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Why BJP Could Dump Akali Dal or Negotiate a Better Deal for Itself

Modi-Shah’s desire to expand in Punjab, defection of Akali MLA in Haryana has created differences between BJP & SAD.

Published
Politics
5 min read
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presented a sword by Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal in Bathinda as Union Ministers JP Nadda, Harsimrat Kaur watch on. 
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All is not well in the 23-year-old alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Their differences have become clear in the ongoing election campaign.

While the two parties will be fighting as allies in the by-elections to four Assembly seats in Punjab, they will contest against each other in the Haryana Assembly elections.

There are three elements driving the cleavage between the BJP and the SAD:

  1. SAD’s fight for relevance in Haryana
  2. BJP’s drive for expansion in Punjab
  3. RSS’ game plan

SAD’s Challenge in Haryana

Sikhs account for little under five percent of Haryana’s population, the highest concentration in any state other than Punjab. They are particularly significant in four northern districts of Haryana where the community accounts for more than 10 percent of the population:

  • Sirsa: 26 percent
  • Fatehabad 16 percent
  • Kurukshetra: 15 percent
  • Ambala: 12 percent
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In the past two elections, the Akali Dal has won the Kalanwali seat in Sirsa district. However, the BJP managed to win over the Akali MLA from the seat, Balkaur Singh, who defected to the party last month.

This incensed the Akalis, who announced that they will now be contesting against the BJP, in alliance with the Indian National Lok Dal.

Even in the 2014 Assembly elections, the Akalis had contested in alliance with the INLD. The Badal family which controls the Akali Dal has always had close ties with the Chautala family which controls the INLD.

However, Akali leaders say that the BJP crossed a line by engineering the defection of its sole MLA in the state.

“We condemn the BJP for using political muscle power to make SAD Kalanwali legislator Balkaur Singh join the saffron party. This act was against the principle of coalition ‘dharma’,” read a statement released by SAD.

A related issue in the context of BJP-Akali ties is that of Dera Sacha Sauda, which is based in Sirsa. The Sirsa Dera enjoys considerable influence in northern parts of Haryana, particularly among Dalits. In 2014, the Dera unofficially backed the BJP in Haryana and in 2017, tacitly backed the Akali-BJP alliance in Punjab.

With the Akalis and the BJP on warpath for seats like Kalanwali, it will certainly be interesting to see which way the Sirsa Dera votes swing.

BJP’s Punjab Outreach

The Akali Dal is one of the oldest allies of the BJP. The two parties came together in 1996 and a key role in stitching together the alliance was played by the BJP’s then secretary incharge for Punjab – Narendra Modi. As a result of this old connection, Modi enjoys a very good equation with the Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal.

However, ever since Modi became the Prime Minister and Amit Shah took over as BJP President in 2014, the BJP has been actively trying to expand its influence in Punjab and considering going alone in the state.

In November 2014, the then BJP incharge for Punjab, Ram Shankar Katheria, had said that the “BJP is willing to go it alone in Punjab” and even went to the extent of criticising Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal of running a father-son show in the state.

The BJP has now been emboldened further by the results of the Lok Sabha elections in which it won two out of three seats it contested, while the Akali Dal also won two despite contesting 10 seats.

Now, the party is demanding a greater share of seats in the 2022 Assembly elections. Speaking to the Times of India, BJP leader from Punjab and former State Unit President Madan Mohan Mittal said that the party is not willing to play second-fiddle to the SAD in the state any longer.

He said that the BJP won’t be satisfied with 23 out of 117 seats it contested in the 2017 Assembly polls. He has demanded 50 percent of the seats, which comes to 58-59 seats.

Privately, BJP leaders admit that they could settle for around 40 seats.

However, the BJP realises that it can’t expand its hold in Punjab by merely relying on its traditional vote bank of urban Hindu traders and some rural Hindu voters in Gurdaspur and the Doaba region. It needs to woo Sikh voters as well.

The Union Home Ministry’s decision to release nine Sikh political prisoners and commute the death sentence of Beant Singh assassination convict Balwant Singh Rajoana, must be seen as an effort to win over Panthic voters. The government also removed the names of 312 Sikh individuals from its blacklist which prevented them from travelling to India, yet another attempt in the same direction.

Until now, Panthic voters have been vehemently opposed to the BJP due to its Hindutva image as well as the fact that the party is seen as being associated with the Arya Samaj in Punjab.

Besides courting a section of Panthic voters, the BJP is also trying to win over Dalit voters by projecting individuals like North West Delhi MP Hans Raj Hans and former AAP leader Harinder Singh Khalsa, both of whom are Dalits.

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RSS’ Game Plan

The BJP’s attempt of expansion in Punjab and carve out a space separate of the Akali Dal also stems from the RSS’ game plan for the state.

According to reports, one of the issues discussed in the RSS’ meet in Pushkar in September was the need to expand the Sangh’s organisation in Punjab. Punjab is said to have been identified a state where the RSS’ stature is comparatively weak.

RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat had also emphasised the need to expand in Punjab during his visit to the state in 2018.

The murmurs of snapping ties with the Akalis are partly driven by the RSS.

“We removed Article 370 in Kashmir and shut the shop of Abdullahs and Muftis, who were benefitting from this system. How are Badals any different? BJP shouldn’t be dependent on them,” an RSS functionary in Punjab told The Quint on condition of anonymity.

However, the RSS isn’t willing to dilute its hardline stance against Panthic Sikhs.

“Our workers have been killed in Punjab. It has become one of the few states like Kerala and West Bengal where RSS cadres are targeted in violent attacks. What you call Panthic outfits are radical outfits, they are behind these attacks,” the functionary said.

Surprisingly, the worker said that he is extremely happy with the performance of Captain Amarinder Singh’s Congress government in the state.

“He understands the importance of protecting national interest more than the Badals,” he said.

This sentiment exists in the BJP as well. Many in the state BJP say that the party won Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur in the Lok Sabha elections due to Modi’s popularity among Hindu voters but the same voters had overwhelmingly supported Captain in the 2017 Assembly polls and might do so again.

The desire to end the alliance with the Akalis or at least get a more equitable deal also stems from the BJP’s need to preserve its core vote.

By-polls

A lot would be clear after the results of the Assembly polls and bypolls are declared on 24 October. BJP and Akalis are contesting two seats each in Punjab: BJP is fighting in Phagwara and Hoshiarpur while Akalis are contesting Jalalabad and Dakha.

BJP realises that it is quite likely that despite both Phagwara and Hoshiarpur being Hindu-majority seats, it won’t be able to win if urban Hindu voters stay away or shift to the Congress. This is why it has tried to reach out to Sikhs as well.

If BJP does better than Akalis in the by-polls and the latter draws a blank in Haryana, it would significantly increase the party’s bargaining power in Punjab. However, if the Akalis do better in the by-polls and also win a seat in Haryana, they might be able to keep the BJP at bay for the time being.

(With inputs from Muskan Shandal.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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