Millennium Post

Punjab battles it out today on ‘drug-inflicted ground’

Punjab battles it out today on ‘drug-inflicted ground’
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi participated in a rally in Bathinda while Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal addressed an election rally at Anandpur Sahib. Most other leaders, including Captain Amarinder Singh and his rival of the BJP for the Amritsar seat, Arun Jaitley, organised roadshows in their respective constituencies. Top leaders such as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal and BSP supremo Mayawati lent their weight to a high decibel campaign, at which prime minister Manmohan Singh was conspicuous by his absence.

According to official records, 253 candidates are in the fray for the 13 seats. Union minister of state for external affairs Preneet Kaur is in the fray at Patiala and former union minister Ambika Soni is trying her political luck from Anandpur Sahib seat. President of the state Congress Partap Singh Bajwa is seeking a second tenure from Gurdaspur, where he faces film tar Vinod Khanna of the BJP. Leader of the Congress legislature party Sunil Jhakar is contesting the Ferozepur seat.

An interesting contest is in the offing at Bathinda, where chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s MP daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur is in the fray. She faces Badal’s estranged nephew Manpreet Singh, who is contesting as a nominee of the Congress with which his People’s Party of Punjab has forged an alliance.

Senior Akali leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa is locked in a triangular contest at Sangrur. Noted Supreme Court lawyer HS Phoolka is the AAP candidate in Ludhiana, which is set to witness a multi-cornered contest. Noted Punjabi filmstar Bhagwant Mann is another strong candidate of AAP from Sangrur.

Beneath the din of the high decibel campaign, there are layers of less talked about issues and uncertainty about the mood of the electorate.

There is an air of ‘expectancy’ in Hareri village in Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency. Kala, an opium addict, explains why. ‘Every election, a truckload of liquor and opium – as much as we want – is usually distributed. It will certainly happen this time too.’

A few kilometres away in Deepsinghwala village, people waved black flags at the Shiromani Akali Dal MP Paramjit Kaur Gulshan when she went to seek votes. ‘About 40 per cent of the village youth are hooked to drugs. The ruling politicians are hand in glove with the drug mafia,’ says Nachattar Singh, a farmer. Gulshan created a stir by declaring that if elected, she would push for establishing legal opium vends in her area.

Even a casual observer of the election scene in Punjab will not fail to notice that drugs, have emerged as the dominant narrative in the ongoing election campaign. The oft-repeated Narendra Modi wave is barely discernible here. In constituency after constituency, candidates of the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine as well as the Congress are faced with questions from angry people about what measures will be taken to arrest the problem that threatens the state’s youth.

When Rahul Gandhi, quoting from a survey, said in 2012 that 70 per cent of Punjab’s youth are addicted to drugs, the ruling combine reacted with fury. Today its candidates across the state are facing uncomfortable questions over the perceived involvement of the political machinery in the distribution of drugs, with which the revenue minister and the son-in-law of the Badal family, Bikram Singh Majithia, is being linked to.

Bhagwant Mann, popular Punjabi satirist and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate from Sangrur, has based his entire election campaign on drugs. A band of AAP youth organise street plays that show drugs being transported in the ruling party leaders’ official vehicles. Indeed, one reason for the unexpected surge in support of the AAP in Punjab in this election is being attributed to the widespread perception that leaders of the Akali Dal, the BJP and the Congress all have a hand in the drug racket.

In the 2012 assembly elections, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance promised to eradicate the drug problem. Barely two years later, a drug lord who was arrested named minister Bikram Singh Majithia as the kingpin of the flourishing drug racket. That the Punjab police has not probed the sensational allegations has only strengthened public perception that ruling politicians are involved. In October last year, retired Punjab police officer-turned-crusader against drugs, Shashi Kant Sharma, had on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court informed the Election Commission (EC) that there is widespread use of drug money in elections.

As against the 322 kilograms of heroin recovered from the Punjab border last year, more than 250 kilograms have been seized in the first four months of this year, prompting the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the EC to take note of the problem. A few days back, the MHA initiated an internal probe to find out if funds generated from drug smuggling are being used to fund elections in the State. Synthetic drugs are manufactured in Punjab and its neighbouring states and are sold in thousands of chemist shops in rural areas. Many villagers tell that the strategy used for the sale of drugs is very similar to multi-level marketing. An addict who gets more people to join the network is rewarded with free daily fixes.

For some years now, sociologists have been raising alarms about the sharp economic and social decline of Punjab. The diminishing returns from the Green Revolution have coincided with the poor quality of educational infrastructure and unemployment.

A rise in real estate prices has put more money in the hands of young boys and girls from landed families who spend on drugs, fancy cars and a hedonistic lifestyle. Consequently, rural suicides, a galloping divorce rate and increasing crime rates are the totem poles of life in modern-day Punjab.

The last round of road-shows by AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal registered unprecedented crowds on the streets of Ludhiana, Gurudaspur, Bhatinda and Sangrur, and even Amritsar. Large number of youths have taken to the white caps and talking about a vision of drugs-free non-corrupt polity, and there are takers by the scores in villages and small towns of these areas. By no means, as surveys and experts explain, can the ruling right-wing government repeat its last assembly results, and by all means, AAP is expected to make its electoral debut with high probability of winning the Ludhiana and Sangrur seats, and making spectacular impact in at least three other seats. Congress is expected to do well in Patiala for sure, and may win in Amritsar too.
Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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