Can jailed Dera chief swing Lok Sabha polls in Punjab and Haryana?
New Delhi, May 03: Till 2017 Punjab assembly polls, politicians used to make a beeline at the 'all-powerful' Dera Sacha Sauda which holds sway over voters in several states including Punjab and Haryana. However, the situation has not been the same for followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, who have been lying low at the sprawling 800-acre campus outside Sirsa.
The dera earned a bad name after its head Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted for rape of two female followers and sentenced to 20-year imprisonment in August 2017.
His conviction in the 2002 case triggered widespread violence, arson and police firing. Thousands of Dera followers rampaged through parts of Haryana. Over 40 people died.
With its top leadership either in jail or on the run, the dera has started reviving itself in Punjab by holding 'naamcharcha' (congregations) to make political parties aware of its clout.
Political parties, including the BJP and the INLD have said that they will not refrain from seeking support of the once-influential Dera Sacha Sauda.
BJP leader and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has said he was not averse to Dera support in Lok Sabha election, and defended his stance, saying it is a political party's "right to seek votes in an election".
INLD leader Abhay Singh Chautala too has said his party will seek the Dera's support.
Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar has ruled that option out. Jakhar said, "We shall not compromise with Sirsa Dera for the election after sacrilege (incidents) have been traced to it."
That political parties have made their stance clear may not have a bearing on the Dera followers, who say they are clueless.
The Dera has always been able to influence voters in large parts of Haryana and to a lesser extent in Punjab.
During the 2007 Punjab Assembly election, it supported the Congress.
The Dera is said to have tilted the scales in favour of the BJP in the Haryana assembly elections in the winter of 2014.
With claims of over 40 lakh followers in Punjab, the dera still has the capacity to influence the polls in Patiala, Sangrur, Bathinda, Ferozepur and Faridkot Lok Sabha segments. It is yet to be seen how they react in the polls.
Polling in Haryana, which has 10 Lok Sabha constituencies, will be held on May 12.