The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) on Monday expressed faith in the leadership of party chief Sukhbir Badal, despite the SAD's worst-ever electoral performance at the Assembly level.
"The Core Committee is especially proud of the brave, selfless, and tireless manner in which the president led the party from the front in true 'Panthic' traditions," said the party's resolution.
The SAD faced a rout in the recent Punjab elections – it could win just three seats and its ally BSP one, as the Aam Aadmi Party swept the polls, winning 92 out of 117 seats in the state, with the Congress emerging second with 18 seats.
Party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and president Sukhbir Badal both lost their seats; several veterans were also defeated by the AAP, and in some cases, Congress candidates.
Akali Dal's vote share reduced by nearly seven percentage points to about 18 percent.
The SAD is standing third for the second term in a row, and this time, it doesn't even have a slice of power at the Centre.
There is some degree of panic in the Akali ranks, which goes beyond just the party.
Soon after the SAD's rout, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht Giani Harpreet Singh said that the Akali Dal's rout was a "matter of concern for Sikhs."
He also urged various groups in the Akali Dal to come together.
So what really lies ahead for the Akali Dal?
Struggle Within the Panthic Space
The SAD has been facing challenges within the Panthic space for some time now, especially after the 2015 sacrilege incidents and the subsequent firing on protesters, killing two. This anger had culminated in the Sarbat Khalsa later that year, in which the honors given to Parkash Singh Badal were revoked and a parallel Akal Takht Jathedar and SGPC chief were appointed.
The sacrilege issue was one of the key reasons for the SAD's defeat in the 2017 Assembly elections.
The other challenge for the SAD came through breakaways from its own ranks, most importantly the SAD (Sanyukt) led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. Many say the Dhindsa faction was tacitly backed by the BJP as part of its plan to corner the Badals.
The Badals escaped that effort for a while, as they managed to bring back leaders like Amarpal Singh Ajnala and Ranjit Singh Brahmpura. Dhindsa, however, joined hands with the BJP after the withdrawal of the farm laws and remains a BJP ally even now.
In the recent Assembly elections, while the Badal-led Akali Dal weakened, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) led by Simranjit Singh Mann extended its influence a bit.
This was mainly after the untimely death of actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu in a road accident.
Sidhu had been extensively campaigning for Simranjit Singh Mann in the Amargarh constituency. While the party couldn't win any seat, it increased its vote share and put up a respectable showing in Amargarh and Mehal Kalan.
SAD (Amritsar) is now likely to focus its efforts on the Sangrur bypoll necessitated by the resignation of AAP's Bhagwant Mann, now that he will be taking over as the Chief Minister of Punjab.
Interestingly, SAD (Amritsar) was itself formed as the result of earlier unification efforts initiated by the Akal Takht Jathedar, but at that time, they were rejected by the Badals.
This time, however, the unification efforts seem necessitated to save the Badals.
Struggle for National Relevance
Once an integral part of the United Front government between 1996-98, the NDA government from 1998-2004, and the Narendra Modi-led NDA government from 2014 t0 2020, the SAD now stands on the verge of irrelevance in national politics.
It cannot join hands with its traditional rival, the Congress.
In the emerging front of regional parties, the Aam Aadmi Party would always have the first preference due to its bigger footprint both nationally and in Punjab.
The only option left for the Badals, therefore, would be to make peace with the BJP.
However, this won't be easy.
The BJP has grown in Punjab and now may demand more space than the SAD was willing to give it in the past.
The party particularly blames the Badals for preventing the BJP's growth among Sikhs and keeping it restricted as a party of urban Hindus.
If there is a rapprochement, the BJP would now demand seats even in the Sikh-dominated areas, especially now that it has a few more Sikh faces who had joined the party just before the elections.
Also, unlike the SAD, the BJP didn't come out of the elections weaker. It lost just one seat in Punjab compared to its 2017 tally and retained four other states including Uttar Pradesh, emerging stronger nationally.
The SAD, in comparison, has very little bargaining power left with the BJP.
Why SAD Is Much Bigger Than the Badals
Under the Badals, the SAD's ideology on issues concerning Sikhs – such as the release of political prisoners, justice for victims of the 1984 pogrom, justice in sacrilege cases as well as on federalism-related issues – may have become diluted, but the space for such politics has always been there.
The AAP wave may give the impression that these issues don't have political traction and that its victory is more for the politics of service delivery, mainly electricity, schools, and healthcare.
It would be a challenge for different Panthic outfits, including different factions of the Akali Dal, to preserve this space in politics.
The space itself is much bigger than the SAD (Badal).
The Akali Dal is a century-old party that came up through a political movement and has spearheaded a number of political movements in Punjab's history – such as the Punjabi Suba movement and the Dharam Yuddh Morcha.
The Akali Dal had also played a key role in bringing some kind of stability in Punjab after the conflict of the 1980s and early 90s.
The Badals may or may not succeed in preserving their dominance of this space.
But the space for a political voice for Sikhs will always remain with or without them. The question is – who will fill this vacuum?
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