One of the most surprising aspects of the break-up between the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal alliance in Delhi is the fact that it took place under the watch of BJP’s Sikh face: Union Minister Hardeep Puri, the party’s joint in-charge for the Delhi Assembly elections. Only last year Puri had contested from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat with the help of the Akali Dal, but lost.
This is not a coincidence. Shedding the alliance with Akalis is part of BJP’s larger plan: Of cultivating a pro-Hindutva Sikh leadership. And Puri is a critical element in this.
Puri, currently minister for civil aviation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, is a former diplomat. But his politics has also been shaped by the fact that he was a student leader in the 1970s who contested with the support of ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Under Puri, the BJP is now trying to promote Sikh leadership that is pro-Hindutva and less concerned about Panthic issues.
This is evident in some of the Sikh candidates it has chosen in Delhi. While the candidate from Timarpur – Surinder Pal Singh Bittoo, is a former Congress MLA – three others have vocally been pro-Hindutva.
For instance in West Delhi’s Rajinder Nagar, it has chosen RP Singh who won the seat in 2013. He is a prominent talking head for the party and can often be seen on TV debates. RP Singh was reportedly an officer bearer of RSS’ affiliate Rashtriya Sikh Sangat over a decade ago.
He faced flak from the Sikh community for his response after the incident at Mukherjee Nagar in June 2019, when police thrashed a Sikh auto driver. The attack sparked protests among Delhi’s Sikhs, who gathered outside Mukherjee Nagar police station. But RP Singh accused protesters of being pro-Khalistan.
It is the matter of grave concern that during protest against yesterday's incident at Mukherjee Nagar some lumpen element under the shield of @Akali_Dal_ started shouting Khalistan Zindabad.@CPDelhi @LtGovDelhi @kishanreddybjp @AmitShah pic.twitter.com/tmXFGHgX07— RP Singh: Cleanliness is Godliness (@rpsinghkhalsa) June 17, 2019
The candidate who is receiving the most focus, mainly due to his social media activity, is Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga who has been fielded from Hari Nagar in West Delhi. But there’s more to Bagga than his Twitter activity. Bagga, by his own admission, went to an RSS Shakha as a child. He has often being criticised among Sikhs for being proactive only on Hindutva issues but silent on Sikh community issues.
For instance, he threatened to violate the NGT order on Amarnath Yatra and also called the ban on firecrackers on Diwali as “anti-Hindu”. In contrast, he has seldom taken up the cause of Sikhs being attacked. His disdain for Panthic issues was evident in an appearance on a Punjabi news channel, in which he labelled a senior co-panelist Satnam Singh as “Khalistani” and threatened to break his legs just because he was raising articulating a Panthic viewpoint.
I hope & wish that Khalistanis are never able to disturb the peace of Punjab just like I wish Sanghis are never able to do so, all over India.— Phone Waale Baba Ji (@iJasOberoi) February 23, 2018
Having said that, please see the language of @tajinderbagga. He’s openly threatening to lynch the old person on street & break his legs. pic.twitter.com/85DfSfHsQl
Another such candidate is Impreet Singh Bakshi from Jangpura. He is a former office bearer of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing. He has publicly praised the RSS and glorified Hindutva on several occasions in the past.
However, he has been more diplomatic about Panthic issues and doesn’t take aggressive positions like Bagga or RP Singh. He has been extremely vocal in trying to mobilise support for Citizenship Amendment Act among Sikhs.
BJP and Sikhs in Delhi
There is a history to the BJP promoting pro-Hindutva Sikh voices. Through 1990s and 2000s, one of BJP’s strongest Sikh faces in Delhi was Harsharan Singh Balli, who represented the Hari Nagar constituency, from which Bagga is contesting.
Balli, who claimed to have been part of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, was vocal in his support for a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.
As a majority of Sikhs in Delhi were against the Congress after the 1984 pogrom, they naturally gravitated towards BJP, which was as it is dominated by Punjabi Hindus like Madan Lal Khurana.
However, Khurana and Balli got gradually sidelined within BJP in the late 1990s. Khurana left the BJP for a brief while and Balli even joined the Congress for some time in 2013.
Meanwhile, 1998 onwards Congress under Sheila Dikshit also sidelined key figures associated with the 1984 pogrom such as Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler.
This led to a partial shift of Sikh votes to the Congress.
Professor Sanjay Kumar of CSDS says that the 1998 elections saw a huge 13 percent swing of Sikhs from BJP to Congress.
Between 1998 and 2008, the Congress, and after 2013 the AAP, got a sizeable chunk of Sikh votes, breaking the BJP’s hold forever.
To maintain its hold among Sikhs and make up for the lack of a strong Sikh face, the BJP extended its alliance in Punjab with the Akali Dal to Delhi and gave space to Delhi Akali Dal leaders such as Manjinder Singh Sirsa, Harmeet Singh Kalka and Avtar Singh Hit. These leaders also happened to control the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.
RSS Tussle With Sikh Bodies
However, the real driving force for promoting pro-Hindutva Sikh voices comes from the RSS.
There has been a cold war between RSS and Sikh outfits for many years now. The RSS’ main aim is to appropriate Sikhs as part of Hinduism while Sikh bodies have consistently asserted their separate and minority identity.
In 2001, the then RSS chief KS Sudarshan had described Sikhism as a “panth of Hinduism”, which provoked outrage among Sikhs, especially the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. It was around the same time that RSS had begun actively promoting the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat as a outreach organisation among Sikhs. BJP being part of the coalition government in Punjab with the Akali Dal also helped the RSS’ efforts.
While due to SGPC pressure the RSS was forced to retract its statement partially, it did not accede to the SGPC’s other demand, which is to wind up the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat.
Matters worsened and in 2004 the Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority for Sikhs, declared the Sangat as “anti-Sikh” and prohibited Sikhs from joining its ranks.
This proved to be debilitating for the organisation especially in Punjab and it couldn’t grow to the extent the RSS had hoped.
Apparently, the RSS never forgot that snub. According to reports in Punjabi media, in 2006 the RSS had reportedly put pressure on the BJP to break its alliance with the Akali Dal unless the Akal Takht Hukamnama against the Sangat is withdrawn.
But with the 2007 elections approaching, the alliance remained even though Akal Takht didn’t withdraw the Hukamnama.
However, in the past few years, the Akal Takht, especially under current Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh, has consistently been attacking the RSS and calling for solidarity with other minorities. The Jathedar slammed the Modi government on the abrogation of Article 370, the CAA and even went to the extent of calling for a ban on the RSS.
The RSS is said to be incensed at the positions taken by the Akal Takht and became concerned that far from coming towards Hindutva, public opinion among Sikhs appeared to be decisively against it.
It squarely blamed the Akali Dal, especially the Badals, for failing to act as a bridge between the Hindutva and the Sikh community.
The last straw for the BJP and RSS was the active support given by Sikh groups to the anti-CAA protests and the SAD’s comments against the CAA and NRC despite voting for it in Parliament.
The message was clear: Besides a small share of political power in Punjab, the Akalis brought nothing on the table for the BJP and RSS. A need was felt to promote Sikh faces like Puri, RP Singh, Bagga and Bakshi who are committed to Hindutva.
This could best have been done in Delhi, where pro-Hindutva views are far more acceptable than in Punjab. This lies at the root of why the BJP and RSS are now promoting pro-Hindutva Sikh candidates in Delhi.
In Punjab, a parallel strategy is being followed which is to woo Deras by exploiting their faultlines with Panthic Sikhs and to fragment the Panthic sphere itself by tacitly backing Akali rebels.
The BJP has at least managed to push the Akalis out of Delhi for now. If its Sikh faces in Delhi win, the BJP would be emboldened to push for a far more independent path in Punjab, possibly under Hardeep Puri’s leadership. Watch this space.
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