SAD troubles

Print edition : August 31, 2002

The Shiromani Akali Dal's woes mount as Punjab's Congress(I) government continues its anti-corruption drive. The arrest of former Public Works Minister Suchcha Singh Langah has been particularly embarrassing to the party.

LIKE Humpy-Dumpty, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has had a spectacular fall, and it is hard to see how the broken party might recover. While three of its former Ministers and a sitting MLA are in jail on criminal charges, former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal faces an investigation for the alleged possession of assets disproportionate to his sources of income and is also under political assault from the Sikh religious Right. However, unlike in the nursery rhyme, all the King's horses and the King's men might just come good. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, known to most people in Punjab as the Maharaja of Patiala, has failed to shape an agenda for rural reform and development. That, in turn, could give his fragmented opponents a chance to put the pieces together again.

Ever since Amarinder Singh's anti-corruption campaign led to the downfall of Punjab Public Service Commission Chairman Ravi Sidhu, the SAD's woes have mounted. The arrest late last month of former Public Works Minister Suchcha Singh Langah has been particularly embarrassing for the party. The Punjab Vigilance Department has charged him with the illegal acquisition of agricultural land, urban homes, businesses, trucks, cars, gold and cash estimated at Rs.32 crores. The Vigilance Department says its investigations showed that he did not own any land or businesses before he assumed office in 1998. Be it construction contracts, jobs in his department or the posting of officials, bribes were demanded, said the investigators.

SAD leader and former Chief Minister P.S. Badal (left) and his former Cabinet colleague S. Ajit Singh Kohar, who is now under arrest on corruption charges.-

Some of the allegations in the Langah case lead directly to the inner circle around Badal. Contracts for the construction of a Rs.33-crore highway near Morinda were allegedly granted in violation of rules to Pearl Limited, a company part-owned by a son-in-law of Badal's son, Sukhbir Singh Badal. In one instance, Langah's chosen contractors started work on a road - from Noormahal to Nakodar - even before the sealed bids had been opened. Langah, an advocate of Khalistan before joining the mainstream SAD, is also being investigated for terrorist links. The former Minister, Vigilance Department officials say, harboured his one-time mentor, Khalistan Commando Force leader Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, before the terrorist's formal surrender could be arranged. Evidence for this allegation is, however, somewhat thin, since Zaffarwal has been acquitted of the charge of entering India using fake travel documents.

Langah's arrest was preceded by that of former Education Minister Tota Singh, who allegedly took bribes for the recruitment of teachers. Dozens of appointments made during his term have since been cancelled and further investigation is on. Another former Minister, Ajit Singh Kohar, soon followed Tota Singh and Langah into jail, again on the charge of possessing assets disproportionate to his claimed income.

The most recent embarrassment was the August 15 arrest of Barnala MLA Malkiat Singh Kittu, on the charge of smuggling 184 cases of whisky and country liquor from Chandigarh into Punjab. Liquor is considerably cheaper in the Union Territory than in Punjab on account of the difference in tax. While liquor smuggling is widespread, and several politicians are believed to have profited from the enterprise, Kittu is the first politician to be arrested.

BADAL'S response to these humiliations has been relatively muted. On August 12, he initiated criminal defamation proceedings against Amarinder Singh and also sought Rs.5 crores in damages. In his complaint, Badal claimed that the Congress(I)'s allegations that he held assets worth Rs.3,500 crores in Australia, the United States and Switzerland and in New Delhi and Jodhpur were malicious and untrue. The Congress(I) had made these allegations during the Assembly elections earlier this year, both in print and at a series of election rallies. Amarinder Singh repeated these charges on July 31, during a rally at Sunam. Responding to the SAD's allegations that he was selective in targeting the corrupt, the Chief Minister asked if "there was a single person in the SAD who had not taken money".

Significantly, no one in the SAD has responded substantively to the corruption charges brought against their colleagues. Speaking near Mansa on August 17, Badal alleged that Amarinder Singh's own anti-corruption credentials were suspect. He pointed out that Amarinder Singh's Cabinet included two Ministers indicted by the Punjab Lok Pal for corruption, two who had fake university degrees, and one accused of involvement in a murder. While some of these charges might be true, they did little to address the growing perception that corruption reached record levels during the SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party rule.

Perhaps realising that his attacks on the Congress(I)'s own dismal record on corruption yielded little political dividend, Badal sought to shift the goalposts. At a rally held on August 14 to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the assassination of Harchand Singh Longowal, Badal dwelt at length on Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. He was at pains to distance himself from the pro-Khalistan elements on the Sikh Right. Badal admitted to burning a copy of Article 25 of the Constitution in 1984 as part of a campaign to demand a separate personal law for Sikhs. He said he had done so "under pressure" from Longowal's associates. The former Chief Minister also asserted that Amarinder Singh had himself supported Khalistan and had signed a document in 1994 demanding a Sikh state.

Although such assertions from the SAD contain elements of truth, they illustrate the profound ideological crisis within the party. In response to allegations that Langah had aided Zaffarwal, an SAD press release pointed to a 1993 Frontline expose on the role of top Congress(I) leaders in aiding terrorist groups. The press release, however, repeatedly used the respectful suffix Bhai in all references to Zaffarwal, as it does in discourse on other revanchist figures such as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. It clearly makes little sense for the SAD to attack the Congress(I) for backing terrorists when it believes they are deserving of deference. On the ground, most SAD workers seem increasingly pessimistic about the future. "It is pointless to say that the Congress(I) is corrupt when our own ranks are in disgrace," argued a former SAD Minister. "We have to find a new agenda to fight on, and purge the party of bad elements. Sadly, Badal just doesn't have the will to do that."

SENSING an opportunity, the Sikh Right has begun to circle around the mainstream SAD, preparing for the kill. August has seen a series of mobilisations on Sikh chauvinist themes, all seeking to challenge the authority of the SAD-controlled religious establishment. The most dramatic showdown so far came on July 31, when the police were forced to fire rubber bullets on protestors seeking to confront members of the Noormehalia sect, which orthodox Sikhs believe is heretic. The clash left several injured. The police also booked several protestors for possessing illegal firearms, but subsequently dropped the charges. The clashes took place after organisations of the Sikh Right charged the Noormehalia sect with showing disrespect to the Guru Granth Sahib and propagating heretical teachings about the Sikh faith. Similar protests had been directed at another fringe preacher, Piara Singh Bhaniara, last year.

Political groups moved in to reap the harvest after the July 31 clash. Gurcharan Singh Tohra's Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal came up with a particularly lurid "fact-finding" report, which claimed that the Noormehalias "prevailed upon the new converts to leave their young daughters as offerings at the Deras (centres) of the sect". It also claimed that these women were used "for attracting young men". Both charges were angrily rebutted by several women members of the sect. The report was apparently targeted at SAD politicians, including former Minister Gurdev Singh Badal, Langah and Badal himself, who were perceived as helping the Noormehalia sect.

Meanwhile, the rival Akali faction of Simranjit Singh Mann attacked Tohra for failing to participate in a joint front against the Noormehalia sect, and claimed that he alone represented the true interests of the Sikh Panth (religious community). Organisations close to Mann, like the Khalsa Panchayat and the Khalra Mission Committee, soon joined in, demanding a ban on the Noormehalia sect.

Protests of these kinds were directed not so much at the Congress (I), as at the SAD centrists' claims to represent Sikh interests. This was made clear when the Khalsa Panchayat attacked Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, Badal's hand-picked choice for the supreme seat of Sikh religious authority. On August 16, Panchayat chief Charanjit Singh Channi charged Vedanti with having let off a preacher, Dhanwant Singh, who had been brought before the Akal Takht on charges of rape. Channi said Dhanwant Singh received only "mild punishment" because of the involvement of Vedanti's brother-in-law, Prithpal Singh, in the affair.

The Khalsa Panchayat has been at the cutting-edge of the Sikh Right's campaign against the many godmen active in the state. Such figures have been at the margins of Punjab's religious landscape since at least the 1970s, but they began to acquire considerable influence over the last decade because of widespread disenchantment with the conservative religious establishment.

The Sikh Right's assault on the SAD is starting to take its toll. On August 17, four prominent SAD leaders who were aligned with Union Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa - Dhan Singh Chhiaharh, Ranjit Singh, Hardev Singh Dhaliwal and Gurbachan Singh - joined Tohra.

For the Congress(I), to sit back and watch the opposition disintegrate may be a misguided course of action. For one, the Congress(I)'s anti-corruption successes have papered over a larger failure to engage with the crisis facing agriculture, particularly small and medium peasants, and industry in the State. Promises to diversify crops and inject new rural technologies remain, for the most part, just pious declarations of intent. Cuts in employee benefits and fresh taxes on power and generator use have also fuelled discontent. The Chief Minister himself did little for his image by choosing a failed monsoon for a two-week vacation in the United Kingdom.

The Congress(I) might be delighted at the revival of the Sikh Right and its assault on the SAD centre. Past experience ought to have taught it, however, that the ogres often turn on their inventors.

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