The jail term awarded to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh may have come as a severe jolt to Dera Sacha Sauda but there is no consensus between political watchers on whether this will result in the Dera losing its political influence in Punjab and Haryana.
While there is one school of thought which feels that the reputation of the Dera chief has taken a severe dent with his conviction and this will lead to a large number of followers deserting him and, thus, resulting in a marked loss of political influence, there are others who feel that it is too early to reach this conclusion. There is a viewpoint that the followers may treat the conviction of the Dera chief as a conspiracy against him and may still retain their fervour, albeit in a less demonstrative way.
Professor Ronki Ram of Political Science Department of Panjab University, a known authority on the emergence of deras and the social structure in the region, feels that despite the negative fallout of the verdict, Dera Sacha Sauda may well be able to retain its political clout. “Given the state of affairs and the way people are motivated to go towards such religious spaces, they are not going to easily believe that the Dera head was wrong. It is not a question of him being convicted, the question is if the faith in him has been tarnished,” said Ronki Ram.
According to Ronki Ram, it is all a matter of faith and social capital of the Dera chief. “If he can keep the flock together, politicians will keep going to the dera,” he said. Political observers say that while Gurmeet Ram Rahim cannot administer the dera while in jail, there is all probability that whosoever is anointed as his successor will preside over the affairs of the dera in his name.
However, senior political commentator and a keen student of social history of the region, Bir Devinder Singh, has views to the contrary and feels that the conviction of the Dera chief will see the political clout of the dera greatly diminished. “I am already getting the sense from the ground, after speaking to various dera followers, that the supporters of Gurmeet Ram Rahim are greatly disheartened by his conviction and are now moving away from Dera Sacha Sauda,” he said.
According to Bir Devinder, the Sikh followers of the dera have been expressing their desire to return to the Sikh fold and want to have nothing to do with it anymore. “I feel that this is a watershed moment. With the infighting in the dera over leadership, the restricted financial means and the difficulty that it will face in organising large congregations, the future of the dera is bleak,” he said. Giving the example of Damdami Taksal, Bir Devinder said that even the Taksal, despite its association with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale could not regain its popularity levels among the Sikh masses after Operation Blue Star.
When asked if the vacuum created by the loss of political influence of Dera Sacha Sauda could be taken advantage of political outfits like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which have a hold in Malwa belt, Bir Devinder said that this was unlikely. “The dera following was primarily on the matter of faith and the political mileage accrued by the leadership was as a result of that implicit faith. AAP will not be able to take advantage of it,” said.
While refusing to comment on AAP getting any political benefits from the development, Leader of Opposition, Sukhpal Khaira maintained that the influence of Dera Sacha Sauda in political spheres was bound to decline. “There has been too much negativity. And those people who have been blindly following it and have had innocent faith in it have now been apprised of the truth,” he said. Khaira added that the negative effects of the Dera chief’s conviction will also reflect upon the BJP who is in power in the centre and Haryana and on all those parties, including Congress, who has been cosying up to it for votes.