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Avoiding sensitive issues

Print edition : May 07, 2004 T+T-

IF one were to go by the current election campaign, only two things are wrong with Punjab - the corrupt ways of the Akali leaders and the foreign origin of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. Not for poll campaigners sensitive issues such as the alarming increase in atrocities against Dalits, the religious fundamentalism nurtured by the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the insurmountable debt of farmers, or the rising cases of drug abuse in the villages. Political mudslinging is the order of the day. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has said that his party will use the details of property belonging to his predecessor and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Prakash Singh Badal, which have been gathered by the Punjab Vigilance Bureau, in his election campaign. The Akali leaders are seeking votes emphasising the benefits that would accrue to the State as a result of the SAD's alliance with the BJP and the possibility of having Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister once again.

Tohra village, which falls under the Ropar parliamentary constituency, has been witnessing political activity of a different kind. Three days before Baisakhi, the social-religious festival of Punjab, political bigwigs joined a large numbers of people in the village at the bhog ceremony of the late Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The general consensus there was that the departed leader had undertaken tremendous development work in his village. Any visitor to the village can see the concrete roads that link the houses of its 1,500 voters. It is no small achievement that the village has its own school, a bank and a hospital with 10 beds. A temple, a gurdwara and a mosque located within the village point to communal amity. During the harvest season, when the wheat fields assume a golden hue, every hand in the village is seen working at the fields. The image of a happy village community ends here.

An inquiry at the local bank branch reveals that every family has taken a loan. Said farmer Nirmal Singh: "The high cost of diesel, rising prices of urea and low procurement rates have meant that I had to take a bank loan and pay an interest of 10 per cent." The picture gets bleaker still.

Behind the pucca houses of the landed upper castes is the colony of Dalits. Poverty and hunger are evident on their faces, and so is the increasing frustration owing to underemployment or unemployment. The 20 Dalit houses are segregated from the rest of the village. There are separate taps for water. None of the Dalit residents owns a piece of land. The Dalits provide cheap labour to the wealthy land-owners. Though the refrain is that Tohra did not forget his village, his clout did not help Dalits as much as it did other communities. Said Ajeet Singh, an accountant in the bank: "Our debts and the rising costs of agriculture will remain whichever party comes to power. We are fortunate that Tohra got us government jobs."

Village Hassanpur is less fortunate. Given the fact that it is situated near Patiala town, most of the villagers have sold their land to urban builders. The few farmers left in the village complain about the high cost of electricity. Said farmer Darshan Singh: "There will be no hike in the power tarriff for the next six months. We understand that this is an election gimmick." As political parties campaign on the basis of the development work done by them, the villagers realise that some incentives will come to an end when the elections are over. Voters are aware that the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) has withdrawn its proposal for an increase in the power tariff, only for the time being. The PSEB had sought to increase the power bill by an average of 10 per cent in the domestic and agricultural sectors. The increased rates were to be effective from April 1. When the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the State government considered it prudent to delay this tarriff hike. Said Member of Parliament from Patiala Parneet Kaur: "I am stressing the development activity carried out by me and I promise to continue the work further." Her campaign managers dismiss the vicious infighting in the party as a mere difference of opinion. Said campaign manager Sant Ram Singla: "There is no infighting. It is like `I came to you to get some work of mine done and you did not respond immediately. So I will feel a bit neglected.' This is not infighting but minor disagreement between politicians, all of whom want the betterment of the people in the constituency." He was obviously trying to cover up the fact that cadre loyal to Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal in the Lehra Gagga area of Patiala constituency are not working for Parneet Kaur.

Two senior State party leaders and MPs Balbir Singh and Charanjeet Singh Channi have joined the Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party respectively. Elsewhere, taking their cue from Sonia Gandhi, Congressmen are campaigning for votes on the basis of the work done by their respective families. Said Congress candidate from Ludhiana, Manish Tewari: "I am asking for votes as a victim of militancy as well as the champion of Punjabiyat." Militants had gunned down his father V.N. Tewari, a Punjabi litterateur, in 1984.

The issue-deficient elections sees Badal's son Sukhbir Badal asking people not to vote for the Congress(I) as it was responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. The other campaign issues in Lambi, where Sukhbir Badal is testing his political fortunes, are unemployment and lack of health care. Nothing has been said of the growing violence against Dalits. The Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU) has been agitating against growing cases of violence against Dalits in Lambi. None of the political parties is ready to touch this sensitive topic.