Dr. Manmohan Singh appears to have struck a chord in Punjab as the Congress’s Sikh mascot whom even rivals aren’t singling out for attack. The change in perception has been helped largely by the fact that his party dropped 1984 anti-Sikh riots accused Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar as candidates from Delhi. But that isn’t the only reason. The Prime Minister seems to have been recognised for qualities other than his religion in a state where the Amarinder Singh (Congress) and Prakash Singh Badal (Akali Dal) families have occupied centre stage in recent years.“Manmohan Singh has been the most honest Prime Minister ever. Capability, intellect, integrity are a part of his personality. His elevation (as Prime Minister) is an honour for Sikhs across the world,” says prominent Sikh historian Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon. The ex-professor of Panjab University had prepared a “white paper” for the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) condemning then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple. The SGPC — the highest temporal body of the Sikhs —also appears to have mellowed in its criticism. Days back, its chief, Avtar Singh Makkar, said the Prime Minister “was not a Sikh”, only to retract the next day and say what he meant was that Singh “wasn’t a good Sikh”. Makkar had made the comments when asked about the 1984 riot cases and what Singh had done for the development of Punjab. Even the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Congress’s main rival, has refrained from direct attacks. But some in the party had appeared long-time admirers: Akali MP Sukhdev Singh Libra broke ranks with his party and abstained during the confidence vote for Singh’s government in last July. Libra, later expelled, had said his “conscience didn’t allow him to vote against a Sikh Prime Minister”. For his own party, Singh is the rallying point. Rahul Gandhi dubbed the Prime Minister as Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab) at a public meeting in Bhatinda earlier this month. All 13 Congress candidates are seeking votes in the name of Singh’s “clean image”. That is their main theme, the other is the alleged corruption in the Akali-led state government.Historian Dhillon goes as far as to say “Manmohan’s name is a great boost to the party in Punjab”. He gives part of the credit to the Congress. “The characteristics of the Congress have gradually changed in the past 25 years as the national party had realised it had to acknowledge regional and linguistic identities, besides the presence of minorities and their role.”The Congress isn’t relying solely on Singh’s “clean image”, though. It has made overtures to the Dera Sacha Sauda, a controversial sect that has a large following in Patiala, Sangrur, Faridkot, Ferozepur and Bhatinda. The sect, whose founder Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had offended many in the community by dressing up as Guru Gobind Singh two years back, hasn’t announced its preference. But in the 2007 state elections, the sect had got its supporters to back the Congress, though the party led by Amarinder was voted out. This time, too, Amarinder has spoken of seeking the support of the Dera.