Walk deep into the Malwa heartland and development begins to split into two: Akali development,Congress development. In the village,start a conversation on public works and government schemes that have or have not been implemented,and two groups are formed immediately on party lines. Soon,tempers rise. What began as a conversation threatens to become a violent argument.
There is a background to the simmering confrontation as Punjab goes to polls. In the 2008 panchayat election,a year after the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) had won Punjab but lost heavily in its traditional bastion of Malwa,the SAD is widely believed in these parts to have used force to reassert its dominance.
The sarpanch,earlier directly elected by the people,was now to be indirectly elected by panchayat members. This made it easier,goes the story in village after village,for the ruling party to install its own people at the helm of the panchayat. The term most commonly used for this here is dhakke naal,with a push and a shove.
Many panchayats in this area have not yet recovered. Many remain paralysed. Stories abound of how the governments schemes for the poor have been hijacked for Akali supporters by a nexus between the SAD halka in-charge or constituency-in-charge,the sarpanch and the BDO. And of the parcha system,used to subdue political opponents.
The halka in-charge is the title for the losing SAD candidate in the last election who nevertheless became the all-powerful conduit between the SAD government and the village panchayat,bypassing the elected Congress MLA. The parcha system is a euphemism for the slapping of false cases by the ruling regime against its political rivals.
In village Chandbhan,Jaito constituency,one of the seats the Akalis lost to the Congress in 2007,residents point to the accumulation of sewage water in the village pond. The dirty water enters homes when it rains. The problem could be solved by guiding the water into a drain that passes by the village. But that is the work of the panchayat, says Albel Singh. And like all panchayats in this area,our panchayat doesnt function anymore. It was also made by force.
Law and order has worsened in the village,says Jagir Singh,also a farmer. Earlier we used to vote for religion, he says. Now we have seen that promises are never kept. And the village is divided in two.
It always happens, counters Jit Singh,SAD jathedar (local functionary),that the ruling party controls the thana and the tehsil and that it slaps parchas on opponents. But the general consensus in the group in Chandbhan is that party lines have been drawn deeper and sharper into the ground and in the administration in the past five years.
In Hari Nau village in the adjoining Kotkapura constituency,again a traditionally Akali seat that shifted to the Congress in 2007,Daulat Ram relates the same story. In 2008,the candidate with seven (panchayat) members supporting him was bypassed in favour of the one with only four. No work has been done in this village, he says.
Inside Jaito town,former Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh addresses a rally outside the Shri Ram Krishna Dramatic Club. He talks of Punjabs slide from No. 1 among states to No. 19, the 27 lakh unemployed,farmers suicides,the minimum support price that hasnt kept pace with rising prices of inputs. He promises a Lokpal for Punjab and better electric supply. But the crowd comes alive when Singh takes on the Badal monopoly. They have the liquor vends,they own TV cables,the buses. All these visuals that cameramen are taking of me wont come on your TV sets. Or maybe at night,when we are all fast asleep!
But even as the division is palpable in the erstwhile Akali stronghold of Malwas Jats,who are now almost evenly divided between the Congress and SAD,the Congresss base in the non-Jat backward classes in the region also seems breached.
A small distance from the rally in Jaito,in Sukhchainpura Dalit basti,Rajinder Kumar,Khatik by subcaste,is openly determined to vote for the SAD. This time,there is enthusiasm for the SAD because there is a road in our village,and pipes have been laid for water.
Outside a tea-shop in Bhalaiana village,not far from Jaito,however,a group of Mazhabi (Dalit) Sikhs who have just attended a BSP rally addressed by Mayawati,tells a different story. They (Akalis) put police inside our gurdwaras and gurughars, says Naib Singh.
Like many villages,Naib Singhs has two gurdwaras,one for the dominant castes and one for the Dalits. There are nine vacancies of teachers in our school, says young Sukhchain. We cannot avail of the Shagun scheme meant for SCs unless we meet a minister,promise him our votes.
SAD has made some visible effort to neutralise the effects of the division in its erstwhile votebank by reaching out to the backward,mostly Dalit groups,who have traditionally been at the receiving end of Jat dominance,even brutality.
Will SAD be able to wean a significant section of the Dalits and the poor to make up for the persisting division in the Jat vote? In the run-up to the elections,the answer to this question is especially crucial.