Punjab elections and Deras

Release of Ram Rahim on parole has revived an animated debate as many see politics behind it

Region is dotted with Deras that are known to influence elections

Biggest of these Deras is of Radha Soamis based out of Beas in the Majha region

Among major sects or Deras are Namdharis and Nirankaris

Dera Sacha Sauda with headquarters in Sirsa remains most controversial

Other major Deras are Sachkhand Ballan, Swami Jagat Giri Ashram and Noor Mahal

Various Sikh sects, including Nanaksar, Dhadrian, Harian Bellan, Hansali and others, represent Sant Samaj

Damdami Taksal too has been hawking media headlines

By Prabhjot Singh*

Release of Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda on parole a fortnight before the February 20 poll in Punjab has set in motion an animated debate over the timing of his “Furlow”. There are many who view it as a political master stroke played by the BJP government in Haryana to influence elections, both in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, others are dismissing it as an administrative or procedural relief to a convict. Whatever be the reasons or the background of his release, it has stirred a controversy that may have far reaching political implications.

Deras in general, and Dera Sacha Sauda in particular, have generally played a decisive role in many of previous electoral battles. 

One of the major factors believed to influence the outcome of battles of the ballot in Punjab are Deras that dot not only the entire State but also the catchment areas, including neighbouring Haryana.

Important and major Deras or sects like Radha Soamis, Nirankaris and Namdharis generally stay clear of politics and elections, same cannot be said of many others, especially Dera Sacha Sauda, that wield considerable influence in the Malwa belt and some parts of Western Uttar Pradesh.

A few months before the 2017 elections to the Punjab assembly were announced, the then Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi visited Dera Radha Soami at Beas. 

Incidentally, the President of the All-India Namdhari sect is H S Hanspal, who headed the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee when Capt Amarinder Singh was Chief Minister of Punjab (2002-2007) . Hanspal also represented Congress as Member of Rajya Sabha. This time, Hanspal, upset over the denial of a party ticket to his grandson, decided to leave Congress and join hands with the Aam Aadmi Party.

 A substantial section of Sant Samaj that has in its fold various Sikh sects, including revered Nanaksar, used to support the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. The situation has changed this time. The Damdami Taksal, an influential sect of Sikhs, caused a big flutter when some of its top leaders declared support for Bharatiya Janata Party.

 While there has been no corroborative evidence of followers of one Dera or the other voting enmasse for a particular party or a candidate, yet no party of substance misses an opportunity to appease these socio-religious organisations.

In the past, State Governments have been doling out concessions and special treatment to them in an endeavour to have their leadership on their side. So much so that at times they even enjoy immunity from the law of the land.

 Law enforcement agencies face a harrowing time as and when these Deras or their chiefs get mired in controversies linked to serious criminal offences, including rape, murder or illegal confinement. Some of these cases are handled by the prime investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. It is in one of such cases that the chief of Dera Sacha Sauda, Ram Rahim, was convicted and sentenced for life. His earlier pleas for release on parole were dismissed for security reasons.

In fact, before his arrest, a big drama took place that led to arson and violence in Panchkula as a lot was said about the CBI case against the Dera Sacha Sauda chief. There were allegations that the case was being pushed to cold storage after BJP came to power on its own in the 2016 Assembly elections in the State. Earlier, the Dera was believed to have supported Congress in the 2007 Punjab Assembly elections. Some political pundits go to the extent of saying that the Dera was playing the role of a King maker.

It is why his 21-day parole and physical presence in the region is being followed with abated interest.

Looking back at electoral battles of the past two decades, it can be safely inferred that Deras have been the most sought after centres when it comes to ensuring a victory in the elections. Undoubtedly the Deras have been playing King Makers, though discreetly. Their influence has been growing steadily and may not be impacted by the Apex court verdict on restraining political parties from seeking a vote in the name of caste, creed, religion or language.

If Akali Dal suffered reverses in the 2007 Assembly elections in the Malwa belt – it got only 19 of 65 seats – it was suspected that Dera Sacha Sauda followers voted for Congress. Though Congress led by Capt Amarinder Singh failed to return to power, it gave a lesson to the power incumbents Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance a lesson in Dera politics.

 The message of the 2007 elections was loud and clear.

Subsequently, every party, including the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Aam Aadmi Party, and Bahujan Samaj Party — have been bending backwards to seek the blessings of these deras and their chiefs before or during elections. 

Even the latest entrant to Punjab politics, Aam Aadmi Party, too, also tried to garner the support of Deras. In the 2017 elections, the Bahujan Samaj Party that had its base eroded considerably over the years also seriously considered seeking the support of at least five Deras that have a huge following of the Dalits.

 In Punjab, Scheduled Castes are the single largest vote bank as they are a little more than 32% of the State’s population. It is probably the reason for Congress to name the incumbent Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi as its Chief Ministerial face for the 2022 elections by overlooking the claims of its Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.

There have been instances when one Dera or the other openly pledged allegiance to a party, the party concerned made a significant dent in its rivals’ vote share. The success of Congress in the Malwa belt in the 2007 Punjab Assembly elections and the BJP success in the 2016 Haryana Assembly elections are points in order.

Though the Apex Court gave a landmark verdict on the eve of 2017 Assembly elections to five States, including Punjab, that votes cannot be solicited in the name of religion, caste or language, the Deras remained high on demand.

 Intriguingly in the Assembly elections in 2012 and also the 2014 general elections, candidates close to the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmit Ram Raheem, failed to get voters’ verdict in their favour. They include Harminder Jassi, who in 2017 contested unsuccessfully  from Maur in the Malwa belt on Congress ticket.

The Deras play safe as they do not flout election laws and refuse to openly support one party or the other.  After all parties have approached them, they follow the same safe modus operandi of referring the matter to their respective political wings, who in turn direct the followers to vote according to their conscience. 

 One of the prime reasons for growing the Dera cult is the failure of the State to curb caste distinctions. Discarded by upper castes, lower castes, coming from different religious backgrounds, form the bulk of Deras as they are treated at par and given respectability. Various political parties find Dera followers a heterogeneous voter base that once convinced can influence electoral fortunes.

 “How Deras impact the ensuing Assembly elections?”, only results will tell. 

* Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered  Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit probingeye.com  or follow him on Twitter.com/probingeye