With just a week to go for the Punjab Assembly elections, AICC vice-president Rahul Gandhi Saturday visited Dera Sach Khand Ballan in Jalandhar, the biggest and the most influential among the Dalit Ravidassia community. Separately, Congress candidate Lehragaga and former chief minister Rajender Kaur Bhattal claimed at a rally in her constituency that the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda had promised its support to the party, a claim Dera spokesperson refuted when contacted by The Indian Express. Deras are religious groups with great influence over their followers. Every election, political parties woo dera leaders and seek their support. In the past 8-9 months, leaders of national political parties have been visiting these deras regularly.
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Among the deras with the big following, Dera Ballan, Dera Nurmahal and Dera Sacha Sauda, Radha Suami Dera Beas and Dera Nirankari are seen as having influenced voters in one or another Punjab election.
AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal, state BJP president Vijay Sampla, Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh, Deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, his brother-in-law Bikram Majithia and other SAD leaders have all visited various deras in the year-long run-up to the Punjab elections.
Gandhi’s visit to Dera Ballan was his first. He has been twice to Dera Radha Saomi in Beas, along with Captain Amarinder Singh. Sukhbir Badal and Majithia, and Arvind Kejriwal have also held meetings with dera chief Gurinder Singh Dhillon in recent months. Recently, a close relative of Dhillon was appointed as special secretary in the Chief Minister’s office.
Dera Ballan, which Gandhi visited today, has a large following in Doaba region, especially in eight reserved Assembly constituencies out of a total 23 in the region. It also has influence in the Ravidassia community in the general seats also. The Doaba region has a large concentration of Dalit voters, who form over 31 per cent of Punjab’s total electorate.
Rahul visited Dera Ballan around 7.30 pm, after addressing a rally at Phillaur. With him were Congress’s Punjab affairs in-charge Asha Kumari and Kartarur Congress candidate Surinder Chaudhary. Former SAD MLA Avinash Chander is said to have been instrumental in arranging the meeting and received Gandhi at the dera. The Congress leader spent around 40 to 45 minutes at the Dera, meeting its head Sant Niranjan Dass, before leaving for Adampur Airport from where he flew out.
A Congress leader and sources at the Dera said Rahul explained the Congress’s agenda for the Dalit community to Dera officials. Earlier, at his Phillaur public meeting, Gandhi promised to set up a Dr BR Ambedkar University in Jalandhar, and to fill the backlog of 50,000 jobs for the Dalit youth, as well as clear long-pending dues under a scholarship scheme meant for Dalit students.
Meanwhile, Bhattal, five-time Congress MLA from Lehragaga in Sangrur district, said Saturday she had visited Dera Sacha Sauda at Sirsa on Friday and claimed the Dera had decided to support Congress.
However, Dera authorities denied this. Dr Aditya Insan, spokesperson of the Sirsa Dera, said, “Dera has not taken any such decision till now.”
The Sirsa Dera, headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has a sizeable number of followers from Lehragaga constituency.
Addressing a small rally at Ghulari village of her constituency bordering Jind district of Haryana, Bhattal said, “I had gone to Dera Sirsa yesterday. There is good news that whole Dera Sacha Sauda has given a decision in our (Congress) favour.”
Bhattal then went on to say: “Therefore, there should be no leniency. We have to set a record of votes in our favour so that Akali Dal refrains from offering ticket to an outsider from this constituency next time.”
Ghulari village has been adopted by Rajya Sabha MP and SAD general secretary Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana in 2014. Dhindsa’ son and Punjab Finance Minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa, 43, is contesting the election from the constituency on SAD ticket.
AAP candidate Jasvir Singh, 41, a former sarpanch of Kudani village and a former Congress supporter, also has good support among voters.
Parminder Singh Dhindsa is a sitting MLA from Sunam, adjoining constituency of Lehragaga. But eye on Lehragaga constituency for the 2017 Assembly polls, he had started nurturing Lehragaga around one-and-a-half years back.
Bhattal said at the meeting that Dhindsa was an outsider while AAP’s Jasvir Singh was a “Congress Bhagoda.”
“Neither AAP is able to run government in Delhi nor it is going to come to power here.”
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