The chief minister, who has nurtured the Shiromani Akali Dal for over five decades, was conspicuous by his absence from the manifesto release ceremony of the party done in Bathinda Monday. Instead, he chose to go from his village to Kotkapura town, 75 km from Bathinda.
The manifesto was released by the chief minister's son Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is the Akali Dal president and deputy chief minister in the state. He took over reins of the party from his father in 2008. He was evasive to questions regarding the absence of Badal senior from the all-important manifesto release.
"If he (Badal senior) campaigns here, you will say that the entire (Badal) family is here only. When he is campaigning in other places, you are raising questions about his absence," said Sukhbir Badal.
Though Sukhbir Badal and other senior Akali Dal leaders are not ready to admit it, the chief minister has stayed away from Bathinda in the past two weeks when campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections has been at its peak.
Harsimrat Badal, daughter-in-law of the chief minister and Sukhbir's wife is seeking re-election from the Bathinda seat as the Akali Dal candidate. She had won from here in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Badal was recently seen asking Harsimrat's brother and cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia what he was doing in Bathinda when Harsimrat filed her nomination on April 7. Majithia filed his papers as covering candidate for Harsimrat even though a Badal loyalist, MP H.S. Bhunder, was supposed to do so. Badal has not campaigned in Bathinda for Harsimrat ever since.Majithia is handling the election campaign of Punjab's high profile and bitter contest on the Amritsar seat between BJP leader Arun Jaitley and former chief minister and Congress candidate Amarinder Singh. The Akali Dal and BJP run an alliance government in Punjab since 2007.
"The chief minister has chosen to campaign elsewhere in Punjab, particularly in Amritsar, in the last few days. It is unusual for him not to be in Bathinda at all where Harsimrat is being challenged by his estranged nephew Manpreet Badal (former Punjab finance minister and son of Badal's younger brother Gurdas Badal).
"The chief minister was just a few kilometres away when the manifesto was released and he could have easily attended the event," a senior Akali Dal legislator told IANS, requesting anonymity.
Sources in the Badal family say that the chief minister, in the past over one year, has been engaged mainly in his 'Sangat Darshan' (meeting the public) programme as his son and family have remained busy in other things.It is a well-known fact in the Punjab government that it is Sukhbir and Majithia who call the shots even though Badal senior, who is in his fifth tenure as chief minister, is the boss.
Badal's son-in-law, Adaish Pratap Singh, who is also a cabinet minister, keeps a low profile in the government and family affairs. He is not known to be on the best of terms with Sukhbir and Majithia.
With the Akali Dal hoping to be an important part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the first family certainly needs to put up a united face at home to begin with.