Chandigarh: When Gurdas Singh Badal, the 90-year-old father of Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal and older brother of five-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, passed away in a Mohali hospital Friday, it marked the end of an extraordinary bond of over eight decades between the two brothers.
A bond like no other in Punjab politics, which, in the end, also proved strong enough to withstand an ugly, no-holds barred schism between their sons.
A shattered Parkash Singh Badal was among the first to reach Manpreet’s house to see his brother one last time before he was cremated. A picture tweeted by an Akali leader showed Badal with his head in his hands bending over the glass casket in which Gurdas’ body lay.
Felt sad and highly emotional while joining S Parkash Singh Badal ji and whole Badal family and friends in bidding adieu to S Gurdas Singh Badal ji at Badal village today. My prayers for the departed soul. May God give courage to the family to bear this irreparable loss. pic.twitter.com/5kI9MiDb2a
— Dr Daljit S Cheema (@drcheemasad) May 15, 2020
The octogenarian who rarely lets any emotion surface in his demeanour was clearly unable to contain his grief. “I am speechless today. It’s a loss that no language has words to describe. Never felt lonelier in my life. Hard to even think that he won’t be by my side now. My thoughts go to Manpreet and other children Praying for peace to him and strength to us,” the Shiromani Akali Dal quoted Parkash Badal as saying.
I am speechless today. It's a loss that no language has words to describe. Never felt lonelier in my life. Hard to even think that he won't be by my side now. My thoughts go to Manpreet & other children. Praying for peace to him & strength to us: S. Parkash Singh Badal pic.twitter.com/0f2mWkDQGN
— Shiromani Akali Dal (@Akali_Dal_) May 15, 2020
An extraordinary bond
“The relationship between the two brothers was extraordinary. They were known as Paash -Daash Di Jodi. Gurdasji was the breeze under Badal saab’s wings, always invisible but indispensable,” says Harcharan Singh Bains, media advisor to Parkash Singh Badal.
Although Gurdas was elected as an MP in 1971, he was not very visible in public life but played the most crucial part in Akali politics. He handled Badal’s entire election campaign in the family’s pocket borough of Lambi in Muktsar district. For people of Malwa, the region of Punjab that has traditionally been the Akali stronghold, Gurdas was Akali Dal and Akali Dal was Gurdas. It is often said that he was the man behind the Badal’s rise from village sarpanch to the chief minister of Punjab.
“They barely felt the need to talk to one another about politics or plan anything. Their understanding of one another was silent but perfect,” Bains said.
“General understanding between the two regarding their sons was that while Manpreet would spearhead Akali politics with Badal saab in the state and Sukhbir would be groomed for national politics. If you notice Sukhbir entered state politics many years after Manpreet won his first election.”
Manpreet was as a result looked upon as Badal’s political heir. His bond with Badal was special and Badal launched him quite early into the dust and grime of Punjab politics. Manpreet too never let his chachaji down. Beginning in 1995, Manpreet had won the Gidderbaha seat in Muktsar four times in a row and when he took over as the finance minister of Punjab in the Badal government in 2007, it seemed Manpreet’s moment in the Sun had finally come.
The great divide
But Manpreet’s position as Badal’s successor was shaken when Sukhbir decided to make a comeback in state politics and took over the reins of the Shiromani Akali Dal as its president in 2008. An MP from Faridkot at that time, Sukhbir gave up his position and parliament and contested the MLA elections from Jalalabad — also a Badal stronghold — and was appointed the Punjab deputy chief minister by his chief minister father.
“Sukhbir’s resounding and definite entry into Punjab politics in 2008 obviously with permission and active patronage of his father would have made the writing on the wall very clear for Manpreet. Sukhbir had usurped his position as Badal’s favourite and this would have been unacceptable to Manpreet,” said Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur of the department of political science, DAV College, Chandigarh, who has researched widely on Punjab politics.
The real schism came in October 2010 when the government of India offered a Rs 35,000 crore farm loan waiver to Punjab on the condition that the state gradually withdraw power subsidy to the farmers. Manpreet as finance minister favoured the move but Badal and Sukhbir opposed it. Sukhbir managed to muster the support of the rest of the cabinet and the war between the two brothers was out in the open.
A defiant Manpreet stuck to his stand and was first suspended from the party and then sacked as finance minister. Cornered, Manpreet chose to resign from the Akali Dal and then in March the next year he resigned as an MLA.
He went on to form the Punjab People’s Party (PPP) and campaigned hard for the 2012 assembly elections. He,however, secured only five per cent of the votes. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) registered a historic victory to retain power under Badal.
“Gurdasji was pitted against Badal saab at Lambi in those elections. Considering the immense influence Gurdasji had in the area, he could have made a huge impact on the voters,” Bains said. “But it’s a known fact in the area that he barely campaigned. He would sit and just chit chat with the people. He did not attack Badal nor did Badal attack him.”
Weathering the storm
While staunchly supporting their sons politically, the brothers continued to share their closeness. “Though it might seem that the interaction between the two was impacted by the differences among the sons, they met regularly,” Bains said.
Neither harboured any rancour towards the other but politics was probably never discussed again. Although Gurdas blamed Sukhbir for the divide in the family, he admitted that there had never been any talk about it with Badal.
In an interview to a TV channel in 2017, Gurdas said Sukhbir and his wife Harsimrat (MP and union minister) “were not wise”.
“Had they been wise our family would have been united,” he said. “They (Sukhbir and Harsimrat) wanted to keep Manpreet out of the system so that the field is cleared for them. Manpreet too decided that he did not want to remain with them. Badal tried to make Sukhbir see reason telling him not to break the family, but he did not agree.”
In an interaction with the media last year, Parkash Singh Badal said “politics” led to the divide. “I am most attached to my brother. People used to call it a Ram Lakshman bond,” he said. “But politics brought about differences. Which household has not gone through it? Look at Mulayam Singh’s family, the Chautalas. Had ours not been a political family we would have been together.”
In another interview, Gurdas said there was never a fight over property between him and Badal. “He (Badal) told me to divide the property and then asked me to choose the share I wanted,” he recalled adding that being in power however “helped” Badals to flourish more in the transport business.
End of the era
“Both brothers accepted the change as gracefully as they could. Electoral politics demands a certain aggression but the two stayed away from it even during elections,” points out Dr Kanwalpreet.
In December last year, Badal celebrated his birthday with Gurdas cutting two cakes, one for each. When Manpreet lost his mother last month, Badal was by his brother’s side.
There is, however, no love lost between Manpreet and Sukhbir.
Although on the surface there is mostly an uncomfortable silence, it does get ugly occasionally.
In the parliamentary elections in 2014 when Manpreet contested against Harsimrat at Bathinda, the campaign was a virtual free for all. When Manpreet joined the Congress ahead of the assembly elections in 2016, he was the Badals’ biggest detractor. As finance minister in the Captain Amarinder Singh government, Manpreet launched a full-blown personal attack on the Badal family in the assembly session in March 2018.
“But the mutual respect and understanding the Badal brothers shared has not passed down to Sukhbir and Manpreet. They treat one another with contempt and I don’t see them getting back together personally or politically,” said Dr Kanwalpreet.
On Friday, Sukhbir was among those who carried Gurdas Badal’s pier on his shoulders along with Manpreet and later, the two cousins lit the pyre together. That moment could well be the beginning of the end.