Punjab politics has come a full circle with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) announcing a tie-up for the 2022 Assembly elections in the state. The two parties were allies in 1996, before the SAD dumped the BSP to tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The SAD's alliance with the BJP lasted 23 years and ended last year after the Akalis pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) due to Modi government's farm laws. Now, the SAD is back with its old ally – the BSP.
According to their seat sharing arrangement, the BSP could contest 20 seats and the SAD will contest the remaining 97.
The Quint had reported in September 2020 that the Akalis could go for an alliance with the BSP after their break-up with the BJP.
For the BSP too, this is an important moment. The 1996 Lok Sabha election alliance was the result of the efforts of BSP founder Kanshi Ram, who won from the Hoshiarpur seat in his home state. The revival of the alliance comes at a time when the BSP is fighting for survival in its most important state of Uttar Pradesh, which also goes to polls along with Punjab early next year.
There are three reasons why the SAD-BSP alliance could alter political equations in Punjab ahead of the 2022 Assembly elections.
1. Social Coalition
In principle, this alliance doesn't just represent a political coalition but a social one as the SAD is dominated by Jat Sikhs and the BSP by Dalits, especially Ravidasis/Jatavs. Remember, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits in any state, at 32 percent, of which Jatavs are an important chunk. Ideologically too, the alliance will be presented as a coalition between Panthic and Ambedkarite politics.
The SAD and the BSP were both decimated in the 2017 Assembly elections. The SAD's vote share fell from 36.6 percent in 2012 to 25.2 percent while the BSP's fell from 4.3 percent to just 1.5 percent. The gainers were mostly the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
However, their fortunes revived in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which the SAD secured 27.8 percent and BSP 3.5 percent. The SAD, which was still in alliance with the BJP, won from Firozpur and Bathinda, while the BSP gave an impressive performance from the three seats it contested, 20 percent in Jalandhar, 13.5 percent in Anandpur Sahib, and 13 percent in Hoshiarpur.
The SAD was contesting as part of the Punjab Democratic Alliance, comprising the Punjabi Ekta Party, Lok Insaf Party, and Left parties.
In particular, the alliance may have an impact in the Doaba region, which has a high Dalit population.
2. Pitch for Main Opposition's Position
The calculation for the SAD is that the alliance with the BSP will help it emerge as the main Opposition force in Punjab, upstaging the AAP.
The AAP had done well in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, springing a surprise by winning four out of 13 seats and in the 2017 Assembly polls, in which it won it won 20 compared to SAD's 15 and emerged as the main Opposition party.
However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the SAD led in 23 seats and the AAP in just seven. The BSP was leading in two Assembly segments. It appears that the SAD gained some of the Jatt Sikh votes it had lost to the AAP in 2017.
If the SAD hasn't lost ground due to its initial support for the farm laws, it may fancy its chances of emerging as the main Opposition force with the help of the BSP.
The BSP, on its part, will try to win back its support among the Dalit voters of Doaba, who had shifted in a very big way to the Congress in the 2017 elections.
3. Congress May Have to Recalibrate
The alliance may force the Congress to rework some of its strategy for the election. The party won in 2017 as a result of a rainbow coalition gaining Dalit votes from the BSP, upper-caste Hindu votes from the BJP, and Jat Sikh votes from SAD.
Now each of these vote banks may be in danger. The SAD-BSP alliance would no doubt try to win Dalit support from the Congress and Jat Sikh support from both the AAP and the Congress. The BJP, on the other hand, will try and win back its Hindu upper-caste vote. Though it has been trying to woo Dalits as well, this doesn't seem to have yielded much so far.
The Congress would have to work extra hard to retain these vote banks.
While the a split in Jatt Sikh votes between the SAD, the Congress, and the AAP is almost certain, it may get further complicated if a section of those involved in farmers' protests decide to enter the political arena.
Given the splintering of the Jatt Sikh votes, a great deal would depend on Dalit votes and upper-caste Hindu votes.
Dalits have different subdivisions in Punjab – the BSP has been more powerful among Ravidasis and less among the Mazhabis and the Valmikis.
The Congress may have to factor in a loss in some support from Jatt Sikhs and the Ravidasis and try to consolidate the Mazhabi and upper-caste Hindu votes. It won't be surprising if the Congress accommodates leaders belonging to these sections in prominent positions soon, especially following the report on Punjab affairs submitted by the three-member panel to party Chief Sonia Gandhi.
The SAD-BSP alliance is important for two politicians whose power has been on the wane of late – Mayawati and Sukhbir Singh Badal. While for Mayawati, the alliance is a step towards reviving her national relevance, for Badal this is an attempt to remove the pariah status that the SAD had acquired due to the sacrilege cases and the party's initial support for Modi's farm laws.
While defeating the Congress or even removing the stain of sacrilege cases and the farm laws may not be easy for the Akalis, the alliance with the BSP is a step towards its revival and emergence as the main Opposition in Punjab.
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