Being Parkash Singh Badal
This week, we have devoted considerable pages to Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who has just turned 85. Badal is perhaps the oldest elected official in the country today. Obtaining a renewed public mandate early this year, Badal broke a 46-year-old jinx, becoming the first Chief Minister to enjoy a second successive term in Punjab and proving thereby that “age” does not necessarily matter in politics. That Badal is the tallest leader of the state is not an overstatement. It is also not an exaggeration to say that Badal has many admirable qualities – being humble, hard working, and accessible – qualities that are being rarer to be noticed in most of Indian politicians these days.
Equally notable is the fact that Badal’s politics has been a politics of struggle and sacrifices. It is often forgotten that Punjab’s chief minister for the fifth time is arguably the longest political prisoner in the world after South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Badal spent nearly 17 years of his life in jails as a political prisoner—he was booked for a civil liberty agitation, sent to jail during Emergency (1975-77) and put in prison during “the Dharam Yudh Morcha” days of Punjab in 1980s, fighting for the rights of Punjab and its people.
It is not that Badal does not have blemishes in his long political career. He is widely perceived to be one of the corrupt and richest politicians in the country. His critics accuse him of having promoted dynastic politics. After all, his son and the Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal is his chosen successor. Besides, his populist politics contains seeds of myriad troubles for Punjab, which, not long ago, was among the country’s richest states.
However, in my considered opinion, more than his personal strengths and weaknesses, Badal deserves attention for his direct (and indirect) roles in the evolution of Indian federalism and democracy since Independence. Badal should be evaluated in the overall context of how Centre-State dynamics and demands for the autonomy of States have emerged. Is Badal a harbinger of “cooperative federalism” or” bargaining- federalism”? Viewed thus, Badal’s evolution as a leader has always been under greater scrutiny, since his Akali Dal is not only a regional party but also a party predominantly ethnic in the sense that it is dominated by the Sikhs. The challenges in the case of Badal have been all the more delicate given the facts that Punjab is a border state (one of the worst fallouts of the country’s Partition in 1947) and that Sikhs constitute the numerical majority here.
In other words, being the tallest leader of a regional/ethnic party, Badal had to ensure that while interests of his people at the regional/cultural level are consolidated, these must be simultaneously knitted with an overall Indian identity. This task involved what we call secularism on the one hand and national integration on the other. And the task has not been that easy, if we take into account the horrible days of secessionist terrorism that Punjab witnessed in the 1980s and 90s.
Looked dispassionately, Badal has emerged stronger from this litmus test. His worst enemy will not doubt his patriotism and pride as an Indian. And the same can be said about his faith in secular politics. All told, his Sikh-centric Akali Dal has had a durable alliance with the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, politically speaking, in this age of coalition-politics, marked by ever changing partners and interests, the Akali-BJP ties have endured over time. Badal deserves kudos for this; his solid alliance with the BJP proves that he is no opportunist like Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav whose loyalty is only skin-deep. Badal has proved that coalition politics can provide a stable government.
Come next assembly elections in Punjab in 2017, Badal may not be leading the ruling alliance. Because, he told the electorate last time that this year’s election was his last. If that is the case, then what will be his legacy as an administrator of Punjab and the supremo of the Akali Dal as a political party? While this is a futuristic question to evoke a comprehensive answer, I will like to bring out some unpleasant aspects, which, I am sure, Badal will like to rectify before demitting office.
It is widely viewed that Badal’s populist politics has been hurting Punjab, of late. In fact, the renewed mandate to his government did not mean that the people of Punjab approved his economic policy. As a matter of fact, the Akali-BJP combine actually lost vote share, from 45.4 per cent in 2007 to 41.9 per cent in 2012, despite free electricity for farmers, the subsidised atta-dal scheme, free bicycles for girl students and shagun grants for poor girls etc. Punjab once was the richest and fastest-growing state of India; now it has fallen in state rankings. From having the highest per-capita income among states, it is now down to fourth position (behind Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat). It used to grow faster than the national average; now it has grown below the national average. Of course, the downward trend began before Badal assumed office in 2007, but he has not been able to arrest the downward trend.
Punjab’s prosperity all these years was mainly the result of its agricultural produce. It seems the saturation point has reached the agricultural front. As a result, one sees a lot of unemployment among the Punjab youth these days. One estimate is that there are over 35 lakh unemployed or unemployable youth, loitering around and falling prey to drugs. Incidentally, 73.5 per cent of Punjab’s youth is addicted to drugs. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the drug-related crime rate in Punjab is nearly 10 times the nationwide average. Punjab accounted for roughly 60 per cent of all the drugs seized in India in 2010-11. During the January state assembly elections alone the Narcotics Control Bureau and Border Security Force seized nearly 120 pounds of heroin intended for smack-addled voters.
Of course, Punjab’s border with Pakistan has long made it the primary trafficking route for opium and heroin from Afghanistan. But what has compounded the problem is the rising rank of the alienated and disillusioned youth in the state, thanks to unemployment/underemployment because of the diminishing agricultural returns on the one hand and the increasing cost of living due to the rapid urbanisation on the other. Obviously, Punjab needs a new economic model, thereby throwing a huge challenge to Badal.
With Punjab experiencing new challenges, it is logical that Badal has to remodel his Akali Dal in the days to come. Traditionally speaking, the social base of the Akali Dal has been the rural peasantry. It has to focus now on the urban areas and that means that the party will have to look beyond the Sikhs for its support. It has to be attractive enough for the educated youth. Of course, in his son Sukhbir, the elder Badal has a leader who is aware of the new challenges. This realisation is perhaps, the reason why the Akali Dal gave tickets to some the non-Sikhs during the last elections. But the fact remains that the party does not have strong supporters among the OBC and Dalits. The Akali Dal, if electoral surveys are any indication, has weak support both among illiterates and those with higher education, with the bulk of its support coming from the primary and matric educated voters.
These are not mean challenges to overcome for Badal before his political retirement.
By Prakash Nanda