Faith and Ballots: Politicians seek support from religious sects ahead of polls

  • | Monday | 20th May, 2024

As the Lok Sabha elections draw nearer in Punjab, Haryana, and Chandigarh, the political landscape is witnessing a significant shift with major parties turning their attention towards religious sects to garner support. Be it the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — all have begun engaging with the dera sects in the state, especially Radha Swami Dera in Beas, to seek blessings and support from its leadership for the June 1 elections.   Moreover, candidates go the extra mile by flaunting snapshots of their encounters and discussions with the Dera chief across social media platforms, strategically courting the allegiance of his devout followers.   The development underscored the importance of religious affiliations in the regions politics, where faith has long played a significant role in shaping electoral outcomes. The Radha Swami Dera, led by Gurinder Singh Dhillon, holds considerable influence in Punjab and neighbouring states of Haryana and Himachal. Political leaders from various parties are visiting the Dera to seek the blessings of Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon, popularly known as Baba-ji, in hopes of securing votes from the sects followers.   Similarly, other prominent religious sects, such as Dera Sacha Sauda and Dera Sachkhand Ballan, also hold sway over electoral dynamics in Punjab. These sects command large followings and their leaders are seen as influential figures whose endorsements can sway voter sentiments.   The Radha Swami Dera, headquartered in Beas, Amritsar, has a significant presence in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan also. With millions of followers across these states, the Dera holds considerable sway over electoral politics, particularly in Punjabs Malwa region, which accounts for a significant number of assembly seats.   The Dera serves as a strong vote bank that can sway the outcome of a candidates victory or defeat. According to sources connected to the Dera, its influence is particularly significant in constituencies like Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Jalandhar, Patiala, and Hoshiarpur, besides having a substantial following in Himachal Pradesh as well.   According to information available in Dera Beass in-house magazine, the organization has 5,000 branches across the country, in addition to separate branches in 99 countries worldwide. In Punjab alone, they have 80-90 satsang centers, with similar centers in Haryana and Himachal also.   So far, several candidates have sought the Deras support, including Punjab Congress president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, party candidate from Ludhiana; Arvind Khanna, BJP candidate from Sangrur; Ravneet Bittu, BJP candidate from Ludhiana; Manish Tiwari, Congress candidate from Chandigarh; Punjab Cabinet Minister Harjot Bains; AAP candidate from Anandpur Sahib Malvinder Kang; BJP candidate Sushil Rinku from Jalandhar; and Congress candidate Kulbir Jira from Sahib; all have visited the Dera Sacha Sauda for attendance.   Political observers note that no election in Punjab is complete without the involvement of religious sects, which often dictate voting patterns among their followers. However, despite the anticipation surrounding the dera factor, it proved ineffective during the 2022 Punjab assembly polls, as the Aam Aadmi Partys unprecedented surge disrupted all preconceived estimates and calculations made by political pundits.   As per the trend observed in the past elections, except 2022 assembly polls, while some sects maintain a neutral stance in politics, others openly endorse specific parties or candidates, further blurring the lines between religion and politics. For instance, the Radha Swami Satsang Beas has a mass following in Punjabs Doaba region, known for its significant Dalit population and economic prosperity. However, the Dera Beas, established by Baba Jaimal Singh in 1891, had never openly supported any leader or party.   Similarly, the Dera Sachkhand Ballan, associated with the Ravidassia community, wields considerable influence in Punjabs Doaba region. With a sizable vote bank at its disposal, the Deras endorsement can significantly impact electoral outcomes in the region.   The Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, headed by controversial self-styled godman Guremeet Ram Rahim Singh—behind bars in murder and rape cases — also claims of influence over nearly 40 assembly constituencies in Punjabs Malwa. The Dera has 84 branches in Punjab, 11 of these, including the biggest at Salabatpura, in Bathinda district.   Only recently, a large congregation of followers was organized at Deras state headquarters at Salabatpura to celebrate Deras foundation day. Unlike before, no political leader attended it this time. Meanwhile, Dera authorities are keeping their cards close to their chest. Sources said that the Dera was unlikely to announce support to any party and might support some candidates on some seats. It is also learnt that through this large gatherings, the authorities are accessing the followers mood ahead of the polls.   Among these, the significance of Dera Beas can be gauged from the fact that during his 10-year tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited the Dera three times, including just four days before the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections in 2022. Only recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, besides Himachal Chief Minister Sukhwinder Sukhu and Union Minister Anurag Thakur had also visited the Dera and met with the head.   In Punjab, there are no official figures regarding active deras, but as per estimates, there are around 9,000 Sikh and 12,000 non-Sikh deras in the State. Approximately 300 of these deras are headed by leaders who wield influence not only in Punjab but also in Haryana and Himachal. Among them, 12 deras boast a following of over one lakh devotees each, with Dera Beas being one of them.   Among the prominent deras in Punjab are Damdami Taksal, Dera Nanaksar, Sant Ajit Singh Hansali Sahib, Sant Daya Singh Sur Singh Wale, Sant Seva Singh Rampur Kheda, Parmeshwar Dwar Gurmat Prachar Seva Mission, and Dera Baba Rumi Wala (Bhuchcho Kalan) are among the prominent Sikh deras in Punjab.   On the other hand, Radha Swami Satsang Beas (Dera Beas), Dera Sacha Sauda, Noormahal Dera, Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan, Sant Nirankari Mission, Dera Baba Bhooman Shah (Sanghar Sadh), and Ravidassia (Dera Sach Khand) are some of the major non-Sikh deras in Punjab.

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