Leaders upset at way party is being run by ‘overconfident’ Sukhbir and ‘rash’ Bikram Singh Majithia. Akali Dal also under fire over desecration row.
Chandigarh: With at least four senior members of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s old guard clearly upset with the party’s top leadership, the 98-year-old panthic party in Punjab is in the throes of one of its worst internal crisis in recent times.
The Akalis lost power in the 2017 assembly elections, after ruling the state for 10 years. And it has taken barely a year and a half of the party being in opposition for it to reach a point of implosion.
On Saturday, Rajya Sabha MP and senior leader, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, resigned from all party posts citing “health reasons”.
A day later, three party veterans, including Lok Sabha MP from Khadoor Sahib Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, went public with their disenchantment over the manner in which the party was being run.
Brahmpura held a press conference in Amritsar Sunday, where he was accompanied by former MP Rattan Singh Ajnala. The other senior leader to hit out at the party leadership is former cabinet minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan.
While six-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is the patron of the party, in the line of fire is his son and party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is also the former deputy chief minister. The father-son duo are now at pains to control the damage and are making efforts to put up a “united” face of the party during a rally planned in Patiala on 7 October.
The Shiromani Akali Dal has also played down the dissent.
“Such outbursts are not unheard of in political parties. The leaders who have spoken out have had their own reasons to do so,” said Dr Daljit Singh Cheema, the party’s secretary general. “The party is not going to take any action against them. Badal saab (Parkash Singh Badal) is a great leader of men and believes in taking everyone along.”
The high command has reached out to the veterans but it is not going to be an easy task to placate them.
“There is no question of going back on the stand I have taken. I will not be attending the Patiala rally,” Sekhwan told ThePrint.
Old guard versus the new
Sources added that the true blue taksali Akalis are unhappy with the party’s working having gone completely into Sukhbir’s hands. While they accept the leadership of the elder Badal, they resent his having gone into “retirement mode” after the assembly elections, handing over the reins of the party to an “overconfident” Sukhbir and his “rash” brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia.
Senior leaders believe that the two take all the decisions, right or wrong, and expect the veterans to play along unquestioningly.
“For years, we have been airing our views about the erosion of the party and Sikh institutions. But we did it within the four walls of the party and following the discipline,” Sekhwan said.
“But had the new leadership understood the significance of what we were saying, we would not have taken this step of coming out in the open and placing our case before the Sikh sangat.”
While very few Akali leaders dared to speak out against the Badal family when they were in power, several now resent the concentration of power with the family. Dhindsa, who had been a loyalist of the senior Badal for decades, felt let down after he was not chosen to be a minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet. Instead, Harsimrat Kaur, Sukhbir’s wife, was handed the cabinet berth.
Brahmpura, Sekhwan and Ajnala have their base in the Majha region, which has been taken over by Majithia. The three leaders are upset with Majithia for side-lining them. They, sources said, find it unfair that his being a relative of Sukhbir and his closeness to the top leadership makes him powerful without him having really worked on the ground.
Losing Panthic appeal
The revolt of the party’s senior leadership comes at a time when the Shiromani Akali Dal is faced with the prospect of losing its core constituency — the Sikh vote-bank.
Over the past three months, the party has been at the receiving end of the severe politicking over desecration incidents that rocked the state in 2015, when the party was in power.
The emotive issue of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib (which Sikhs consider a living Guru), was considered largely responsible for the decimation of the Akalis in the assembly elections.
The issue was rekindled in June, when the one-member Justice Ranjit Singh (retd) Commission inquiring into the desecration incidents submitted its report to Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
The report concluded that the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh planned and executed the desecration but the then Akali government led by the Badals did not act, under “political pressure” to appease the dera. The dera chief was also pardoned by the Akal Takht, the apex Sikh body, during the Akali regime, only to be revoked following outrage from Sikh bodies.
The report also indicted Badal for the police firing near Kotkapura city that left two Sikh protesters dead. The two were part of a larger group of protesters who were agitating against the desecration.
Faulty floor strategy
Despite being under fire from all sides, the Akalis failed to defend themselves during the monsoon session in August, where they choose to boycott a special discussion on the findings of the commission’s report.
The treasury benches, in active collaboration with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislators, slammed the Badals during a seven-hour debate that was telecast live.
At the Shiromani Akali Dal’s core committee meeting on 30 August (two days after the session ended) to assess the situation, senior leaders questioned the wisdom of the party legislators’ decision to boycott the debate.
Apart from Sekhwan, former cabinet minister Tota Singh and Lok Sabha MP Prem Singh Chandumajra voiced their disapproval of Sukhbir’s floor strategy. They felt that party MLAs should have participated in the debate and countered the Congress.
In a bid to placate them, the core committee created a seven-member panel of the old guard taksali leaders to “guide” the party’s new leadership on religious issues. But the move was considered too little, too late.
Sukhbir also planned a series of ‘Jabar Vidroh’ rallies in the state to regain lost ground. The first was held at Abohar on 9 September and the next at Faridkot on 15 September. Dhindsa, however, did not attend the Faridkot rally.
Control over SGPC and Akal Takht
Senior Akali leader Avtar Singh Makkar was among the first to speak up publicly against Sukhbir following the session.
Makkar, who was the president of the SGPC when the dera chief was granted the pardon, told the media that he was “against” granting the pardon and the decision was taken by Sukhbir without consulting the various Sikh bodies.
The blatant misuse of the two Sikh bodies to push the party’s political agenda is now out in the open and the Sikh intelligentsia is demanding “freeing” the SGPC and Akal Takht from Shiromani Akali Dal’s control.
“The SGPC was created to work in the larger interest of the Sikhs, not the interest of a political party,” said the SGPC member Kiranjot Kaur.
“In the past decade, it has been reduced to being controlled by a section of Sikhs. Its representative character as also its power and respect among the Sikhs has shrunk.”
Sekhwan said they came out against the party’s leadership, only when things went out of hand.
“SAD, SGPC and the Akal Takht are almost facing an existential crisis and we cannot remain mute spectators. Had we been heard within the party, we wouldn’t have come out and put our views before the Sikh Sangat. But we were left with no other option,” he told ThePrint.
Read Global Pulse for a sampler of the big international stories, and why they matter.