The drubbing of both the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress in the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll has created a vacuum that now serves as the perfect entry point for Simranjit Singh Mann and his brand of religious politics.
That religion will play a key role in Punjab’s mercurial political landscape is evident in Mann’s post-victory speech. The former IPS officer and president of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), who defeated AAP’s Gurmail Singh by a margin of 5,822 votes, attributed his victory to the martyrdom of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his young militant brigade. “It is a win of our party workers and the teachings that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has given,” Mann told the media.
The contested phenomenon of Bhindranwale is perceived differently by different people. For some, he is a freedom fighter; for others, he could be a militant.
Another possible factor behind Mann’s victory could be the emotional mass appeal generated in the aftermath of the murder of internationally known rapper and songwriter Sidhu Moose Wala by channeling people’s anger against the AAP government seemingly compromising his security despite regular threats to his life. Simranjit Singh Mann had reportedly promised to pay the rapper a visit at his native village Moosa in Mansa district just a few days before his murder. Mann eventually went there on his Antim Ardas (last prayer ceremony).
The emotional mass appeal was further intensified by several law and order-related incidents and the AAP government’s failure to resolve the Bargari sacrilege cases as well as the police firing in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. Simranjit Singh Mann also put on record his gratitude to Deep Sidhu, another notable emerging figure on the political turf of the Punjab politics, who died under mysterious circumstances in a car accident on his way from Delhi to Punjab.
Why Simranjit Singh Mann is different
For quite some time now there has been a general inclination on the part of all traditional political parties in Punjab towards the adoption of a Panthic discourse in some form. A case in point: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the SAD-Badal fielded Kewal Singh Dhillon and Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana, respectively, in the Sangrur bypoll. Earlier, there were accusations against some political parties of having connections with terror outfits.
There is also a common impression in Punjab that if one has to choose, then it’s better to choose the original Panthic discourse — hence Simranjit Singh Mann.
He is not perceived as a threat by the people of Punjab. He is one among them. His reference to Bhindranwale and others of the militancy period should not be an issue. Yes, he did speak about “Army committing atrocities in Kashmir and killing Muslims on a daily basis”, and “the tribal people in Bihar and Chhattisgarh (who) are being shot dead calling them Naxalites”, according to news agency ANI. But being an elected member of the Lok Sabha, Simranjit Singh Mann has to work within the purview of the Constitution.
His victory should not be interpreted as re-emergence of fundamentalist brand of politics dominated by the so-called Khalistan-centric thought process. During his earlier active stint in the parliamentary democratic politics in the country, Simranjit Singh Mann, recalled Rajiv Lochan, an academic of modern history at Panjab University, “used to talk about pursuing the Khalistan cause through electoral democracy and not to follow the path of violence”.
So far, the most striking factor behind Mann’s victory could be the pre-eminence accorded by the AAP leadership in Punjab to its counterpart in Delhi. After CM Bhagwant Mann’s oath-taking ceremony at Khatkar Kalan, the native village of Bhagat Singh, the people of Punjab expected to see him focus on various exigencies in a state corroded by decades of criminal misgovernance by a succession of inept and deeply corrupt political regimes. This, in turn, had given a free rein to multifarious mafias: sand, real-estate, transport, drugs, cable, etc. They certainly did not take kindly to the state administration being puppeteered from Delhi.
AAP continued the same old playbook
The AAP’s election was a clear message from the people of Punjab that they were fed up with the vicious power circle of traditional parties that were in agreement with each other to rule the state by turns. They gave an opportunity to the AAP to provide good governance. Within three months, they have come to realise that even this new option won’t work, which compelled them to incline towards Simranjit Singh Mann.
Moreover, the people of Punjab are highly sensitive to issues that offend their ethnic pride. They broke the mould of Punjab politics by ensuring that the AAP defeated all the traditional/mainstream political parties in the recent assembly election to put an end to the deeply entrenched family (SAD-Badal) and dynastic rule (Congress).
Before and during the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll, there was a general impression that the AAP government in Punjab has been lacking in demonstrating its mettle in independently handling the state administration. It has neither been allegedly focusing on the resolution of core issues in Punjab, nor allowing its indigenous cadres and leadership to grow. There is a common belief among the people that the day-to-day political and administrative affairs are controlled by the AAP’s central leadership in Delhi.
They were told to be unhappy and dissatisfied with the AAP over Rajya Sabha nominations from Punjab. A lot of the promises made during the election campaign are yet to be realised, particularly the promise of giving Rs 1,000 to every woman above 18 years of age.
The people of Punjab have realised that Bhagwant Mann’s government is not run by those they had elected three months ago. Even the leaders feel unwanted because nothing they say is considered important. The AAP has not come up to their expectations. It is alleged that the rank and file of the party do not have any say in local governance and even its ministers and MLAs seem to have been sidelined. All of this was evident given how the February 2022 election campaign was entirely centred around Arvind Kejriwal.
The outcome of this closely watched five-cornered electoral contest in Sangrur holds serious political implications for the 2024 Lok Sabha election on the one hand, and the emerging configuration of region-based identity politics of Punjab on the other.
Ronki Ram is Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)