Their chief Ram Rahim in jail, Dera followers yet to decide who to vote for

Since the self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to life imprisonment in January for killing a journalist, followers of his Dera Sacha Sauda have been lying low at the sprawling 800-acre campus outside Sirsa in Haryana. The followers say they are also unsure about who to support in this election. The Dera has been an important vote bank for parties for over a decade. In 2007, it had formed a political affairs wing which decided which political party or politician it will support. During the 2007 Punjab Assembly election, it supported the Congress. In 2014 general election, the Dera openly supported the BJP. But after the sentencing of their flamboyant but controversial chief, the Dera and its political affairs wing became dysfunctional, locals and followers said. This, however, has not stopped political parties, including the BJP and the INLD, from saying 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 partys right to seek votes in an election. INLD leader Abhay Singh Chautala too has said his party will seek the Deras 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. There used to be public meetings and then a decision was taken. It used to be of course not binding but suggestive in nature. But this time, everyone is clueless about who will the Dera support, said Chinder Kaur, whose family has been the sects supporter for decades. A Dera functionary, who did not wish to be identified, said, Guru ji never told us who to vote for. It was the political affairs wing of the Dera to which political parties used to reach out and then public meetings were held with followers and a decision was taken, the functionary said. Several Dera followers, who did not wish to come on record, said the political affairs wing is almost redundant and hence the followers will have to make their individual choices. It is not just the political affairs wing but everything about Dera has come to a standstill. The manufacturing plants for aloe vera products, bottled water, car batteries and confectionery items are shut, said Babita Gautam, who lives near the Dera campus. Gautam said many people have been rendered jobless because of the closure of the Dera units. So whom to vote for is still a question in our neighbourhood. In August 2017, a special 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. Though the Dera has tumbled since then, Ram Rahims followers and those who had a stake in his business live in large numbers in Sirsa and surrounding districts. 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.