Punjab poll: It’s time to look beyond bitterness

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Capt Amrinder Singh with supporters in Patiala.
Peace politics: Captain Amarinder Singh symbolises Punjab’s sudden recoil away from politics of angery idiom and violence

Punjab has just come out of a historic election. The poll itself and the campaign leading up to it must rank among the most acrimonious and bitter experience for the people of the state. Never in the history of the state have Punjabis been known to have indulged in an open exhibition of mutual distrust, disrespect and utter contempt for one another. In every possible way, this is one of the most forgettable periods of Punjab’s recent history — especially since the early hours of 1980s Remarkably, the eighties at least had a rationale one could figure as a potent enough reason to cause a vertical social split down the middle. The state was torn asunder by communal tensions as age-old Hindu-Sikh relations came under the kind severe strain that Punjab had seen only once before in the 20th century — the communal holocaust of 1947 before , during and in the aftermath of the partition of the country between India and Pakistan. But since then, except for a brief and relatively controlled expression of Hindu-Sikh rivalry over language and culture during the days of the Punjab Suba agitation in the fifties and the early sixties, the communal ties between the two principal religious sects have remained an example of ideal of harmony and even bonhomie.

Even during the days of communal tensions and militancy, the social fibre of the state remained largely intact even though it came under a very severe strain from Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale’s brand of religio-political mix. Except for a period just before the army assault on Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar, a large number of Hindus continued to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple where the militant saint was ensconced. It might sound incredible today that even after the tragic Operation Bluestar which eventually led to the horrific demolition of Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, the highest symbol of the Sikh religio-temporal authority, there is not a single case of communal clash between the Hindus and the Sikhs even in the remotest villages where the Hindus were the most vulnerable minority.

But during the campaign for the just concluded elections, the state went into an insane bout of internal acrimony of Punjabis against one another. Suddenly, it was as if the entire state had been poisoned with some invisible but irresistible venom the like of which had never been seen in the state. Every Punjabi came to regard every other Punjabi with whom he had even the most minor of differences of opinion as an enemy who must either be overcome or eliminated. This kind of destructive hatred even without the communal dimension was unthinkable for the magnanimous and fun loving Punjabis.

Never in the history of the state have Punjabis been known to have indulged in an open exhibition of mutual distrust, disrespect and utter contempt for one another

The campaign opened with two incidents which still were not materially too explosive or damaging. One of these involved an incident of shoe-hurling at the most senior and seasoned statesman in the country, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal while the other saw the electoral caravan of his mercurial son, Sukhbir Singh Badal attacked allegedly by youth inspired by the provocative speeches of the Aam Admi Party leaders including Member of Parliament Bhagwant Mann. Mann actually went on to urge his followers to store stones and other missiles to be thrown at the Akali leaders as they would come and visit the countryside. This was most pernicious speech and it carried the potential of throwing the sensitive border state in the throes of fratricidal mass bloodshed. It took a very restrained and sober response from the Akali leaders in general and the Chief Minister in particular to ensure that the incident was not allowed to push the state into an unprecedented conflagration.

This was a strange development especially as it was sparked by the acts of a party which claimed to be social revolutionaries for refining the culture of the state, the Aam Admi Party of Arvind Kejriwal. Surprising or perhaps not so surprisingly, no one heard a single word of condemnation of this shameful and shocking resort to violence to settle political debates. Kejriwal in fact justified it by describing it as the result of a decade long injustice and repression unleashed according to him by the Akalis. I still shudder to think of what might have happened to my state if the volatile Akalis had responded with their traditional and expected gusto and swagger to these developments. Fortinately, they were led by an unfailingly sober Parkash Singh Badal. He immediately called upon his party workers and followers not to be provoked into a violent reaction. His son and the SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal followed suit. and that saved the state from tipping over into flames of a holocaust.

The social media was a veritable powder keg ready to blow the entire state up through hourly and sometimes moment to moment provocations to bloodshed by the supposedly educated and refined youth. The NRIs added their own bit to the brew by descending on the state to support primarily the AAP of Kejriwal who himself left no one in any doubt about the kind of politics he was following when he openly spent a night at the residence of one of the known militant figures of the heydays of Punjab’s tragic tryst with terrorism. As it happened, that was followed by the frightening sound of explosion minutes before one of the key Congress leaders of Punjab was to lead his electoral campaign march near Maud Mandi. Two persons died and several suffered grievous injuries as a bomb blew up a jeep travelling just yards behind the caravan of the Congress leaders.

PM Narendra Modi in Bathinda.
Congratulatory call: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had congratulated Captain Amarinder Singh of Punjab on his victory

Everybody blamed AAP and especially Kejriwal for the state’s slide down into violence. The urban voters reacted predictably by pulling themselves away from the AAP which till then had looked like sweeping the Malwa region. The urban voters virtually fled to the Congress, and that explains the sudden landslide in favour of the party. The Congress swept almost the entire urban and large parts of rural Punjab. Today, Captain Amarinder Singh symbolises Punjab’s sudden recoil away from politics of angery idiom and violence. The Hindus turned to him as one man in desperate search of peace and security.

Apart from this bomb blast and the two incidents of shoe and stone throwing against the Chief and Deputy Chief Minister of the state, elections in Punjab thankfully were over without any significant incident of violence reported from anywhere in the state. Punjab lived up to its traditions of peaceful democratic expression on the polling day.

And its time to look beyond the poll and its unpleasant memories. Elections done and dusted, won and lost, one hopes that Punjabis will return to being Punjabis and put an end to the trail of mutual bitterness, and the resultant incriminations and recriminations which transformed us from loving giants into hateful pygmies. People seem to have realised that they must now put an end to the tendency to paint our political adversaries as evil and enemies of the state.

Over the past four years or so, It was so depressing to see the psyche of the people, especially of the young, terribly fractured. Ironically, political parties which cried themselves hoarse to project 70% of Punjabis as gone and lost to drugs have together logged roughly that percentage of vote share. One hopes that at least now, they would not dub their own electors as drug addicts.

Even during the days of communal tensions, the social fibre of the state remained largely intact even though it came under a very severe strain from Bhinderanwale’s brand of religio-political mix

Above all, it is the sincerest hope of every well wisher of the people of Punjab that that the state will finally see an end also to the rampant and insufferable resort to lumpen language on social media as witnessed during the run up to the campaign and later. One sincerely hopes that social media featuring Punjabis would return to “civil and social” idiom and stop embarrassing elders, children and ladies in our society.

Over the past few months, Punjab became a reminder that there is something badly diseased about a society in which womenfolk have to turn away from social activity, including social media, just because it has become too embarrassingly offensive and vulgar for decent girls to experience in the company of their brethren and or even children. All through the campaign, this seemed to threaten the largely peaceful and stable value systems in the state.

All this needs to change – and quickly. And yet, it does not require a revolution. Punjabis have merely to go back to themselves and rediscover themselves as the world has always seen, loved and respected them – as members of a most chivalrous, warm and transparent race proud of their traditions of love, friendship and their irresistible, backslapping bonhomie even with strangers. … piar naal jo karan ghulaami!! ( With love, you can turn them into willing slaves)

Arvind Kejriwal at Road Show in Amritsar.
Blame game Arvind Kejriwal is now alleging that 20-25% of AAP’s vote were transferred to SAD through tampered EVMs

Lets resurrect the resonance and rhythm of Gidha and Bhangra in our hearts so that the feet and lissome bodies of every Punjabi lad and lass break forth into a spontaneous dance of high spirited love for life and for one another symbolised by our national anthem and before that by Guru Gobind Singh’s cosmic anthem, “Deh Shiva var mohe ihe…”

Where the Akalis and AAP are concerned, all they need now is introspection. They would do well to remember that when you lose in life, the first weakness you must — MUST — resist is the temptation to blame it on everything except one’s own mistakes or find excuses for one’s own shortcomings. Every failure can always be traced back to something or the other we did wrong in life. There are no villains in failure except one’s own inability to understand and deal with a challenge. This is the only way I know to be fair to life, to oneself and to one’s rivals.

This writer , who was a part of the government before the elections and actively campaigned for the Shiromani Akali Dal, has been a sportsperson and in sports, you always respect your rival. If you lose, you must grant that you lost to a better player.

But it saddens me these days to see some of my friends in my own party but more especially in Kejriwal’s AAP blaming their failure in elections on the poor judgment of the people of Punjab. These “people of Punjab” are the very people for whom till yesterday the AAP was claiming to fight, and the very people who were being praised to the skies by the political parties including the AAP. As a member of the SAD, I don’t believe people are ever wrong. It;s just that their judgment does not always tally with ours or it doesn’t suit our personal prejudices and even interests. We must learn to respect the people in whose name we claim to be so fond of being in public life.

During the campaign for the just concluded elections, Punjab went into an insane bout of internal acrimony of Punjabis against one another. This kind of destructive hatred was unthinkable

For those in the Shiromani Akali Dal ( SAD), although we lost this election and lost it disgracefully, I would rather go back to the drawing board and look at where I was wrong and why we could not retain the confidence of the masses. It is certainly not fair – in fact, it is a sin — to blame our failure on either the inability of the electorate to choose wisely or the poor taste or mental caliber of the people. Unfortunately, this is what I see some friends doing on Facebook and elsewhere these days. We must accept that if the people have rejected us, it is because they did not find us good at our job. And the only reason is that something was lacking in our effort. It is as simple as that.

As part of the outgoing government, I am satisfied that we did a lot of good work in the government and took Punjab to new heights which no one had even visualized ten years ago. I am confident that this will be appreciated by the people in retrospect. As Dr Manmohan Singh once said very beautifully,” I hope history will be more kind to me than the present has been.” He was right. And I think even we who were part of the government that has just been voted out will be vindicated one day in too distant a future. I am very confident that people will slowly begin to appreciate the good work we did. But that will not wash the stains of our failure to rise to their expectations. The causes of that failure lie in our own conduct and not in people’s judgment.

Whatever the people have done is not only right but also perhaps the only thing that is good for Punjab in the long run. This is what Guru Gobind SIngh ji taught us: the Sangat is always right and is always sovereign. He placed Sangat (the people) above even the Gurus. This is a tough ideal to live up to. But the only period to test one’s ability to do so is in times of failure.

The social media was a veritable powder keg ready to blow the entire state up through hourly and sometimes moment to moment provocations to bloodshed by the Internet savvy youth

The good and healthy sign in Punjab is that those in the SAD have wished the new comers all success, and that is what we on the losing side all must do if we love Punjab and not just our own opinions and interests. Captain Amarinder Singh must be given time and chance to prove himself. If he doesn’t prove himself good enough, then we can always trust the people to do the right thing towards him and his party too and bring somebody else in. If people find us good enough at that time, they will not hold this present failure against us. We in the opposition must prepare ourselves to be more worthy of the people’s love and trust. I salute the decision of the people of Punjab even though at present it might hurt me or might seem very harsh to me. I think in the long run, its a good thing for everyone concerned. I still believe that there is a lot to recommend my party which a few mistakes will not be able to cloud forever. People may in their anger have punished the party but If we behave better, we will be treated better. As simple as that. People are never wrong.

My suggestion to my friends in all parties who have lost is: Love everyone, regardless of their opinion or political affiliation. We do not love Punjab if we are abusing the judgment and wisdom of Punjabis . The language which some of my NRI friends are using against Punjabis now is not in good taste at all. Please don’t do it. Your opinion is valuable and we respect you for caring about us and about your state so much. But in the end, you must concede that only the people here know what is good for Punjab. Your opinion certainly cannot be wiser than the collective wisdom of the people of Punjab. Why must we think that it is not the people but we who know what is best for them. This is an arrogant and dictatorial mindset: my way or the highway. Please don’t do this. We love you and we need you. We always will. You are so precious because you have seen better life, better culture, better everything. Have patience with us even when we are wrong. We are the Punjab which you love. Let us keep working for a better tomorrow. Punjab will be the loser if Punjabis don’t love and respect one another.

letters@tehelka.com