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Punjab polls a year away but Akalis start campaign, announce 2 party candidates too

Experts see Akalis’ early preparation as good strategy since the election is likely to be a major challenge for the 100-year-old party, which broke up with BJP over farm laws last year.

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Chandigarh: Elections to the Punjab assembly are almost a year away but the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has already started its preparations, even announcing two candidates for the 2022 polls.

The party was voted out of power in the last assembly elections after two successive terms in office, coming in third behind the Congress and newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The party is likely to go solo this election as it broke up with long-term ally BJP last year over the farm laws. 

Over the past week alone, Ferozepur MP and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has addressed two rallies and held at least a dozen workers’ meetings. 

On Sunday, the former Punjab deputy chief minister started the 2022 campaign with a rally in Jalalabad, his home constituency, where he declared himself a candidate for the election. Sukhbir was the MLA for Jalalabad when he contested and won the Ferozepur Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 parliamentary elections. 

On Monday, at another rally in Khemkaran, Sukhbir declared former MLA and senior Akali leader Virsa Singh Valtoha the candidate from the constituency. More rallies were planned over the rest of the month but they were cancelled after Sukhbir tested positive for Covid-19 Tuesday.

The Akali Dal is the only party in the state that has already declared two candidates for the 117-seat assembly. 

Experts say it is a good strategy for the SAD to start its campaign early, adding that the polls will prove among the biggest electoral challenges for the 100-year-old party. 

The SAD won 15 of the 94 seats it contested in the 2017 election, while then ally BJP scored three of 23. The Congress won 77 seats, and the AAP, making its maiden outing in a Punjab assembly election, got 20 of the 112 seats it contested.

Apart from the split from the BJP, the SAD will also find itself entering the election season amid criticism about its handling of the 2015 Guru Granth Sahib desecration episode. Police firing at a protest against the desecration of the Sikh holy book led to the death of two protesters, and the then SAD government’s conduct in the matter remains under investigation.

Also Read: BJP treated allies like spare tyres, has no minority support now, says SAD chief Sukhbir Badal

‘Unkept promises’

The SAD campaign for 2022 has been launched under the banner “Punjab mangda jawaab (Punjab wants answers)” aimed at attacking Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh over what is described as his unkept promises from the 2017 assembly election.

At his rallies, Sukhbir sought to remind the public that Amarinder swore by the Gutka Sahib (a breviary containing Sikh religious text, hymns and prayers) while making the promises. “Has any of those promises been fulfilled?” he asked the public at his rallies.

Among these promises is “Ghar Ghar Naukri”, under which the Congress assured jobs to every household. “The government has failed to give jobs to one person of every household, as promised,” Sukhbir said at his two rallies.

“Amarinder promised that he would waive the loans of every farmer in the state, whether it was taken from a bank or cooperative society or commission agents. Loans of how many of you have been waived?” he added. 

Talking about the ongoing farmers’ agitation, Sukhbir said it was the Akali Dal that brought in the MSP (minimum support price) and mandi system — frameworks that protesting farmers fear will be harmed by the three farm laws, despite the central government’s denial. 

“Once we come to power, we will ensure that none of the three central farm Acts or against whom the farmers are agitating are implemented in Punjab,” he said.

Many a challenge

Experts see the Akalis’ early preparation as a good strategy. “They came in third in the last assembly elections after the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. Plus, the party has imploded in the past five years and the tie-up with the BJP has ended,” said Dr Kanwalpreet Kaur, a Chandigarh-based political scientist. “This election is going to be one of their biggest electoral challenges.” 

The SAD faces a host of challenges ahead of the 2022 assembly election.

According to the seat-sharing formula with the BJP in 2017, the Akalis fought on 94 seats, and the BJP on 23. The year 2022 is likely to see the SAD field candidates in the BJP seats for the first time in several years.

The Akalis also continue to face heat over the series of incidents involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015, when the party was in power. Two Sikh protesters were killed in police firing while they were agitating against the failure of the government to nab the culprits.

The Congress has kept the issue politically alive with Sukhbir and his then police chief Sumedh Singh Saini slapped with multiple cases for the alleged mishandling of the desecration issue.

The issue also led to the party breaking up, with a section of its old guard quitting, blaming the Badal family for the electoral debacle of 2017. 

Sukhbir has been trying to address the controversy at his rallies. “The Shiromani Akali Dal is a hundred-year-old party. Does anyone really believe that as leaders of this party we will facilitate the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib?” he said at Jalalabad Sunday.

According to Kaur, the farmers’ agitation “has put that issue on the backburner for the past 6 months”. 

“It remains to be seen if it will resurface ahead of the elections but that will depend upon how the farmers’ agitation plays out in the coming months,” she said.

Also Read: Why Akali Dal leaving NDA marks a big fundamental shift in Indian politics


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