Its reinvention,more reformist than religious,has underpinned its win
The clear-cut mandate for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD),along with its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),in Punjab is as much due to the panthic party re-inventing itself as to the Congress failing to gauge the changing aspirations of the people.
A party which was formed to work for and protect religious and regional aspirations which was characterised for a long time as one led by leaders with flowing grey beards and a consummate devotion to the Sikh cause has metamorphosed into a modern outfit led by an MBA graduate from California University.
Sukhbir Singh Badal earned his political spurs while leading the partys campaign in the 2007 assembly elections,although he had entered politics almost a decade earlier in 1996 when he won a seat in the Lok Sabha. He carefully selected candidates for the 2012 polls and gave,for the first time,party tickets to 11 non-Sikh candidates. He fielded 31 new faces,of whom 21 have won. He also worked out a strategy to counter the Congress,propping up dummy candidates and even backing some Congress rebels with all the resources at his command. While the party hired MNCs for surveys and advertisement campaigns,Sukhbir ensured that he had complete control over the cable network in the state,stacking the campaign in his favour.
While his now estranged cousin and former finance minister Manpreet Badal talked of heavy debt burden and lack of resources,Sukhbir swore by big-ticket projects through public private partnerships and put forward the theory that you spend more to earn more. Several of his promises did not fructify during the first term of the government,including his claim that the state would have surplus power and would even sell it to other states,but he deserves credit for putting on rail at least three major thermal power stations,commissioning the Rs 19,000-crore Bathinda refinery,strengthening infrastructure and setting up international airports,among other projects. He also initiated governance and administrative reforms,which though facing teething troubles,reflected his new approach. In fact,more development took place during the 2007-2012 reign of SAD-BJP combine that during the previous Congress regime of 2002-2007.
This new face and purpose of the SAD are a far cry from what it was a few years ago,when it harped on discrimination against Sikhs and Punjab; on disputed waters and territorial issues; and on more power to the state under the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. However,in between,the Badals were able to sense the changing mood of the people; the fact that much water has flown down the Sutlej. The interim period has seen a long-serving Sikh prime minister and Sikhs holding other key positions in the country. The Khalistanis and their sympathisers had lost all support,and the Akalis themselves can be credited for two full terms largely free of violence or terrorism.
The Congress evidently failed to read the new levels of aspiration,and expectation from the government. It dwelled on outdated issues and stressed on taking revenge for the alleged repression of Congress workers. The party banked on old and tired war horses and indulged in the old politics of pleasing various sections of the party by handing out tickets to their kith and kin. This was topped with undue interference from the party high command,especially in setting the manifesto,without looking into the states specific needs. Not only was the manifesto of the party delayed,but the list of candidates could not be finalised till the last minute due to several pressures and pulls. Some of the candidates were changed even after the final list was announced,which led to resentments and cost the party at least half a dozen seats.
The Congress must blame itself for putting out nothing new or attractive in its manifesto. There was no stress on how to bring in investment,improve infrastructure,generate employment or create better conditions for the growth of industry and agriculture. Even though the verbose manifesto had references to these aspects,no leader really cared to stress on a better future for the people,particularly in a state where 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30,and unemployment and underemployment are major issues.
By romping home,the SAD-BJP combine has demolished several myths and proved almost all pollsters wrong. Besides ending the revolving-door pattern of governments in the state since 1966,it seriously questioned the myth about the power of the deras,particularly the Dera Sacha Sauda.
Just as in Uttar Pradesh where Mulayam Singh has accepted the modern approach brought in by Akhilesh Yadav,the senior Badal had been indulgent towards the reforms initiated by Sukhbir and given him a free hand in several important aspects of government functioning. However,Badal pere had been keeping a cautious eye and restraining his son from going overboard. With the focus increasingly on Sukhbir,it would be important for him to take different sections of the party and the people along and be more tolerant to criticism,something that he has to really work on. He has a long way to go and it is probably a matter of time before he takes over the mantle from his father. He would face the acid test then.