As it takes on Centre, AAP warms up to Akali icon Gurcharan Singh Tohra

The special Punjab Assembly session on Friday that marked the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s first major confrontation with the Centre coincided with the 18th death anniversary of Akali icon Gurcharan Singh Tohra who spent his life standing up to the central government led by Indira Gandhi.

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The House passed a resolution on the immediate transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, days after Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that central service rules would apply to the employees of the Union Territory’s administration.

While the BJP sent Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who is the party leader in charge of Punjab, to attend a memorial function organised by the Akali leader’s family at his ancestral village of Tohra, near Patiala, the state government captured the attention with its advertisement blitzkrieg honouring the “Panth Rattan”.

In the House, AAP leaders, including Budhlada MLA Budh Ram spoke of the contributions of Akali doyen Darshan Singh Pheruman, who died in 1969 while fasting to demand the inclusion of Chandigarh and Punjabi-speaking areas in Punjab, something which did not happen after the Punjabi Suba came into being.

According to political observers, the AAP is attempting to boost its image as a Punjabi party and appropriate the legacy of Akali agitations for the state. “The party has no historical baggage, it can choose what or who it wants to ally with, just like the BJP, which chose to appropriate Patel (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel),” said Dr Pramod Kumar who heads the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development Communication, a think tank.

But Tohra’s grandson Kanwarveer Singh, who joined the BJP in the run-up to the Assembly elections, hit out at the ruling party, saying, “The AAP government has cited financial constraints for not holding the annual state-level function in his honour this year. Unlike the years before the pandemic, when several Cabinet ministers would descend on the village, we did not even receive a call from anyone in the government.”

Referring to Shekhawat’s visit from Delhi, Kanwarveer added, “That is what I call an honest tribute.”

Asked about the AAP’s tribute, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) spokesperson and former minister Dr Daljit Sigh Cheema said he was grateful to the AAP government for remembering Tohra.

Appeal across party lines

Throughout his political career, Tohra remained steadfast in his opposition to what he called the “predatory policies” of the Congress under Indira Gandhi. He dug in his heels on issues such as the division of river water and the territory between Punjab and Haryana.

After the death of the five-time Rajya Sabha MP, who headed the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) for a record 27 years, governments led by the SAD and the Congress made it a tradition to honour him by organising an annual state-level function in his memory.

Though the event has lost its sheen over the years, SGPC chief Harjinder S Dhami said leaders such as Tohra and Master Tara Singh still command respect across party lines in Punjab. “Tohra saab Punjab di bahut vaddii shakhsiyat ne, eh ishtehaaran ne ohna di yaad nu taaza kita hai (Tohra saab was a towering figure of the state, these ads have revived his memory),” he added.

The legacy of Tohra’s integrity is such that following his death in 2004 former Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had said, “I am paying tribute to the honesty of Mr Tohra. He never made money and lived a clean, simple political life.”

The AAP’s ad also mentions this aspect of the Akali leader’s legacy, referring to him as “an apostle of value-based politics”.

What about the Akali Dal?

Though the AAP’s move shows the appeal the Akali icon still has in the state’s politics, both his grandson and a breakaway Akali Dal faction claimed that the SAD had forgotten Tohra who had once sought to dismiss Parkash Singh Badal as the party’s chief.

Praising the AAP, Akali Dal (Sanyukt) president SS Dhindsa, who was a close friend of Tohra, said, “He was a very tall leader of Punjab. He cannot be forgotten even though his parent party Akali Dal has tried to ignore him.”

Kanwarveer hit out at the SAD for holding a separate function at Gurdwara Dukhnivaran Sahib, alleging that it had done so to keep party leaders from visiting Tohra Mandi. “For Bapu ji (Tohra), Akali Dal was his family but this time only Prem Singh Chandumajra (a former Akali MP) visited the village,” he added.

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