With Punjab polls just around the corner, the 25th annual Lord Krishna Balram Jagannath Rath Yatra — an event that witnesses an amalgamation of Ludhiana’s riches and religious fervour each year — saw the participation of political leaders and candidates from each party Sunday.
Political leaders and declared candidates from all major parties attended the Rath Yatra in a bid to woo the Hindu voters.
Every year thousands of devotees from all communities, the majority from Hindu community, attend the Rath Yatra which is organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). It is considered the second largest congregation of Lord Jagannath devotees in the country after the historic Jagannath Yatra of Puri in Odisha.
Hundreds of community kitchens (langars) which serve prasad to devotees for the whole day coupled with the advertisement hoardings, which are put up by influential businessmen of the city and political parties to welcome the yatra as the chariot passes through the city with a sea of devotees, have turned the religious event into more of a marketing exercise for the city residents. As per organisers, the investment in the event runs into crores, mostly from donations by city industrialists and other devotees.
Even though Ludhiana has been holding the religious event since 1996, in the past few years it has also become a platform for politicians to woo Hindu community of Punjab, particularly during elections, as thousands of devotees from not just Ludhiana but across Punjab attend the yatra.
Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, who flagged off the yatra on Sunday, announced ‘State Festival’ tag for the event from next year onwards. He also announced a sum of Rs 2.50 crore for ISKCON temple in Ludhiana.
Flagging off the Rath Yatra, Channi, who was accompanied by other Ludhiana Congress leaders including Cabinet minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, MLAs Kuldip Singh Vaid, Surinder Dawar and Sanjay Talwar, said that ‘as a mark of respect towards Lord Krishna’, the Rath Yatra would be celebrated as a ‘State Festival’ every year by the Punjab government.
While recalling his regard for Bhagvad Gita, Channi said that when he became a municipal councillor around 25 years ago, a noble soul had advised him to recite one shloka from holy Bhagvad Gita for inner peace. He said that the holy book gave a direction to his life and said that youth should imbibe the teachings of the Bhagvad Gita and practise them in their lives. He added that if one could imbibe just one of the shlokas, it was enough to succeed in life.
He also said that the Punjab government was developing Shri Bhagvad Gita and Ramayana Research Centre on 20-acre land in Patiala. He said that “the religious texts are the biggest source of inspiration which guide us towards betterment of our lives”. He added, “To further nurture our knowledge through the wisdom in the epic texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvad Gita, an exclusive research centre is being set up in Patiala,” he said.
Several leaders and candidates from other parties, including AAP, SAD and BJP, attended the procession too.
With SAD-BJP parting ways, Punjab is going to witness a four-cornered contest this time.
The SAD’s candidate from Ludhiana west Maheshinder Singh Grewal and Ludhiana Central candidate Pritpal Singh (also the president of Gurdwara Dukhnivaran Sahib management committee) attended the yatra.
From the AAP, district president Suresh Goyal, candidates Kulwant Sidhu (Atam Nagar), Daljit Grewal (East) and Madan Lal Bagga (North) were among those who attended.
BJP’s state general secretary Jiwan Gupta, Ludhiana district president Pushpinder Singal, Bikram Singh Sidhu (who has been vying for BJP ticket from Ludhiana West) and other party leaders were present at the event on Sunday.
Even Captain Amarinder Singh’s new party, Punjab Lok Congress, made its presence felt with its hoardings put across the city to welcome the procession.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Satish Gupta, Rath Yatra Mahotsav Committee, said that CM Channi was allowed to address from the stage, as he was chief guest of the event going by the practice that they have been following for years. “Irrespective of the party, CM is the chief guest of the event every year. His announcement of declaring our event as ‘State Festival’ will give a major boost to communal harmony in the state as not just Hindus, but people from all communities become part of this festival every year. It has been 25 years now that this yatra is being organised in Ludhiana by ISKCON and is the second largest after Puri’s Jagannath Yatra,” he said.
Gupta said that he ‘doesn’t see any politics’ behind Channi’s announcement of ‘state festival’ tag for the yatra. “Thousands of devotees attend yatra each year. We did not allow Channi to speak from the stage because of his political affiliation but because he is the CM. Leaders from all other parties attended the yatra but we did not give any VIP treatment to any party leader,” he said.
This wasn’t the first time that Ludhiana’s Rath Yatra set the stage for elections. Ahead of 2017 Punjab polls, Delhi deputy CM AAP’s Manish Sisodia had attended the yatra. He had also done ‘Maha-aarti’ from the stage along with the party candidates.
Political stalwarts such as Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and five-time Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal have also attended Ludhiana’s Rath Yatra in previous years. In 2015, Khattar had said from the stage that he was “the guardian of Tulsi Maa, Gau (cow) maa and will continue to work for the propagation of Gita around the world”.