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Parkash Singh Badal's Demise: What Next for Akali Dal? 7 Things to Watch Out For

Parkash Singh Badal's death comes at a time when Akali Dal is at its weakest. Can the party survive this blow?

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The Shiromani Akali Dal has lost patriarch Parkash Singh Badal at a time when it is at its weakest politically. Consider these four aspects.

  1. The SAD has lost two successive Assembly elections in Punjab - 2017 and 2022 and fared poorly in three successive Lok Sabha elections - 2009, 2014 and 2019.

  2. It's Assembly seat share has come down from 56 seats in 2012 to 15 in 2017 and just three in 2022, with even Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Badal losing their seats.

  3. The SAD also doesn't have a toe-hold in power at the Centre at present.

  4. Its control over the Sikh institutions and Panthic politics is being challenged from BJP-backed proxies on one side and hardline elements on the other.

So given this context, what does the future hold for the Akali Dal after Parkash Singh Badal's demise?

Here are seven things to watch out for.

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1. Sukhbir Badal isn't going anywhere but he may be forced to share power

Sukhbir Badal still wields a lot of control over the organisation. It is unlikely that there will be a change in leadership. Sukhbir may not have inherited Parkash Singh Badal's humble and affable demeanour but he has inherited a great deal of political guile from his father.

He's known to be a master at electoral micromanagement and this may help the party with Punjab's political landscape getting more fragmented.

However, it is likely that Sukhbir Badal will be forced to concede some influence to other leaders and at least give a semblance of a collective leadership.

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2. Sikh bodies may assert more autonomy

Though still controlled a great deal by the Badals, top Sikh bodies like the Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee have been working with a degree of autonomy of late.

In the context of the recent crackdown in Punjab, it is the Akal Takht and SGPC who have led the charge against the Centre and Punjab government.

In doing so they have actually prepared the ground for a revival in the Akali space, even without the SAD doing anything.

This may be an indication of what lies ahead - a change in power relations between Sikh bodies and the Badals in favour of the former.

Sukhbir Badal also may not mind letting the Akal Takht and SGPC take the lead, as their initiatives may inspire more credibility.

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3. BJP-backed Akali dissidents may lie low for now but will assert again in future

The attempts by dissident Akalis, maybe backed by the BJP, to replace the Badals aren't likely to cease, though they may lie low for a while due to Badal's demise.

Recently, the BJP reached out to former SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur for support in the Jalandhar bypoll. Though the negotiations remained inconclusive, dissident Akalis' engagement with the BJP is well known. Manjinder Sirsa joined the BJP, Sukhdev Dhindsa aligned with it and others are still in the process of negotiating with the BJP.

The aim of the BJP seems to be to replace the Akali Dal with its own proxies and, more importantly, somehow take control of SGPC the way they now call the shots in Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.

The consistently anti-Hindutva positions of the Akal Takht and SGPC have been bothering BJP for some time.

However, the BJP and its larger ecosystem may have erred in pursuing the path of confrontation with Sikh bodies rather than working towards a meaningful negotiation.

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4. Challenge within the Panthic sphere

The decline in Badals' fortunes began after the 2015 sacrilege cases and the subsequent killing of protesters in police firing. This was followed by the Sarbat Khalsa the same year. Their credibility among a sizable section of Sikh voters nosedived and this also strengthened more assertive Panthic elements.

The churn in that section has been continuing. The recent revival of Simranjit Singh Mann and the sudden emergence of Amritpal Singh until his arrest, are part of the same churn.

So long as the albatross of the 2015 sacrilege and firing incident remains around the Badals' neck, this challenge isn't likely to go anywhere.

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5. The 2015 Bargari and Kotkapura cases

What happens next to the Akali Dal, especially Sukhbir Badal, would greatly depend on the probe into the 2015 Bargari Sacrilege and Kotkapura firing. Even on the day of his death, a supplementary chargesheet was filed against Parkash Singh Badal.

So long as this case remains, Sukhbir Badal will be on a weak wicket and face challenges within the Panthic political sphere.

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6. Where does Akali Dal align nationally?

This question will assume importance in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Currently, the Akali Dal is facing isolation nationally, except for its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Its main challengers in Punjab - Congress and Aam Aadmi Party - are dominating discussions around anti-BJP coalitions at the national level.

Therefore sooner or later, Badal may feel the pressure to rekindle the alliance with the BJP.

There is a very real dilemma for Sukhbir Badal. On one hand, there is no doubt that the Congress and AAP are the main electoral adversaries of the Akali Dal, not the BJP.

On the other hand, it is the BJP that seems to be trying to finish off the Akali Dal. Then there's also the fact that there is a very strong negative sentiment towards the BJP among the SAD's rural Sikh base.

In the end, the safest way out for Sukhbir Badal would be to revive the party on the ground and reach a position where it can sit on the negotiating table with the BJP as the clear senior partner in Punjab.

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7. The 'Idea of the Akali Dal' will always remain

Now, this is important to understand. The idea of the Akali Dal is bigger than the presently existing Akali Dal and all of its breakaways put together. It is definitely bigger than the Badals.

The Akali Dal is India's second oldest political party. It was born as the result of the Gurdwara reform movement. In that sense the idea of the Akali Dal is inextricably tied to the Sikh identity.

The SAD-Badal changed it to a Punjab-centric identity with the 1996 Moga declaration but Sikh identity still remained at its core.

Irrespective of what Sukhbir Badal does and whether the Akali Dal revives, the space for an Akali Dal - a Sikh-centric, Punjab-centric political party - will always remain. This space can't be filled by Delhi-run secular parties like the Congress and AAP nor a Delhi/Nagpur-run Hindutva party like the BJP.

If Sukhbir Badal can't fill this space, it will have to be filled by another Sikh-centric, Punjab-centric entity.

(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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