Chandigarh: The resignation of Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Narendra Modi cabinet over the issue of farm Bills has brought the relationship between the Shiromani Akali Dal and its decades-old ally BJP to a tipping point in Punjab.
This is the first time in recent years that the bond between the parties has come under so much strain that they are considering breaking their alliance.
Akali Dal president and Ferozepur MP Sukhbir Singh Badal told journalists Thursday night that the core committee of his party will meet to decide on its future with the BJP.
The Punjab BJP too has called an urgent meeting of its core group through virtual conferencing Friday afternoon to discuss the situation after Harsimrat’s resignation.
What could lie ahead?
The Akali Dal and the BJP have been allies since 1997, and have a settled seat-sharing formula — of the 117 assembly seats in Punjab, the BJP fights on 23 while the Akalis contest the rest. In parliamentary elections, the formula is three seats for the BJP and 10 for the SAD.
The traditional vote bank of the Akalis includes the rural Sikh peasantry, while the BJP vote bank has been the urban and the semi-urban trader communities.
Now, the farm Bills pushed through by the BJP have made its political task tougher in an agriculture-driven state like Punjab. The party, which never had much of a rural base, could now find it impossible to spread its reach beyond towns and Narendra Modi supporters. If there ever was an option for the BJP in Punjab to go solo — in the 2022 assembly polls, now is not the time.
Former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, the SAD patriarch, has always held that the bond with the BJP is essential for the peace and communal unity of Punjab, which had seen an ugly division rising between Hindus and Sikhs during the decades of militancy. Modi, too, has publicly shown the most respect for the 93-year-old Badal out of all the BJP’s allies in the NDA.
Harsimrat’s resignation has presented the Akalis with a dilemma, even though it has put them back in the game in terms of electoral politics. Staying with the BJP might stop them from reaping the electoral benefits they hope for, while without the BJP, the SAD stands to lose out on the urban Hindu voter.
Defeat led to strained relations
All was well between the SAD and the BJP as long as they were in power — from 2007 to 2017. However, relations started souring when the alliance registered a humiliating defeat in the 2017 assembly polls, mustering only 18 seats — 15 for the Akalis and three for the BJP.
BJP leaders laid the blame at the Akalis’ door, with many in the party saying their loss in Punjab — at a time when they were winning elections virtually everywhere else under Modi’s leadership — was because of the Badals’ and SAD’s unpopularity.
After all, even in neighbouring Haryana, where the BJP had never been in power alone, it registered a stunning victory in 2014 and installed Manohar Lal Khattar as CM. Then, in 2018, the party wrested back Himachal Pradesh — the third component of the erstwhile undivided state of Punjab.
Encouraged by these results, the BJP started broad-basing in Punjab ahead of last year’s parliamentary polls. BJP and RSS workers intensified their activities in the villages to garner electoral support. And after former MLA Ashwini Sharma took over as the new Punjab BJP president in January this year, several senior party leaders openly expressed their wish to fight the 2022 assembly elections in the state without an alliance. Sharma said Friday that the SAD was still a part of the NDA, and Harsimrat’s decision to resign was a political one.
“We are of the firm opinion that it is time the BJP is given an equal if not a dominant position in Punjab. We have demanded that out of the 117 seats, we be given 59, and the Akalis can contest on 58,” senior BJP leader Madan Mohan Mittal told ThePrint Friday.
Sources added the Punjab BJP is also trying to prop up an “alternative SAD” to support it in the next elections, bringing together breakaway Sikh leaders and dissenters from other parties.
The BJP’s vote-share in the last two Lok Sabha elections in Punjab has been 8.7 per cent in 2014 and 9.3 per cent in 2019, though it has still won two of the three seats it has contested on both occasions.