Chandigarh: The end of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance marks the beginning of a new chapter in Punjab politics.
The two parties parted ways Saturday night after 24 long years, a period that saw them fight six assembly and five Lok Sabha elections together. Since 1996, when they first came together, they have also governed in the state for 15 years.
The break-up is expected to tectonically shift Punjab’s electoral ecosystem with the Akalis expecting to gain enormously from the move. Fresh alliances too are predicted in the coming months with the state slated to go to polls in early 2022.
The farmers’ protest against the three farm bills brought in by the Narendra Modi government, which prompted the Akalis to take this calculated risk, is expected to be one of the central issues that will keep the political fires burning in Punjab until the elections, replacing, perhaps for the first time in the past five years, the touchy Guru Granth Sahib desecration issue that had the Akalis on the backfoot.
The Akalis led by six-time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal historically bonded with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1970 when Badal helmed the state for the first time. The ties were later further strengthened to ensure communal harmony in the state that saw two decades of militancy.
SAD was the BJP’s oldest ally in the NDA, and was the first to support the BJP in forming the government at the Centre in 1996. On more than one occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly acknowledged Badal’s seniority, bowing down to touch his feet, showing great respect.
In breaking the alliance, however, the Akalis have taken a shrewd calculated decision to catapult themselves back into the centre stage of Punjab politics.
After ruling the state for 10 straight years from 2007 to 2017, the Akali-BJP combine was virtually decimated in the 2017 assembly elections mainly due to the Badal government’s mishandling of the Guru Granth Sahib desecration incidents of 2015.
Since the Congress-led by Captain Amarinder Singh rode back to power in 2017, it has kept the desecration issue alive in the public discourse using it as a convenient whip against the Akalis. Once out of power, the Akali Dal too imploded, with a section of its old guard breaking away and forming the SAD (Taksali).
“The Akalis were facing an existential crisis and this is their last ditch bid to revive themselves,” said Prof Ashutosh Kumar, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
The farmers’ issue could not have come at a more opportune time for the Akalis. Initially supporting the bills, some quick thinking by the Badals has made them stick their neck out, projecting themselves as the messiah of the farmers.
“In breaking away from all shackles of power, the Akalis will come into their elements. And historically, the Akalis have been successful rabble rousers,” added Kumar. “Also, they have more than one year to rev up rural Punjab over the farm bills issue.”
For a party that never has had much hold in Punjab, the farm bills clearly ring a death knell. Apart from urban centres and Hindu traders in small towns where Modi holds considerable sway, BJP leaders in Punjab will have a tough time gaining foothold in villages.
Much before the farm bills and the breakup, the BJP in Punjab was said to be toying with a grand plan of encouraging the emergence of an Akali Dal free of the Badals.
When senior Akali leader and Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his son Parminder, a former finance minister, left the Akali Dal to create the SAD (Democratic), it was believed that the father-son duo were being promoted by the BJP.
The Dhindsas were said to have been tasked with bringing in other prominent Sikh leaders. It was widely believed that this “new SAD” was one that the BJP intended to tie up with for the 2022 elections, albeit with a larger share of the seats.
“After Haryana, where the BJP came to power on its own riding on Modi’s popularity, the Punjab BJP started dreaming big. But the two states are very different,” said Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur, Department of Political Science, DAV College, Chandigarh.
“The Modi factor has never been of any consequence in Punjab,” she added. “Also, in Punjab, the BJP has not nurtured even prominent Hindu leaders, forget Sikhs. The BJP’s position has worsened following the break-up.”
New alliances, AAP and Congress
Akalis believe their “sacrifice” of power to stand up with farmers and landless labourers will bring in both the Sikh Jat and Dalit vote-bank. An alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seems to be on the cards.
The party will also hope the gamble will improve its electoral prospects.
SAD’s vote share dipped from 37.09 per cent in the 2007 assembly polls to 25.2 per cent in the 2017 assembly polls. BJP’s vote share went down from 8.28 per cent in 2007 to 5.4 per cent in 2017.
The BSP, which has been fighting elections solo in the state, got a 4.13 per cent vote share in 2007 that dropped to 1.5 per cent in 2017. The AAP, which emerged as a major force in the 2017 assembly polls, mustered 23.7 per cent of the votes, dipping into large chunks of the SAD and BSP’s share while also harming the Congress and the BJP to some extent.
In the 2019 parliamentary polls, when AAP’s vote share fell to 7.38 per cent, the big gainers were Congress, SAD and BSP. SAD benefits from an alliance with the BSP but its joint performance will depend on how strong or weak the AAP is ahead of the 2022 polls.
“An Akali-BSP alliance will vie for the same vote-bank as AAP, presuming that the Congress retains its vote share,” said Kaur. “But the fact that the AAP has not been able to offer a strong pan-Punjab leader goes against the party, which had caught the fancy of Punjabis in a big way and still has huge potential.”
For the Congress, experts added, the SAD-BJP split might prove beneficial electorally, with a common enemy divided.
The ruling party, however, has lost out on the opportunity to lead farmers over the farm bills issue, with the Akalis clearly stealing the march over them. Critics point out that Captain Amarinder’s objections to the bills were directed more against the Akalis than the BJP at the Centre, and with the alliance ending, the Congress will now have to hunt for a new issue.
“Also, for the time being, the farmers’ agitation has overtaken the sensitive religious issue of desecrations where the Congress can easily corner the Akalis,” said Kaur.