It is believed that when Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal went to national BJP leaders L K Advani and Rajnath Singh earlier this month to convince them of the need to elevate his son and Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal to the post of Deputy Chief Minister,he gave the example of Omar Abdullah to buttress his case. But unlike Omar,whose ascent to power in J&K was preceded by the unequivocal approval of senior leaders,Sukhbirs oath-taking ceremony in Amritsar on Wednesday came only with a grudging acceptance.
The BJP central leadership agreed to Parkash Singh Badals proposal and tried to allay the fears of its restive state wing merely to avoid any discord with an old ally in view of the Lok Sabha elections. It would be perhaps first time ever that the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister would be from the same party in any coalition government and also the first time that a father and son would hold the two posts together.
When the Akali Dal formed the government in an alliance with the BJP in 2007,Sukhbir was dubbed as the architect of this victory. His biggest contribution was to prevent the party from disintegrating at a time when the incumbent Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had launched a series of inquiries against several Akali leaders. Sukhbir kept the party morale up,reached out to grass-root workers and relentlessly campaigned against what he had termed as the misrule and tyranny of Amarinder Singh.
The Akali Dals success in the 2007 elections gave Sukhbir the kind of stature he had never previously enjoyed,even as a three-time MP and a former Union minister of state in the Vajpayee government. His eventual rise to the post of Chief Minister was considered inevitable the only question was when the octogenarian patriarch would pass the baton to his son.
To the Akalis,it all looked cut and dried- a thumping victory for Sukhbir in the Lok Sabha elections would silence any doubts that remained about him taking over as the Chief Minister. This confidence was so strong that the Delimitation Commissions decision to reserve Faridkot (Sukhbirs MP constituency) was not seen as a setback.
By all indications,Bathind – a constituency that includes the Badal familys native ara – was chosen (though never announced) as the new seat for Badal junior. Over the next year,this sleepy city witnessed a rush of new investments and project approvals,including,among several others,the Mittal refinery,the international airport and the BCCI stadium. This in turn led to a massive appreciation in land prices. Sukhbir himself would hold regular meetings here. Everything was going according to script. Until the Dera factor came into play.
The Akalis were miffed at Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh,head of the popular religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda,for his overt support to the Congress in 2007. When he found himself in hot water for allegedly hurting Sikh sentiments,the Akalis saw an opportunity to settle scores. But the plan backfired,as they obviously miscalculated the extent of Deras following in Bathinda. As Lok Sabha elections approached and the resentment of Deras followers grew over their leader being repeatedly subjected to inquiries and investigations,Bathinda,which has about three lakh Dera supporters,didnt look like a very safe option for fielding Sukhbir. In addition,the nearly two-year stint of the Akali-BJP combine had failed to impress as much as expected,leading to a distinct anti-incumbency mood.
Political observers are of the view that the realisation that an unimpressive Lok Sabha performance would weaken Sukhbirs claim to the post of chief minister has led to his appointment as Deputy CM. Accordingly,his brother-in-law and information and public relations minister Bikram Singh Majithia resigned from the Cabinet to make for Sukhbir.
Known to be good at managing his own image,Sukhbir has a distinct youth appeal but he has also been careful to keep the influential Sikh clergy and votebank on his sde – he chose to get baptised at the Takht Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib last year and took oath as Deputy Chief Minister in the holy city of Amritsar,becoming first Punjab minister to do so; the ceremony usually takes place in Chandigarh or neighbouring Mohali.
A strong votary of investment in real estate,Sukhbir is credited with start of many infrastructural projects in the state on the Public Private Partnership model,while also continuing to promote subsidies. In 2007,the 46-year-old,who earned an MBA degree from California,had made a slew of promises and went about changing the parochial image of the Akali Dal.
While his chance to become the chief minister might take some time in coming,Sukhbirs acid test has already started. His performance in the remaining three years of this government will determine his eventual political career. As he observed to The Indian Express a few months ago: Your fathers name will help you only up to a point. If you do not live up to your illustrious surname by your own performance,you will fade into oblivion. Your work determines your future.