Chandigarh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invocation of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots has breathed new life into the beleaguered Shiromani Akali Dal’s poll prospects, less than a week before Punjab votes in the Lok Sabha elections on 19 May.
Modi’s rally in Bathinda Monday is being called the ‘turning point’ in altering the Akali Dal’s defensive campaign against the Congress’ all-guns-blazing political attack over the 2015 sacrilege issue. The speech has come as a last-minute boost for the SAD and its Bathinda candidate, union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
Modi said the Congress should be “ashamed” that despite the passage of 35 years, justice has not been served to the victims of the anti-Sikh riots. He said his government had taken it upon itself to undo the “historical wrong” committed by the Congress and ensured that justice is delivered.
“One person is being hanged and the rest will be in jail soon,” he promised, as the Bathinda crowd cheered.
Akali existential crisis
The Akalis have been facing an existential crisis over the 2015 sacrilege issue. They have been on the back foot, with the Congress keeping the issue at the centre of its election campaign, and Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh personally leading a continuous and unrelenting attack on the Badals.
Former CM Parkash Singh Badal and his son and SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal have been held responsible for allowing the culprits of the 2015 desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib to go scot-free. The Badals are also blamed for the killing of two Sikh protesters in police firing during a protest meeting against the desecrations.
The sacrilege issue is considered one of the main reasons for the Akalis’ electoral debacle of 2017, which brought the Congress storming back to power.
“The Congress has not let go of the issue ever since it came to power. Instead, it has increased the heat on the Akalis. The idea was to hit where it hurts the most, alienate the core panthic vote bank from the Akali Dal, a religious party,” said Kanwalpreet Kaur, a Chandigarh-based political analyst.
A commission of inquiry set up by Amarinder’s government held that the Badals did not take action in the desecration cases because the culprits were followers of the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda, whom the Akalis probably wanted to woo during the assembly elections.
The SIT set up to probe the incident arrested a few police officers and also called Sukhbir, the then-deputy CM who held the home portfolio, for questioning.
Last Sunday, after a fresh incident of sacrilege was reported from Amargarh, Amarinder was quick the lay the blame at the Akalis’ door.
“It was obvious that the same forces that had sought to destroy the state’s secular and peaceful fabric before the assembly elections were trying, once again, to polarise the Sikh votes,” said the CM.
Modi capitalises on Pitroda’s slip-up
Modi, who started the tirade against the Congress last week, has now given an equally emotive religious issue to the SAD to hit out at the Congress with.
“The Bathinda rally is going to prove a turning point in our campaign. People responded to Modiji like never before. Despite a sandstorm and the fact that the rally pandal almost came down, not a single person moved,” said Parambans Singh Ramana, SAD leader from Bathinda.
“The 1984 riots issue is an unhealed wound and it touches a raw nerve with every right-thinking person, whether it is a Sikh or a Hindu.”
Modi brought the 1984 into the election discourse last week, when he challenged the Congress to fight polls in the name of Rajiv Gandhi in Punjab and Delhi, where he said “Sikhs were butchered” under Gandhi’s reign. In response, Congress leader Sam Pitroda, while trying to take on the PM’s statement, instead made matters worse making a flippant remark about the riots saying “hua to hua” (they happened, so what?).
This was all the Akali-BJP alliance needed. In rally after rally, Modi has slammed Pitroda for his remarks. Harsimrat was quick to take the issue forward. “What has Amarinder to say now? He keeps talking about some men involved in the ant-Sikh riots. Will he not tell us who they were? Can he say that they not Congressmen?” she said.
“I am shocked at what Pitroda said. It is like adding insult to injury. His comment should become an election issue,” said Taranjit Singh, one of the victims of the riots, based in Mohali.
Faced with severe criticism, the Congress is now at pains to explain away Pitroda’s comment. In an interview to ThePrint, party chief Rahul Gandhi tried to undo the damage, saying: “It is nonsense and will not be tolerated.”
Amarinder too expressed “shock” over Pitroda’s comments. He also took on Modi for raking up the 1984 riots at this juncture.
“What if someone linked Modi to the Godhra massacre, which took place under his chief ministership in Gujarat? Modi is unnecessarily dragging Rajiv’s name to court controversies and divert attention from the real issues,” he said.
However, cabinet minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa thinks the riots issue won’t take the SAD too far.
“The Badals tried to stop their sliding popularity by visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar and apologising. But nothing is going to work for them. Reviving the 1984 riots issue might get them some votes, but they will have to pay for the sacrilege sin,” Randhawa said.
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