Chandigarh, December 8: Shiromani Akali Dal president and Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has been the most vocal face of the Akali Dal-BJP government in the state over the years. However, he would remain confined to the war room as strategic commander. It is the Grand Oldman Prakash Singh Badal who would be the alliance face for February 2017 elections in which about 60 per cent of the voters would be less than 40 years of age. Badal was elected to the Assembly for the first time in 1957 but had entered the public life much earlier as sarpanch of Badal village and then as member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee executive in 1956.
Sukhbir had already planned a mega rally as his father’s birthday bash at Killi Chahlan village near Moga even before the Supreme Court had come out with the verdict on Presidential Reference on Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 that is mainly concerned with the completion of the Satluj Yamuna link Canal to carry waters to neighbouring Haryana. The Akali leaders too are superstitious. It was the same venue in 2007 that proved to be the launching pad for the Akali Dal.
The rally was converted into ‘Save Water, Save Punjab’ rally on the years old refrain that ‘not a drop would be spared’ for neighbouring states. The dispute, in fact, is only about 1.88 MAF waters, much less than the designed capacity of the SYL Canal. Haryana has been drawing rest of its share over the years through the existing Bhakra Canal system. While the Akali Dal today projected as an issue that is matter of life and death for Punjab, 75 per cent of the water from the state rivers is already flowing to Rajasthan and Haryana through various canals that cannot be stopped.
However, in the triangular contest with the Aam Aadmi Party adding the third dimension, the river waters issue is highly relevant to marginalise the new entrant. AAP is without any historical baggage in this context and hence, it can’t score on this issue. It is for the Akali Dal and the Congress to fight it out. Significantly, the BJP was there to announce unstinted and unequivocal support to its alliance partner on this sensitive issue.
All the posters and banners carried just one slogan and only one picture. The slogan was about saving waters and it was Badal who was projected as the saviour of river waters. There was not a single picture of Sukhbir or any other leader even on the banner that formed the backdrop of the stage. It carried only picture of Badal on one side. All the cut outs and pictures on banners were that of Badal Senior. After all, he has been the chief minister since 2007 and for the record, the credit and discredit for all the acts of omission and commission goes to him. It is different matter that Sukhbir functions as the de facto chief minister without that accountability. Enjoying power without any accountability perhaps has its own charm.
There was nothing new so far as tone and tenor of speeches of the Badals are concerned. Senior Badal spoke on the expected lines using the same rhetoric. He has given this speech several times after the Supreme Court delivered its latest verdict on river waters. Rather this has been his same speech over the years. None from the Akali Dal refers to the water already flowing to Haryana and Rajasthan. The party has been talking of charging royalty. But then Punjab is co-riparian with Himachal Pradesh being upper Riparian. Moreover, river Satluj originates from lake Mansarovar in Tibet in China. The River Waters Dispute Act, 1956, is clear on the issue of royalty.
The rally was massive by every account, except that the crowd was unresponsive and the faces seemed to be glum. It could also be winter effect. In 2007, the crowd was highly responsive in the same freezing cold.
The Akali Dal faces on the stage at today’s rally were the same as in 2007 with some of them rejected by the people.
In case of Congress too, it is the same Capt Amarinder Singh who is leading the campaign. He has been carrying on with this responsibility since 2002 elections when the Congress under his command succeeded in replacing the Akali Dal-BJP combine. He is also nearing 75 and has announced it to be his last election. Badal made similar announcements in 2007 and 2012. However, Sukhbir is in no mood to take any risk. But then people in this state don’t tolerate arrogance.