Badal shaped Punjab’s political trajectory : The Tribune India

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Badal shaped Punjab’s political trajectory

Badal was instrumental in bringing Sant Fateh Singh and Sant Chanan Singh to prominence in Akali politics. The two Sants played a key role in decommunalising the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state by declaring that such a state need not be a Sikh-majority state. Badal’s politics of aligning with non-Sikh forces proved successful, with Devi Lal and others demanding the separate state of Haryana.

Badal shaped Punjab’s political trajectory

ERA OVER: Parkash Singh Badal was the last member of the generation of Akali leaders that included Sant Harchand Singh Longowal (right). - File photo



Pritam Singh

Emeritus Professor, Oxford Brookes Business School, UK

THE recent death of former CM Parkash Singh Badal marked the end of an era in Akali and Punjab politics. He was the last member of the third generation of Akali politicians that included Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi and Surjit Singh Barnala. Each had a distinctive brand of politics but what was common to them was a moderate approach.

This generation rose to prominence in post-1966 Punjab, created as a Punjabi-speaking state after a decade-long bitter struggle. The most prominent member of the first generation of Akali leaders was Master Tara Singh, at a time when Akali politics was faced with the challenge of devising a strategy to deal with the prospect of division of Punjab after the end of British rule.

The Akali Dal was rightly opposed to the division of Punjab, but its bargaining power was weak due to the low numerical strength of the Sikh community in comparison with the two major communities — Hindus and Muslims — whose leaders could not resolve their differences to avoid the Partition of India, which essentially was a partition of Punjab and Bengal. The Akali leadership rejected the offer of Muhammad Ali Jinnah to join the newly proposed Pakistan — which would have meant the whole of Punjab going to Pakistan — but believed in the promise made by Jawaharlal Nehru that if the Sikhs opted to join India, a new state would be created in north India which would allow them to “experience the glow of freedom”.

Post-1947 India created a new scenario for Akali politics that led to two tendencies — one represented by Giani Kartar Singh, that the Sikhs should pursue the goals of protecting their faith and traditions by remaining within the ruling Congress, and the second by Master Tara Singh, that the Sikhs must have their own party in order to retain their distinctive identity.

Badal belonged to the first generation of rural Sikhs to receive modern education in Lahore, a premier centre of learning in India of that period. He hoped to start a career as a low-level state official, but Giani Kartar Singh persuaded Badal’s father that since the Sikh community needed educated Sikhs to shape the future of Punjab, it was better for the younger Badal to join politics instead of becoming a government administrator. Giani Kartar Singh’s point of view held sway for a brief period within the two currents in Akali politics; this led to the Akali Dal’s merger with the Congress. It was thanks to this Akali-Congress deal that Parkash Singh Badal entered the Punjab Assembly for the first time in 1957.

Master Tara Singh felt let down by Nehru for not keeping his promise of enabling the Sikhs to experience the “glow of freedom” in independent India; the PM rejected the demand for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state. Master Tara Singh then succeeded in persuading the Akali leadership to break ties with the Congress. Badal followed Master Tara Singh during this turn in Akali politics. This initial period in Badal’s political career, when he worked in accordance with both streams of Sikh politics, proved to be the most crucial period in shaping his vision of Akali politics — to keep the Akali Dal a representative of the Sikhs but align with other non-Sikh entities in Punjab and Indian politics. This vision could be considered a creative synthesis of the two tendencies in Sikh politics and a very pragmatic one in pursuing the goal of political power.

Badal was instrumental in bringing Sant Fateh Singh and his companion Sant Chanan Singh to prominence in Akali politics as he viewed both of them through the prism of the goals of Sikh politics in independent India. The two Sants represented the second generation of Akali leadership and played a key role in decommunalising the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state by declaring categorically that such a state need not be a Sikh-majority state.

After the death of Nehru and Master Tara Singh, the then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri set the ball rolling for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state, which eventually materialised in 1966. The two Sants faded out of Akali politics after fulfilling their historic role, even though not completely, as their demand for making Chandigarh the sole capital of Punjab could not be fulfilled. Badal’s politics of aligning with non-Sikh forces proved successful, with Devi Lal and other leaders demanding the separate state of Haryana.

The new Punjabi-speaking state brought into prominence the third generation of Akali politicians in which Badal proved to be the most resilient and successful representative of all Punjabis. He laid emphasis on Punjabiyat, federalism and development as a new path to pursue, thus marking a new phase in Punjab’s politics. He also emerged as a leading representative of regional political forces demanding decentralisation of India’s governance.

The void left by his death poses a challenge to the current generation of Akali leaders to craft a new brand of politics for the state and the global Sikh/Punjabi community in an era that is going to be shaped by global changes in ecology, technology and society. This new generation must transcend narrow visions of electoral politics and enrich itself intellectually by drawing inspiration from Guru Nanak’s teachings on ecology and social equality.

As Badal crafted a new language, new tactics and new politics in post-1966 Punjab while retaining a link with the past, the new Punjab leadership needs to learn how to creatively adapt the past for the demands of the present. Remaining true to Badal’s commitment to a federal vision of India’s governance would be the real tribute to him.


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