The deserted look outside Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in Sirsa reflects the altered political reality of the religious sect that once portrayed itself as holding the key to swaying political fortunes.
With lakhs of Dalits, including majhabi Sikhs (converted Sikhs), among the Deras followers, political parties would make it a point to seek the blessings of the sect head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
But after his conviction in rape and murder cases, political parties are shying away from any kind of public association with the Dera. A 35-member political committee is expected to communicate the Deras decision to the premis, or the followers as they are called, but so far it is silent.
We have not been told whom to vote for, but I will surely vote against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said Milak Raj, an 80-year-old devotee of the Dera.
During the 2014 Assembly polls, the Dera had endorsed the BJP. But now the equation is completely reversed as the followers accuse the State government of putting the Dera chief in jail.
Staunch Dera supporters are neither willing to believe the charges against their chief nor ready to accept responsibility for the violence that followed Gurmeet Singhs arrest.
Instead, they blame the State government for job losses, as thousands of workers have been rendered unemployed after most of the commercial activities within the Dera campus have come to a complete halt. Factories producing fast moving consumer goods from salt to shampoo under the brand name MSG (Messenger of God) have shut down. So has the apparel factory located within the sprawling campus spread over hundreds of acres.
The number of followers attending religious congregation and prayer meets has come down to a few hundreds, from thousands earlier.
Once the charges of rape and murder were proven in a court of law, the rational followers of the Dera have withdrawn themselves, explained Rajbeer Dalal, professor in the Department of Public Administration in the Sirsa-based Chaudhary Devi Lal University. In the Hisar-Sirsa belt, every constituency had 5000-15000 voters who were Dera followers and they voted en bloc. In a tight contest, these votes matter, said Prof Dalal. What kind of influence the Dera has will be known post the results.
Supporters of the BJP, however, argue that the strong leadership of the party has permanently neutralised the Deras political influence.
They point to the recent defections of outgoing lawmakers to the BJP as a sign of the ruling partys growing stature. In 2014, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) had won the Lok Sabha seats as well as eight of the nine Assembly seats under the Sirsa parliamentary constituency.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJPs Sunita Duggal not only won the reserved seat but five of the eight INLD lawmakers joined the BJP.
I would say finishing off the Dera is the biggest achievement of the Khattar [Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar] government, said Dayalu Ram Saini, a local BJP supporter.