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From Sidhu to Badal & Kejriwal, why politicians across all parties are on Punjab temple run

Hindus, who constitute around 38% of Punjab's population, are believed to have played a decisive role in 2017 Congress victory. But new alignments could usher in a shift.

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Chandigarh: Politicians in Punjab are scrambling to woo Hindus, who constitute around 38 per cent of the state’s population, ahead of the assembly elections early next year. From Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress’s Navjot Singh Sidhu, politicians of all hues have been doing the rounds of temples in recent weeks.

Hindus are believed to have played a decisive role in the victory of the Congress in 2017, but with former chief minister Amarinder Singh resigning from the party and eyeing a poll arrangement with the BJP, the vote bank could shift in the forthcoming elections, which will see at least four parties and alliances bidding for victory. In this context, no party can afford to ignore Hindu voters.

The Congress, which is currently in power in the state, seems to be well aware of this.

On Sunday, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi announced that his government would set up an exclusive centre for research on three Hindu texts — Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavad Gita. Channi made the announcement while laying the foundation stone of the Bhagwan Parshuram Taposthali at Phagwara.

He also announced a grant of Rs 10 crore for the Brahmin Bhalai Board, an organisation for the welfare of Brahmins. He added that he would be doing a PhD on the Mahabharata.

Last month, Channi and state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu went on a pilgrimage to the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand. In early October, Sidhu visited the Mata Vaishno Devi Temple during Navratri. These visits and events were widely publicised in what seems to be an attempt to woo Hindu voters.

However, the party is currently in a precarious position.

Also Read: Punjab polls won’t be a ‘4-cornered’ contest, will usher in generational shift: Manpreet Badal

Congress missteps

The Congress appeared to have hit the right note with Hindu voters in 2017, but since then the party has faltered.

Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur, department of political science, DAV College Chandigarh, told ThePrint that Hindu voters in Punjab were more likely to support parties that stayed away from “Sikh radical” politics, and the Congress fit the bill.

“AAP, which were otherwise the hot favourites in 2017, had failed to impress the Hindu voters because they were seen as supporting the radical element within the Sikhs in the state,” she said.

“The Hindus of Punjab are extremely suspicious of any politician or leader who supports radicals because they haven’t forgotten the three decades of militancy of which they were the worst sufferers,” Kaur added.

According to Kaur, Captain Amarinder Singh, who led the Congress campaign in 2017 and served as chief minister until his resignation this September, is finely attuned to the Hindu mindset and was thus able to capture the “the entire vote bank”.

This, she said, has made him more compatible with the BJP, with whom he is pursuing a pre-poll seat arrangement.

“If you notice carefully, Capt. Amarinder has tried to keep the Hindu voters on his side. For the past five years, he has been largely speaking only on security issues, especially concerns about Pakistan,” she added.

“He is an ex-Army man and has a natural hold on such affairs, but there is a clear political agenda also to keep the Hindus solidly behind him. That also explains to an extent why he has so comfortably bonded with the BJP… knowing that the urban Hindu is a natural voter of the party,” Kaur said.

File photo of Home Minister Amit Shah and former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh | PTI
File photo of Home Minister Amit Shah and former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh | PTI

The Congress is currently believed to be on weak footing with the Hindus following the rift within the party and the replacement of Amarinder Singh with Channi as chief minister.

Political expert Dr Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication in Chandigarh, told ThePrint that Hindus felt “alienated” when the Congress high command passed over two Hindu prospects — Sunil Jakhar and Ambika Soni — for the chief minister’s post.

“When the Congress high command was looking for a suitable candidate to replace Amarinder, Ambika Soni said that only a Sikh should be the chief minister of Punjab. After this, Jatt Sikh leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Sukhjinder Randhawa came into the zone of consideration. But they were overlooked as they started fighting among themselves and Channi was chosen.

“This entire exercise not only alienated the Hindu voters but also led to a reverse consolidation of the Jatt Sikh vote against the Congress,” said Kumar.

Navjot Singh Sidhu is also not drawing Hindus any closer, Kaur said.

Last month, he threatened to go on a hunger strike if the state government didn’t release reports on a 2015 case involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing on Sikh protesters. “While the Guru Granth Sahib is widely respected by followers of every religion in Punjab, it seems Sidhu is only working on a Sikh-centric agenda,” Kaur said.

Akali and AAP temple circuit

Like the Congress, SAD leaders, too, are making a beeline for temples. Early last month, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal along with several other party leaders paid obeisance at the Shri Balaji Temple at Salasar in Rajasthan.

In October, Sukhbir covered the Maa Chintpurni temple in Himachal Pradesh, the Devi Talab Mandir in Jalandhar, and then the Lord Shiva temple in Nalas village in Rajpura. He also visited the Bhagwan Valmiki Tirath Sthal in Amritsar as part of ‘Pargat Diwas’ celebrations in mid-October.

Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur said the Akalis were likely focusing on Hindus since they have lost ground among the Sikh community.

“The Akalis lost power in 2017 mainly because of the [Guru Granth Sahib] desecration issue. The Akali Dal later imploded into small factions over the same issue. Now, considering that the Congress and the AAP have managed to rake up this matter again on the eve of elections, they are focusing not on the Jatt Sikh vote but the Hindu vote,” Kaur said, adding that the farm laws controversy has also hurt the party.

“The Jatt Sikh vote comprises the farmers’ population, which is not likely to forgive the Akalis for having supported the three central farm laws in the beginning,” Kaur said.

While the SAD pulled out of the NDA after the laws were passed in Parliament, it has been accused of not saying anything when the government brought ordinances in this regard.

Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) head Arvind Kejriwal too has been taking the temple route to woo Hindus. In October, he visited the Devi Talab Mandir in Jalandhar where he also attended a jagrata or “an evening of prayer”.

“In 2017, AAP thought that Punjab was all about Sikhs and they centred their campaign around that and they lost,” said Kumar. “Unlike 2017, deras, drugs and doles have been completely demonetised as issues. This time, elections will be fought on religio-caste basis,” he added.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Why Channi is new Punjab CM — Congress eyeing large Dalit vote bank, peace between factions




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