By Elizabeth Pisani
CHANDIGARH, INDIA, Sept 22, Reuter: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s first visit to Punjab in three years appears to have generated more disappointment and cynicism than hope of an end to the bloody Sikh Independence campaign in the northern state.
“The people thought after three years he must be coming with a bundle of gifts,” said opposition Akali Dal leader Sujit Singh Barnala on Thursday.
“But we got nothing. People in Punjab have been totally disillusioned by this visit,” said the moderate Sikh leader in a telephone interview.
Gandhi, surrounded by a huge security operation throughout his One day trip, promised village level elections and said he would hold talks with opposition parties on the state’s future.
He also promised continued tough action against militants whose violence has claimed more than 1,900 lives this year.
Western diplomats in New Delhi said Gandhi appeared to have accepted that no quick solution was in sight to the five year separatist campaign.
“None of this amounts to a whole lot,” commented one. Gandhi’s plan appeared to see village level elections in December or January, senior Punjab officials said. If those were successful, then polls could be held at a higher level.
A political analyst in Chandigarh, the Punjab Capital, said only state assembly elections to replace direct rule from New Delhi would have any relevance.
“And they won’t hold assembly elections until they can be sure (Gandhi’s) Congress (I) Party will win, and that certainly isn’t yet,” said the analyst, who asked not to be identified, “These Panchayat (village level) elections are just a trick to test out Congress strength,” he said in a comment reflecting wide spread cynicism in Punjab and shared by the diplomats.
“He’s testing the waters,” said a western enjoy in Delhi.
The release of 138 Sikhs detained for more than three years without trial on the eve of Gandhi’s visit also seemed to generate cynicism.
“We hoped for a general amnesty, for some kind of timetable for an end to (direct) rule,” said a disappointed Punjab Communist Leader, A.S. Malhotra.
“Will this be seen as a constructive and generous gesture, or will it focus attention on the fact they were held for nearly four years without trial? I rather think it will be the latter,” a Diplomat said of the releases. The Diplomats said that while they expected Gandhi’s offers of elections and talks to disappoint Punjabis, the rest of India would probably see them positively.
“These will probably play quite well in the rest of India, which was very obviously a target audience, without making much difference: to opinion in Punjab,” a Diplomat said.
Gandhi has to call general elections by the end of 1989.
On the eve of his Punjab visit, the Government announced economic incentives for the rich agricultural state and the setting up. of a Pepsi Cola Plant expected to create 25,000 jobs.
These also failed to attract much enthusiasm.
“Someone has seized on the idea of unemployment being the root of all evil in Punjab, but that’s simply not the case,” the Chandigarh political analyst said.
“Those engaged in the task of liberating their country from the shackles of slavery, do not leave it for a job in factory making soft drinks,” he said.