BJP Contacts Akali Rebel, Prepares Strategy Against Punjab Anger
A source in BJP said that the party leadership approached Sukhdev Dhindsa. The plan is to weaken Sukhbir Badal.
On Friday 2 October, newly-appointed BJP national general secretary Tarun Chugh’s vehicle was stopped near Punjab’s Ajnala by farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s new farm legislations.
Chugh tried to explain the “benefits” of the new laws to the farmers but to no avail. Though he managed to leave from there, he had to cut short many of his engagements in the day.
Several BJP leaders in Punjab are facing similar protests from farmers. Farmers conducted a sit-in protest outside the residence of former Punjab unit chief Shwait Malik as well.
The BJP is facing a crisis of survival in Punjab. On one hand, the Modi government’s farm legislations have made the BJP a “villain” in the eyes of Punjab’s farmers. On the other hand, its ally for 24 years – the Shiromani Akali Dal – has walked out of the National Democratic Alliance in protest.
Meanwhile, the BJP leadership is said to have reached out to Akali Dal rebel Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa as part of its survival strategy in Punjab.
The strategy has broadly four elements.
- Overtures towards Akali rebels
- Publicity drive among farmers
- Outreach towards Dalits
- Greater involvement of RSS
BJP Approaches Sukhdev Dhindsa
A source in the BJP told The Quint that the party leadership has reached out to rebel Akali Dal leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. The outreach is said to have been from the highest levels of the BJP - either Union Home Minister Amit Shah or BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda.
However, as of now the BJP’s discussion with Dhindsa isn’t focused on an alliance with his parallel SAD outfit. The plan is actually bigger. The idea is to win over more leaders from the parent Akali Dal as well as rebel SAD (Taksali) and challenge Sukhbir Badal’s leadership.
“There are more leaders who are disgruntled with Sukhbir Badal. They need to be won over as well,” the BJP source said regarding the discussions with Dhindsa
The BJP has a good equation with Dhindsa, who was also a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Modi government in 2019, despite his rebellion against Sukhbir Badal. This was seen as BJP’s way of acknowledging his cordial ties with the BJP and snubbing Sukhbir Badal.
But Dhindsa’s “rebellion” has followed an interesting trajectory.
He initially aligned himself to the SAD (Taksali) group led by Ranjit Singh Brahmpura but later distanced himself and formed a parallel outfit simply called “Shiromani Akali Dal”. The idea of not attaching a suffix like SAD (Badal), SAD (Amritsar), SAD (Taksali) or Dhindsa’s own outfit from the late 1990s SAD (Democratic) is to stake claim to the entire Akali Dal space rather than start another breakaway faction.
In other words, Dhindsa appears to want a coup not a rebellion against Sukhbir Badal.
He weaned away senior leader Sewa Singh Sekhwan fron the Taksali group towards his camp and continues to try and woo leaders from both the Badal and Taksali groups, allegedly with the blessings of the BJP.
Despite its dialogue with Dhindsa, BJP is realistic about how much he can achieve. Ideally the BJP wants its old ally minus Sukhbir Badal and his close aides but at the very least, it wants Dhindsa to fragment the Panthic vote, which is a major threat for the BJP.
The BJP has also launched a publicity drive in Punjab aimed at telling farmers and traders why the new agriculture laws aren’t harmful for them. The party’s allegation is that people are being “misled” by rival parties like Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and now even former ally Akali Dal.
The party is distributing pamphlets, disseminating social media content on the “benefits” of the new law and to counter “propaganda”. State leaders have been told to conduct public meetings to explain the same but many are facing the kind of pushback like the incident with Chugh.
The Punjab unit of the BJP is already on the defensive with top leaders urging the Union government to address the concerns of farmers and remove misconceptions
Three leaders associated with the party for over 20 years reportedly resigned in protest against the farm laws - former BJP Kisan Morcha President Kikar Singh Kutbewala and party functionaries from Ferozepur Rural Charandeep Singh and Angrej Singh Mintu. All three are from rural Sikh areas and reflect the backlash BJP may be facing from this demographic.
To counter the backlash from Jatt Sikh community, the BJP plans to reach out to Dalits and consolidate its hold over Upper Caste Hindus in Punjab.
The BJP’s calculation is that Dalit or Mazhabi Sikhs and Dalit Hindus may not be as keen on joining the farmers’ agitation that is dominated by Jatt Sikhs. Party strategists argue that in rural Punjab, Dalits are often in conflict with Jatt Sikhs.
Over the years, the BJP has cultivated a few leaders from Dalit communities in Punjab. For instance Union MoS and Hoshiarpur MP Som Parkash and former minister Vijay Sampla are both from the Chamar/Jatav community and Northwest Delhi MP Hans Raj Hans is a Hindu Valmiki from Jalandhar district.
Harinder Khalsa, former AAP MP from Fatehgarh Sahib who joined BJP earlier this year, is also a Dalit Sikh.
Besides projecting Dalit faces, the BJP is also likely to reach out to Deras for their support.
However, the outreach towards Dalits is easier said than done as there is an anti-BJP sentiment even among these communities in Punjab. Even in the Lok Sabha polls, Dalits in the Doaba region disgruntled with the Congress chose to vote for the BSP .
Upper Caste Hindus
The BJP also hopes to retain the support from Upper Caste Hindus it got in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Punjab, but lost to the Congress in the 2017 Assembly polls. This section can determine the result in at least 25 constituencies in Punjab.
However, this won’t be easy as the farm legislations have affected many Hindu traders as well, especially those who work as middlemen in the purchase and sale of foodgrains.
There’s another problem. Upper Caste Hindus in Punjab have a history of voting tactically for the winning side. So if it was the Congress in 2017, it was the Akali-BJP alliance in a few Hindu dominated seats in 2019.
It is unlikely that this section would vote for a party that is unlikely to come first or second in the state.
Over the years there was active resentment in the RSS against the Akali Dal.
A lot had to do with the RSS’ troubled relationship with top Sikh institutions like the Akal Takht and SGPC, which are said to be influenced by the Akali Dal. The Akal Takht, in a hukamnama, instructed Sikhs not to associate with the RSS’ Sikh wing Rashtriya Sikh Sangat.
More recently, the acting Jathedar of the Akal Takht Giani Harpreet Singh called the RSS “divisive” and said that it should be banned.
As a result of this troubled relationship, the RSS often remained independent of the BJP as the latter was constraint due to its alliance with the SAD.
In fact, in the 2017 Assembly elections many RSS cadres tacitly backed the Congress due to the perception at that time that the AAP is soft on Khalistanis and that the BJP is losing any way.
This is now likely to change. There is bound to be much greater synergy between the BJP and RSS’ efforts in Punjab. Among other things, this will reflect in a much greater ideological thrust in the BJP’s efforts in the state.
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