Chandigarh: As its ties with decades-old alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) become increasingly fraught, the BJP has begun preparations for the 2022 assembly elections in the hope of fighting it alone in a sharp shift from the party’s longstanding strategy in Punjab.
With its vote base limited to urban areas in the state, the BJP has decided to raise fresh cadres in Punjab’s rural belt, aiming to rope in prominent Sikh leaders, many from among the detractors of the Akali Dal, party leaders told ThePrint.
In moving away from Akali Dal — which is considered to be a panthic party of the Sikh peasantry — the BJP is also trying to pull in its core vote base of the Hindus, said sources in the BJP. The Hindus in Punjab have been largely voting for the Congress.
Speaking to ThePrint, former Punjab cabinet minister and senior state BJP leader Madan Mohan Mittal said the party has started working in rural areas.
“We have to accept the fact that Punjab is primarily an agriculture state and farmers are the major stakeholders. BJP has never focused on the peasantry. If BJP intends to increase its footprint in the state beyond the present it will have to go to the farmers,” he said.
“The party is already working on raising its cadres in rural areas of Punjab,” added Mittal.
New state leadership and seat-sharing issue
Since former MLA Ashwini Sharma took over as the new Punjab BJP president last month, several senior party leaders have expressed their wish to fight the 2022 assembly elections in the state without an alliance.
When Sharma took over, former cabinet minister Master Mohan Lal told reporters that it was high time the party stopped hanging on to Akali Dal’s coat-tails.
Mittal was, however, more practical in his demand and said BJP should now move into the role of the elder brother in the state.
“The seats between the Akali Dal and BJP should be equally divided. In the 117-seat House, BJP should have 59 and the Akali Dal should have 58 seats,” Mittal told ThePrint.
According to the current seat-sharing formula between the allies, the Akalis contest on 94 seats and the BJP on 23. Out of the 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab, the Akalis contest on 10 and the BJP on three.
Ties between the old partners came under severe strain in December when Akali Dal chief and Lok Sabha MP Sukhbir Singh Badal fired the first public salvo during the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) debate in the parliament.
While the party supported the passage of the bill in the Parliament, he criticised it for excluding Muslims and sought their inclusion. He then repeated the point at various forums. This was the time when BJP was under attack from the opposition over the Citizenship Amendment Act that turned into the first major anti-BJP movement since 2014.
Stung by this show of defiance by an otherwise reliable ally, the BJP leadership hit back by virtually forcing the SAD out from the Delhi assembly elections.
According to an unwritten arrangement between the allies for Delhi elections, the Akali Dal contests on four seats (Rajouri Garden, Shahadra, Harinagar, and Kalkaji), but on the BJP party symbol. In 2013 Delhi elections, the Akalis won three of these four but lost all of them when the elections took place again in 2015. In 2017, Akali Dal’s Manjinder Singh Sirsa won the Rajouri bypoll.
However, the Akalis have been pressing the BJP to allow it to contest on its own symbol in Delhi for several years now. The BJP has deemed this unacceptable.
Sources in the Akali Dal said the Badals put their foot down over the demand this time. As a result, the alliance for Delhi elections was called off.
The Akali Dal, however, made a hasty retreat and declared its unconditional support to the BJP. This was mainly because the SAD was faced with an internal crisis when Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa joined the ranks of rebel Akalis along with his MLA son Parminder Singh Dhindsa.
BJP fuelling rebellion?
While sources said the BJP leadership extended a silent support to the Dhindsas during their rallies against the SAD in Sangrur and Barnala, the Akalis refuted the possibility.
“Madan Mohan Mittal was present in the Akali rally at Sangrur on Sunday and made it clear that the alliance between the two parties remains as strong as ever,” said SAD general secretary Daljit Singh Cheema.
Mittal said the BJP is flooded with offers from several Sikh leaders who want to join the BJP, but it is not going to take in any Akali rebels. “These leaders have shown that they are loyal to none and there is no place in the BJP for such politicians,” he said.
Dhindsa said his group will be definitely poised against the Akali Dal in the elections but it is too early to say if they would be tying up with the BJP or if it goes alone in the state.
“We have just begun our operations. There is time to decide whom to join hands with,” said Dhindsa.
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