Simranjit Singh Mann’s astounding victory over the Aam Aadmi Party candidate in the Sangrur Parliamentary bypoll, coming on the heel of the AAP’s victory in the state election months ago, is representative of the turmoil underway in Punjab. The virtual disappearance of the mainstream Akali Dal has opened up a huge space in the politics of the Sikh majority in the state and Mann, a maverick radical Sikh politician who has always been on the extreme right of the spectrum of splinter Akali groups, marks only the beginning of a period in which various new alternatives will emerge to fill this vacuum.
Based in Punjab as a reporter, over twenty years ago, I found that, while reporting on elections in rural areas, it paid to take the litany of complaints voters had against the local Akali candidate with a pinch of salt. This was especially true of the Jutt Sikhs, who owned much of the land and provided much of the resources—from money and muscle to madira—that make for a successful campaign in Punjab. After the vote, the most vocal critics of the candidate would tell me, “Vote te panth nu paya”—I have voted for my religious sect, meaning Sikhism, hence the Akali Dal.
Today, in Punjab the easy identification of the panth with a party no longer exists, even as the Bharatiya Janata Party—representing the fledgling Hindutva panth—rules the country.