Akalis, interrupted

Print edition : April 23, 2004
in Chandigarh

Gurcharan Singh Tohra, centre, outside the Golden Temple after being re-elected president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee in Amritsar, on November 20, 2003.-SANDEEP SHARMA

"SAT SRI AKAL," Prakash Singh Badal shouted out to the audience of his first major campaign rally. Then, he paused, noticing that half the audience was not wearing turbans, and made a second salutation: "Jai Shri Ram."

Twenty years from now, a historian might see the 2004 Lok Sabha elections as a large pause in the evolution of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a kind of large colon in his narrative, about what would then be a 100-year-old political formation. None of the grand themes that have held the SAD together through decades of political adversity seem evident in its Lok Sabha campaign. Not one word has been said about greater regional autonomy for Punjab, or a separate personal law for Sikhs. No demands have been made to the Union government for handing over Chandigarh to Punjab, or to side with the State in its long-running dispute with Haryana on the sharing of river waters.

Campaign 2004 is, instead, shaping up as a mundane contest between wholly mainstream parties. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has built his platform around the anti-corruption investigations that have sent nine former SAD Ministers - as well as Badal, his wife Surinder Kaur, and his son and heir-apparent Sukhbir Badal - to jail. The SAD has, in turn, hit back at Amarinder Singh and his circle of aides, accusing them of precisely the same crime. A recent scandal over the allocation of liquor retail rights has provided considerable ammunition to the SAD, which has also been talking about the Congress(I)'s poor developmental and administrative record. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's performance are the leitmotifs of the SAD: not questions of religious identity and regional autonomy.

IT is hard to miss, in this context, the political significance of the passing of SAD leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Tohra, who died at the age of 79 on March 31, represented a fading generation of Akali politicians. His relationship with the new-model SAD leadership was one of diametrical opposition. Like most Akalis of his generation, Tohra was never seen in anything other than peasant attire; the SAD's new leadership wore Ray Ban sunglasses and Gucci shoes. Tohra lived in a simple village home; the sons of the elite Jat peasants who formed the core of the SAD grew up in air-conditioned Chandigarh homes. Tohra spoke in the vernacular, strongly coloured by the Sikh religious idiom he picked up as a young itinerant preacher; the new SAD leadership was more comfortable in the English it had learned in boarding schools in the north Indian hills.

Tohra's political career offers some insight into the changing character of the SAD. He joined the Akali Dal in 1938, well after the party had its moment of glory in the course of the Gurdwara Reform Movement.By his own account, Tohra participated in the anti-Muslim violence seen in east Punjab during the Partition. Perhaps the experience of the time consolidated his vision of politics as a battle between opposed religious communities. In any case, Tohra cast the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the administrative body that manages important Sikh shrines through Punjab, as an instrument against a predatory Centre. For much of his career, he cast the Congress(I) of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a latter-day Mughal empire, an enemy of the Sikh panth and its freedoms.

Unlike most important politicians, Tohra never had a real democratic mass base. He was only once elected to the Lok Sabha, carried to office on the anti-Emergency tide of 1977. That he served five terms in the Rajya Sabha, though, is an indication of the enormous influence he commanded within the SAD. This influence was founded on his control of the SGPC, which he first took control of in 1973. Bar a brief stint in 1986, and again after being deposed by terrorists in 1990, he remained in uninterrupted control of the SGPC until 1999. During this time, he often used his influence over the clerical apparatus of the Golden Temple to influence the course of politics. In 1979, for example, he pushed the then Akal Takht Jathedar, Sadhu Singh Bhaura, into play in a feud with then - as now - Chief Minister Badal, charging his arch-rivals with offences against the panth.

Badal, however, hit back. In 1999, Tohra and clerics sympathetic to him were deposed, as Badal and his new-found BJP allies pushed the SAD away from its chauvinist legacy. The split cost the SAD dearly in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, and again in the 2003 Assembly elections. Eventually, both Tohra and Badal patched up, but this time the mass politician had prevailed over the religious leadership. In retrospect, it seems probable that the real dispute was over the direction the party would take - over its alliance with the BJP, its relationship to power in New Delhi, over its very identity. Now, in 2004, none of these issues is in serious dispute: Badal's dominance makes clear what the party is not about. Just what it is about, however, is less clear. The party's leadership is mainly elite Jat - but that base alone cannot win elections. It is still Sikh - but not all Sikhs support the SAD. On all questions of economic policy, there is little to choose between the SAD and the Congress(I).

With Badal at the head of the SAD, the process of answering these questions can be deferred.

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