Hero of many battles

Print edition : January 12, 2007

Prakash Singh Badal. He is preparing the party to avenge the electoral defeat of 2002. - AKHILESH KUMAR

Interview with Shiromani Akali Dal chief Prakash Singh Badal.

THERE are not many leaders in the country with as much experience in politics as Prakash Singh Badal. He was Chief Minister thrice, Union Minister once, Member of the Legislative Assembly nine times and Leader of the Opposition thrice, and has spent 17 years in jail in the fight for the "bright future of Punjab". His innings has been so long that he finds it difficult to identify the photographs relating to his various political activities.

Badal belongs to a landed family from the Malwa region (districts south of the Sutlej river) of Punjab. The 79-year-old veteran of all the Akali struggles after Independence has successfully steered the Shiromani Akali Dal out of the shadow of terrorist violence in the State. His latest phase of glory began when, in 1994, he resisted the attempts by the five Singh Sahibs (top clerics) to forge unity among the rival factions of the party and got them to sign the controversial "Amritsar Declaration".

In two subsequent by-elections to the Assembly, he campaigned successfully to humble the Congress as well as a conglomerate of moderate and hardline Akali factions. The watershed came in February 1996, on the 75th anniversary of the party, at Moga, when Badal denounced violence and committed himself to a more secular politics based on "Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat".

In the same year, the Badal faction, in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), pocketed 11 of the 13 Lok Sabha seats from the State; it also regained control over the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), bagging 155 of the 170 seats. In 1997, after joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Akalis claimed a record win, pocketing 75 out of 92 seats contested in the 117-member Assembly. The BJP also won its highest tally ever, 18 of the 22 seats it contested. Badal, now preparing the party to avenge its 2002 defeat at the hustings, is also closely monitoring the rise of his son, Sukhbir Singh, on the political horizon.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview he gave Frontline:

What were the circumstances that made you decide to join politics?

Ours has been a political family aligned throughout with the Akali ideology. My father, Sardar Raghuraj Singh, and grandfather, Sardar Ranjit Singh, were active in various movements against the British rulers and coordinated Singh Sabha programmes in the vicinity of our village.

After completing my graduation in 1947-48, when the country was blazing in Partition-related riots, I was elected as the youngest ever sarpanch of our village. Then, I joined the Block Samiti and finally came under the influence of the then Akali stalwart, Giani Kartar Singh.

On my persistence, Gianiji accompanied me to my maternal uncle, Sardar Narottam Singh, who was then a Minister in the State government. I was rather desperate to join the government as a tehsildar [first class], which was equivalent to the post in the present-day Punjab Civil Services [PCS]. After the procedures that prevailed then, my appointment letter arrived after the local Deputy Commissioner sent the related roll to the State government recommending my nomination. Once again, Gianiji intervened to impress upon me against joining the services. He led me into the Akali Dal and when, in the late 1950s, the party had merged with the Congress, I was elected as an MLA [Member of legislative Assembly] for the first time.

Subsequently, after the Akali Dal was revived in 1960, Master Tara Singh launched the agitation for creating a "Punjabi Suba" [Punjab state] on a linguistic basis. Like many other youth, I also courted arrest whenever the opportunity came. After that I was jailed for agitations in connection with the issue of restoring civil liberties in Haryana, on handing over of the management of Sikh shrines in Delhi, against the Emergency, and subsequently during the `Daramyudh Morcha'.

How would you describe your politics?

Unlike the prevalent practice, I believe that one must show complete loyalty and commitment to the party one belongs to, exhibit unflinching discipline, put in maximum labour to build the ideals and leave the rest to people and God. There were occasions, especially during the Dharamyudh Morcha, when I was not convinced by the dominant view. But once a decision was taken by the party leadership, I took it on myself to ensure its implementation.

Then I was not in favour of tearing up Article 25 of the Constitution. But the other view prevailed. I was perhaps the only Akali who could reach Delhi and carry out the protest. Then I registered my dissent against signing of the Rajiv-Longowal agreement in 1985. Subsequently, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal came and met me in this very house in Chandigarh to acknowledge that my suspicions about Delhi not honouring the agreement had come true. The same evening he was assassinated.

The Shiromani Akali Dal has been accused of being regional, sectarian and at times even communal. How have you reacted to this?

It would be really unfair to term the Akali Dal communal. Though we are a party with an extremely limited sphere of influence, our programme has always been based on Guru Nanak Devji's principles of "Sarbat Da Bhala" [welfare of all] and "Manas ki jaat sabhey ek hai pehchan bo" [universality and equality of mankind].

In post-Independence India, we agitated for justice for Punjab, dignity for the Punjabi language and preservation of the egalitarian Punjabi ethos. When the party launched an agitation for the restoration of civil liberties, which had been withdrawn during the Emergency, we were acclaimed across the country as heroes.

But when, in the Dharamyudh Morcha, the Akali Dal sought more financial powers for the States by setting up a genuine federal structure in the country, vested interests dubbed us secessionists.

Now everybody in the country understands the need for a system where the States do not remain at the mercy of the Union government for basic development procedures.

How do you rate your son's progress in developing as a new face in the Akali leadership?

He has a long and tough journey ahead of him to establish himself as a leader in the party. In politics, commitment to the cause and hard work matter the most for any individual to climb the ladder. As a dedicated worker who toils hard, I am quite satisfied with Sukhbir's performance so far. I hope that the next generation of our family continues in the tradition.

Is there any associate whom you miss as the party prepares for the next electoral challenge?

One plays the role one is destined for, but if things were within our control, I would like G.S. Tohra, one of the most intelligent Akali leaders and a sharp strategist, to be back amongst us. His contributions to the Sikh Panth in general and the Akali cause in particular are unparalleled, and the manner in which he infused courage and confidence in the party rank and file when the present State government had me and Sukhbir arrested on concocted charges in 2004 was commendable.

Though there were some differences of opinion between us at times, we went to jail together on various occasions when faced with suppression from the government. The party feels the lack of such leaders as we approach elections.

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