left to political parties, his sect lent its support to Congress in 2007, but it has kept its cards close to its chest this time.
Even though the Maharaj (Dera head, Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh) is a close relative of Bathinda MLA Harminder Singh Jassi of the Congress, he had authorised the political wing of the group Sadh Sangat Rajneetik Wingto take a call on supporting one or more political parties.
The Dera Sacha Sauda has a seven-member political wing which goes through the opinion of its members and takes a decision which is conveyed to the followers of the Dera. Indications are that Dera Sacha Sauda may have opted for a please-all formula by giving its ‘blessings` to more than one political party this time.
The Dera factor is crucial since the Malwa region has 65 Assembly seats as compared to other regions of the state with fewer seats. For example Doaba has 25 and Majha has 27 seats in the 117 seat Assembly.
In 2007, the Congress with the active support of Dera had bagged majority seats in Malwa, with the Akalis securing only 19 seats and the BJP 5. However, of the 25 seats in Doaba, the Akalis had bagged 13 and the BJP 7 in 2007, leaving only 5 to the Congress. In Majha (27 seats), the Akalis managed 17 and the BJP 7, leaving only 3 to the Congress.
The SAD had won a total of 49 seats, BJP 19, Congress 44 and remaining five seats were won by Independents. Earlier, in the 2002 polls, the Congress had come to power winning 62 seats. SAD had won 41 seats and its alliance partner BJP three, while the CPI had got two seats and Independents nine.
Of the major contestants, the SAD had got a vote share of 37.09 % in 2007 as against 31.08% in 2002. Its alliance partner BJP got a vote share of 8.28% in 2007 against 5.67% in 2002.
The Congress had bagged a vote share of 40.90% in 2007 as compared with 35.81% in 2002. The BSP had also managed to get a total vote share of 4.13% in 2007, against 5.69% in 2002.
This time the BSP is contesting in a big way and has fielded its candidates in all the 117 Assembly seats, while the PPP has fielded candidates in 92 seats and hardliner Simranjit Singh Mann-led SAD (Amritsar) has fielded as many as 57 candidates.
So it would be interesting to see which party gets the blessings of the controversial guru, who had urged his followers to vote for candidates with clean image.