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Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Sunday Profile: Panth meets Wealth

Scion of one of Punjab’s most powerful families, married into another, well-read, and known for both his wit, suave and muscular politics, Bikram Singh Majithia has had everything — and more — going for him. But will the drugs charge that he has so far dodged finally bring him down?

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma |
Updated: December 26, 2021 2:52:53 pm
Scion of one of the most powerful families of Punjab, that traces its lineage to a general in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, Majithia joined politics in 2007 when he fought and won his maiden Assembly election from Majitha. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Over three years ago, in March 2018, Bikram Singh Majithia, former Shiromani Akali Dal minister and brother-in-law of its party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, had made headlines for extracting a very public apology from Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal, whom he had taken to court for accusing him of drug trafficking. Today, he is back on the front pages of newspapers in election-bound Punjab with police issuing a lookout notice against him after booking him under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.

As his party cries vendetta, the state waits with bated breath to see what the man, who has so far managed to fend off every curveball that has come his way, will do next. It’s a reputation built in part due to his legal team that has been quick to nix all the unflattering content that has come his way ever since 2014, when an Arjuna Awardee wrestler-turned-cop Jagdish Bhola, dismissed from police service for allegedly running a synthetic drug racket involving crores, hinted at Majithia’s involvement in the trade.

Scion of one of the most powerful families of Punjab, that traces its lineage to a general in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, Majithia joined politics in 2007 when he fought and won his maiden Assembly election from Majitha. His elder sister Harsimrat Badal (brother-in-law Sukhbir Badal was then an MP from Faridkot) went door to door to canvass for him.

Shortly afterwards, the 31-year-old, who has a degree in business management from Delhi St Stephen’s College, was installed as a Cabinet minister in the Parkash Singh Badal government, arguably the youngest member in an Akali-BJP ministry dominated by veterans.

Bikram Singh Majithia is a former Shiromani Akali Dal minister and brother-in-law of its party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal. (File Photo)

In the Assembly, he would lead the party’s charge against the Opposition, with wit, vitriol, and some muscle. When it came to giving the Opposition a stinging retort, the party could bank on him as he took on everyone, including the irascible Navjot Singh Sidhu when the latter switched to the Congress.

In Amritsar, where he owns a house, acquaintances call him a deeply spiritual man who enjoys reading and can discuss any subject under the sun. He is also known to be a teetotaller and vegetarian. Sukhbir Badal had once laughingly remarked, “Even their dogs are vegetarian.”

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It was not long before murmurs started that Majithia, president of the Youth Akali Dal, would one day upstage Sukhbir. People pointed to his hallowed pedigree — his great grandfather was the founding president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in 1920; the family bought its first plane in 1935; his grandfather was the deputy defence minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet from 1957 to 1962, and his father Satyajit Singh not only ran a business empire spread across Delhi, UP and Punjab, but also presided over Amritsar’s Khalsa College that his forefathers had helped found in 1892. It was a potent mix of panth and

With his elder brother Gurmehar tending to the Saraya Group of Industries, named after the family estate in Gorakhpur district of UP, Majithia focused on politics, taking a leaf out of Akali patriarch and five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s old school politics — attending every marriage and bhog ceremony of his workers, a practice he continues even today.

His marriage in 2009 to Ganieve Grewal, daughter of a Delhi-based industrialist, was a grand affair that dazzled toffee-nosed Chandigarh, with nine different kinds of international cuisine — including Majithia’s personal favourite, Italian — and a host of NRIs in attendance. Those days, the Akali government was trying to woo NRI investments with annual meets, and Majithia was the self-appointed hospitality in-charge.

Along the way, he also made many enemies, some inside the party who disliked his strongman style, abrasive speeches, and his fleet of muscular cars — an avid rallyist, he was a regular at the Himalayan circuit. In 2010, the Akali government claimed he was getting threats from anti-national elements abroad, and the UPA government at the Centre gave him Z-Plus security. Nobody cared to find out why he was under threat. But in the pantheon of post-terrorism Punjab politicians, where your security detail defined your pecking order, Majithia had arrived.

After he won the polls in 2012, it became increasingly clear: You couldn’t mess with Majithia or Majhe da jarnail (the general of Majha), as his people called him with equal measure of admiration and fear.

There were whispers that Badal Senior was unhappy with the young man who had found his way into the Akali Dal after his sister’s marriage to Sukhbir.
Addressing the 2013 NRI sammelan, Badal had said, with Majitha on the dais with him, “Ask him (Majithia) if he has ever gone to jail. He got everything on a platter, I have spent 17 years in jails.” It was an apparently light-hearted moment and the audience laughed as Badal went on about how Majithia was angling for the seat of power, but the barbs were unmistakable.

There was shock and secret glee when Bhola, the alleged drug dealer, pointed a finger at Majithia. But the charges didn’t appear to stick as BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley, pitted against Captain Amarinder Singh from Amritsar in the 2014 parliamentary polls, handpicked him as his campaign manager. Though Amarinder repeatedly raised the drug charge and won, Jaitley polled more votes than him in the segments that fall in Majithia’s Assembly seat.

During this election, Majithia even had a run-in with the Sikh clergy, who accused him of distorting a hymn of the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, to favour Jaitley. Majithia submitted to the punishment meted out to him, and cleaned utensils at the Golden Temple.

The 2017 Assembly polls, fought on the twin issues of drugs and sacrilege, had both the Congress and AAP gunning for Majithia. In a popular ditty, “Kikli kaleer di”, AAP MP Bhagwant Mann went from village to village lampooning him as the man who could get you “what you needed”, suggesting drugs. At poll rallies, both the parties promised to put him behind bars on coming to power. While the Akalis posted their worst-ever electoral result in history with a mere 15 seats, Majithia managed to retain his, one of only two seats that the Akalis won in their former bastion of Majha.

As the Congress came to power, Majithia fought and won a defamation suit against political leaders for accusing him of trafficking in drugs. As his influence over the state continued despite the change of regime, Congress MLAs groused that former CM Amarinder was in cahoots with the Akalis.

The Channi government is calling the December 20 case, based largely on a status report on drug charges against politicians and policemen that was submitted in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in February 2018, a big win in its war on drugs, and an apt closure for all the families who have suffered due to drug abuse.
But close aides of Majithia say he will battle it out in court. “He will answer every charge, he will prove his innocence. The game has just begun.”

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