February 23, 2020
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Who Needs Another Battle?

The Akali Dal, the BJP’s most undemanding coalition partner, views Pokhran with trepidation

Who Needs Another Battle?
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PUNJAB Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal’s studied silence on the nuclear blasts, at a time when the rest of the nation was in a fever of self-congratulation, spoke louder than a thousand recriminations. The Akali Dal’s non-committal public stance on the nuclear issue masked a privately-expressed apprehension regarding its "fallout" on the sensitive border state.

 "How do you expect us to react? Should we beat drums and break into a bhangra? Or should we plant our nishaan sahib next to their Shaktipeeth temple in Pokhran?" snapped an Akali Dal MP close to Badal when questioned about his party’s tepid response to India’s joining the nuclear club. The BJP’s jingoism may well have compromised Punjab’s security and economic interests without so much as a by-your-leave, observed another senior Akali leader.

The Akali Dal’s pique stems from the fact that despite being the BJP’s closest and most undemanding ally and Punjab being the state most likely to be affected in the event of increased hostilities with Pakistan, Badal was not forewarned, much less consulted. But Badal, a moderate by conviction and conscience, has no desire to rock the frail barque of the coalition government.

Especially not now, on the eve of the Khalsa tricentenary, which is the most important event in Sikh history in the last 300 years. At no cost will the state government jeopardise the opportunity of conducting the celebrations, planned on a global scale, under its aegis. Besides, Badal firmly believes that the alliance with the BJP is Punjab’s best hope of maintaining peace and furthering its economic interests. Accordingly, he has maintained a taciturn stance vis-a-vis the nuclear blasts, albeit with a palpable effort. Food minister Surjit Singh Barnala welcomed the nuclear tests but his sentiments are not shared by most other Akali leaders. Post facto, the BJP has attempted to soothe Badal’s ruffled feathers and the softening of the Centre’s official stand vis-a-vis CTBT and Pakistan has been met with relief in Punjab.

"Punjab’s response on the nuclear issue has been cautious and there are sound reasons for that. Peace has been obtained after a long time and at great cost. Such provocative acts and statements by BJP hardliners will have an immediate impact on Punjab. And we don’t want to fight another proxy war with Pakistan on behalf of the nation," says Akali ideologue and head of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Dr J.S. Ahlu-walia. Badal’s response, he says, indicates that the man is justifiably realistic, if no less patriotic than any other Indian.

A close associate of Badal and member of the state government agrees: "There is peace but not normalcy in Punjab. Anything could ignite trouble...the state has been a battlefield for 15 years. We don’t want to go through that again." According to a senior Akali minister, there appears to have been a sudden change in the country’s threat perceptions. After years of regarding Pakistan and the ISI as the main enemy, all at once the BJP maintains that China represents the main threat. But the Central government has not, he points out, explained just how the nuclear tests are going to resolve problems with either of the two nations.

Escalating tension along the border, increased ISI activity, an end to hopes of cross-border trade, slowdown in foreign investment and reduced NRI funding for the Khalsa tricentenary are the major Akali concerns. For decades, successive state governments have been hoping for cross-border trade between the two Punjabs. Besides easy access to markets in Pakistan, this could also widen opportunities of overland trade with Afghanistan, Iran and central Asia. The Akalis have in fact been charging the Centre with deliberately preventing cross-border trade at the behest of political heavyweights with shipping interests who have no desire to see their business hit by overland trade. At the slightest excuse, the Akalis rued, the Centre clamps down on border trade. With a BJP government in place, it was hoped that curbs would be relaxed. Already, truckloads of potatoes are sent into Pakistan from Punjab and there is a market for other agricultural commodities as well. "For small trade volumes, this is far more economical," said a government offi-cial. He pointed out that Japanese-aided projects which were in the pipeline might be stalled and foreign investment curtailed.

THE timing of the nuclear blasts has come at a bad time for the Akalis. The tricentenary apart, another highly emotive issue, the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal, could create a serious law and order problem. Earlier this year, the state government drew the Centre’s attention to intelligence reports saying that SYL—on the backburner since 1987—could spark off a farmers’ agitation and present mischief-minded infiltrators with a readymade opportunity to stir up trouble.

Badal’s close friend and Rajya Sabha MP Brajinder Singh Hamdard who had attacked the nuclear experiments in print, charges the BJP with "creating a war psychosis in the minds of the people". A senior Akali minister said the BJP government’s priorities were skewed: "Should we be spending money on building roads or nuclear explosions?"

While the politically powerful Sikh clergy has been silent on the issue, Prof. G.S. Dhillon, academic and author of the SGPC’s white paper on Operation Bluestar, feels it has to speak up. Nuclear warfare militates against the ethos of Sikh and Hindu religions, he says. Nor should the Akali Dal have kept quiet at this juncture. "This glory abroad and peace at home business smacks of Hitler...Besides, this politics is being played by men over 70 with no stake in the future."

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