With elections in mind, Akali Dal becomes religious

By Jaideep Sarin

Chandigarh : Having been in power for nearly 10 years at a stretch may have given a lot of political and administrative experience to Punjab’s ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, but the outfit seems to be becoming ‘religious minded’ as the state’s assembly polls draw closer.

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The party’s government in the state is already in the middle of a major exercise to offer religious junkets to nearly 125,000 people.

The ‘Mukh Mantri Tirath Yatra Scheme’ (Chief Minister’s Pilgrimage scheme) for providing free pilgrimage to various sacred places across India will cost the Punjab exchequer nearly Rs.190 crore.

The scheme, being implemented with political and religious fanfare, was approved by the Punjab cabinet in November 2015.

People are being taken on special trains and buses for pilgrimage to locations like Nanded Sahib (Maharashtra), Varanasi, Katra (Mata Vaishno Devi) and Ajmer Sharif.

“Under the scheme, 1,050 people from each of Punjab’s 117 assembly constituencies are being offered this facility of free travel to these pilgrimage centres. Food and lodging needs are also being taken care of,” a senior officer in Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s office told IANS.

Last month, Punjab deputy chief minister and Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal, in a clear move to appease radical and religious leaders, offered prayers at the ‘Bluestar’ memorial inside the Golden Temple complex. The Akali Dal, its leadership and the Punjab government had, so far, kept itself away from the controversial memorial built by radicals to commemorate “martyrs” in the Army’s ‘Operation Bluestar’ in 1984.

Separatist leaders Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was killed in the army operation and others are listed as “martyrs” at the memorial.

While All-India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) president Karnail Singh Peermohammed welcomed the move, radical Sikh organisation Dal Khalsa saw a political motive behind it.

“This appears to be an attempt to woo Sikh hardliners ahead of the 2017 assembly polls. Sukhbir Badal wants to prove his Panthic credentials,” Dal Khalsa leader Kanwarpal Singh said.

The opposition Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which is posing a serious challenge to the Akali-BJP alliance and the Congress, ahead of the assembly polls – are accusing the Akali Dal of using religion, especially the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), for its political interests.

“The Akali Dal has been exposed in the way it has used religion to hide its wrong deeds like corruption, vested interests in Sikh bodies like SGPC, goondagardi,” AAP leader Sanjay Singh told IANS.

The Akali Dal has full control over the SGPC, the mini-parliament of Sikh religion which manages Sikh shrines, including the Golden Temple complex. The SGPC has an annual budget of Rs.1,200 crore.

The Badal government faced testing times last year in August-September when a series of incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib led to protests and violence in different parts of Punjab.

The Akali Dal leadership blamed it on anti-Panthic (anti-Sikh community) forces and religious prayers were started across the state to defuse the situation.