The Sangrur Lok Sabha By-election in Punjab: Upping the human rights issue

Vote Election

The Sangrur Lok Sabha by-election taking place on 23rd June, which might have seemed like an easy win for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) before the tragic assassination of Sidhu Moosewala on 29th May, has now become a political battle. The AAP has suffered a severe setback especially among younger voters who were previously its active supporters; their grief for the slain popular singer has led them to question the administrative efficiency of the AAP government in controlling crime in the state. The political contest that has arisen has made space for all of Punjab’s political parties, including the AAP, Akali Dal (Badal), Congress, the BJP and Akali Dal (Mann), to stake their claims to the seat. The absence of two other political players – the Left and the Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa-led Akali faction – is notable because both had considerable influence in the constituency in the past. The BSP, a creditable political party in Punjab, is a minor player in this contest and has aligned with Akali Dal (Badal), although this alliance is hardly equal, since the BSP plays a very small role in decision-making.

Farmers’ organisations have strong roots in many areas of the constituency. They will be reluctant to admit (at least for now) that they made a historic blunder by not contesting the 2022 Assembly elections. Had all 32 farmers’ organisations jointly issued a communiqué after the victory of the Kisan Morcha, stating that they would field candidates in all 117 assembly constituencies, they would have swept to power. For a number of reasons, including some organisations’ blind ideological opposition to parliamentary politics, a lack of understanding of the dialectical and complementary relationship between parliamentary struggles and extra-parliamentary struggles, a lack of clarity on what constitutes pressure-point politics, and lastly, personal jealousies and competition, the power created by the farmers during their struggle against the BJP government’s farm laws has now dissipated. The mass disgust their movement aroused against the traditional political parties in Punjab was taken advantage of by the crafty Kejriwal-led AAP, who dominated the Assembly elections. Had the farmers’ organisations not blundered in this respect, they would now have been able to send a clear pro-farmer candidate (the first from Punjab) to India’s parliament. With a pro-farmer government in power in Punjab, even a single pro-farmer candidate in Lok Sabha would have had disproportionately high influence in the debates on relevant issues, and could have helped pro-farmer candidates to win all 13 Punjabi parliamentary seats in 2024. That historical opportunity is now lost – just as the Left lost the opportunity to have a Left-wing prime minister in India in 1996 when Sonia Gandhi offered the role to Jyoti Basu of the CPM. The Left have never recovered from that mistake and are now merely a marginal player in India’s parliamentary politics. The mistake made by Punjab’s farmers’ organisations in 2022 has similarly reduced their influence.

The five contending political parties in the field in this by-election have distinct political histories, ideological orientations and electoral-social bases. Although it is deeply regrettable that the farmers’ organisations are not in contention for this seat, the expansion and deepening of democracy in Punjab is evident in the fact that, in contrast to the old, two-way electoral battles between Congress and the Akali-BJP alliance, the current election is a contest between five parties. This constituency was once represented by the legendary CPI leader Comrade Teja Singh Sutantar who won this seat in 1971 by polling 115708 votes and defeating Akali candidate Baldev Singh by merely 210 votes. Sutantar’s victory was due to his particular qualities; he was very well-versed in Sikhi’s egalitarian teachings as well as having a Marxist world view, and he had also quietly defended many Naxalite activists. He won because many Naxalite supporters in turn had campaigned for him, along with many voters even from the Akali tradition, because he was known to have been inspired by Guru Granth Sahib. In contrast, the CPM leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet tried to defeat Sutantar because of the rivalry between the two men, by fielding a CPM candidate (Harnam Singh) who polled more than 33 thousand votes. The Left’s absence from the 2022 battle despite their victory in 1971 should be a matter for critical reflection on their part about their political choices in post-1984 Punjab. The absence of farmers’ organisations and the Left in the political contest of this by-election, and the fact that all non-Left parties except Akali Dal (Mann) are based on transactional/clientelist forms of politics oriented towards individualism, is a detriment to Punjabi society. Individualism of this kind has been given impetus by the neo-liberal turn in India’s political economy since the 1990s.

The people of Sangrur must choose between the candidates of the five main parties left in the field. Despite the fact that the AAP candidate is a locally-based activist, which is a point in their favour, the voters may defeat the AAP or at least vote for it less enthusiastically this time than they did during the 2022 Assembly elections mainly due to the fact that the AAP has become excessively controlled by Kejriwal and Delhi. The Congress is likely to be certainly defeated, because, although its candidate has good local credentials, the party has no coherent political vision at present and faces disaster unless it drastically reinvents itself. The BJP’s defeat is certain because   the party’s commitment to turning India into a Hindu rashtra has no traction in this constituency, and its candidate is both a turncoat and a political opportunist.

This leaves the choice between the Akali Dal (Badal) candidate and Simranjit Singh Mann. Mann is a man of integrity who had the courage to resign from a very high position in the police to protest against the Operation Bluestar attack in 1984. He comes from a distinguished family; his uncle Bhupinder Singh Mann was one of the two Sikh representatives in the constituent assembly who refused to approve India’s constitution because of its centralist bias. His father Sardar Joginder Singh Mann was a respected politician who was elected as Speaker of Punjab Vidhan Sabha in the first non-Congress government in Punjab in 1967. Simranjit Singh Mann was in jail in 1989 when the voters of Tarn Taran gave him a massive mandate, leading to his release. Later, he was elected again to the Lok Sabha from Sangrur. His main weakness has been that, despite achieving such a popular mandate from two Lok Sabha constituencies in Punjab, he has not provided the kind of leadership that would resolve the problems of the Punjabi people, or done the grass-roots organisational work needed to mobilise all sections of the Punjabi population. However, the public’s perception of him as having a clean image is his biggest strength.

The Akali Dal (Badal) party suffered an unprecedented rejection by Sikh voters in the 2022 Assembly elections because the party chose to move in the wrong direction by abandoning pro-federalism politics and subordinating Punjab’s interests to the centralist BJP. It was forced to part company with the BJP because of the upsurge of the farmers movement. It has chosen a female candidate, Bibi Kamaldeep Kaur, who attracts popular sympathy because her family has suffered state repression; however, she lacks the qualifications needed to be an effective parliamentarian representing Punjab’s interests. Nevertheless, the one-point programme she has chosen, namely, the release of Sikh political prisoners, is a solid human-rights issue. Akali Dal (Badal) is trying to rehabilitate itself by fielding her as its candidate, but it is important not to assume that votes for her equate to a pardon for Akali Dal for its past misdeeds (turning the once glorious Akali movement into a family business enterprise). Since the candidate elected in this by-election will hold office in Lok Sabha for less than two years, a vote for Bibi Kamaldeep Kaur – even if she lacks the abilities to be a good representative – will signal to the world and to the BJP government the strength of the popular mandate for the release of the Sikh political prisoners.

Making human rights a key issue in this by-election battle is a rejection of individualism-oriented politics of the transactional/clientelist type and a recognition of the key significance of collective action that transcends individualism even if it is not consciously recognised and articulated. It is a matter of collective shame for the people of Punjab that another human rights campaigner, Bibi Paramjit Kaur Khalra, the widow of the ‘disappeared’ human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, could not be elected to the parliament from Khadur Sahib in 2019 despite polling over 2 lakh votes. The blame for her defeat is shared by Akali Dal (Badal); the party failed to support her and instead put up its own transactional/clientelist candidate. We can hope that the voters in Sangrur will not repeat the same mistake by letting down Bibi Kamaldeep Kaur. She has already partially succeeded because her focus on human rights has influenced even Mann to champion the cause of the Sikh political prisoners in his election campaign. Irrespective of the party that supports her, if Bibi Kamaldeep Kaur wins the by-election, or even if she loses by a narrow margin, it will indicate the importance of the issue of human rights in Punjabi politics, an issue that has long been neglected.

Pritam Singh, Professor Emeritus, Oxford Brookes Business School. A new edition of author’s ‘Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond’ was published this month.


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