Chandigarh: Even as the ruling Congress and the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) dubbed it “beadbi”(sacrilege), dissidence-hit Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) on Tuesday went ahead with its political conference at the historic Mela Maghi in Punjab’s Muktsar. The Congress and AAP refrained from holding any such meeting, claiming to be adhering to the Akal Takht’s call against mixing religion with politics.
But for the Akali Dal, holding a political conference at the historic fair was extremely important, given the credibility crunch it has been facing ever since it was swept out of power in 2017. SAD held the rally in Muktsar mainly to showcase its strength. Holding it at the Mela Maghi at the holy city, which it has been doing for a long time, assumed significance as Akali Dal doesn’t want to lose its tag of a ‘panthic party’ and at the same time aims to consolidate its eroding popularity.
Addressing the mega rally, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal lashed out against the rebels, especially former MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his son and ex-finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa, saying that the party was not the “fiefdom” of the Badal family as alleged by the rebels.
The assertion comes in the wake of allegations levelled by ‘Taksali’ (old guard) Akali leaders that the Badals had seized control of SAD.
The Akali Dal is facing its worst crisis since its inception in 1920. The party last December celebrated its 99th foundation day, but in the absence of some prominent veteran Akali leaders, who instead chose to hold a parallel convention in Amritsar on the very day when SAD put Sukhbir Badal at the helm of the party for a third consecutive term.
Former MPs Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and Rattan Singh Ajnala, and ex-minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan had in the autumn of 2018 rebelled against the leadership of Sukhbir Singh Badal as SAD president, and went on to form the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali).
The latest to join the rebel bandwagon are the Dhidsas, who raised their voice against the “undemocratic functioning” of SAD.
The Shiromani Akali Dal on Saturday expelled the estranged father-son duo from the party, but it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. The narrative was being built for the D-day for a long time.
The senior Dhindsa had demanded the resignation of Sukhbir Badal as the party head after the drubbing in the 2017 assembly polls. But his advice wasn’t heeded. Sukbhir continued as the party president and appointed a large number of office-bearers, much to the chagrin of the veterans.
In October 2019, a disgruntled Dhindsa resigned as the leader of the Akali Dal in Rajya Sabha. He, however, insisted that he won’t quit SAD, but also demanded a change in the way the party was being run. Consequently, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa closed ranks with the Taksalis and took part in the parallel function.
Speaking at the event, the 83-year-old sought the support of “likeminded” outfits to "liberate" SAD from the Badal family and “revive its lost glory”.
Following suit, son Parminder Singh Dhindsa tendered his resignation as the leader of SAD legislature party in the Punjab assembly on January 3, a position bestowed upon him barely six months earlier. All the while his father spoke out against the Badals, the junior Dhindsa had maintained a stoic silence.
After Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa put down his papers and joined the rebel camp, all eyes were on Parminder, expecting him to side with his father. But he took his time. While Sukhdev attended the parallel function of the splinter groups, son Parminder was conspicuous by his absence, though his father had claimed, “My son and I are on the same page”. The 46-year-old didn’t show up at SAD’s event either.
Even when the Lehra MLA tendered his resignation, he just wrote a one-line letter, which was at once accepted by the party’s core committee. No sooner did Parminder resign, the SAD president appointed Sahnewal legislator Sharanjit Singh Dhillon as the leader of the legislature party, giving an inkling of the things to come.
A week later, the father-son duo was thrown out of SAD for “anti-party” activities.
During the political conference at Muktsar, the SAD president hit out at the Dhindsas, saying the party had done enough for them. Sukhbir said, “Sardar Dhindsa had been a SAD candidate for over 30 years, but he only managed to win one election. Despite this, the party gave him respect. He was made the chairman of the Electricity Board, sent to the Rajya Sabha and made a union minister. He lost by a margin of more than 3 lakh votes and was still made a union minister. Who does that? His son and son-in-law too were granted party tickets for Lok Sabha, but they lost too. Now he says he wants ‘mukti’ from the Badals.”
Reacting to the suspension, Parminder Singh Dhindsa said the party had been reduced to a group of flatterers and he and his father had seen the expulsion coming.
The Congress launched a scathing attack on SAD for expelling the father-son duo and alleged that the party “had been reduced to the personal fiefdom of the Badals”. Congress ministers Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria and Gurpreet Singh Kangar issued a joint statement and said, “The Dhindsas had openly revolted against the stifling control of SAD by the Badals, declaring their intent to liberate the party from the family and revive its lost glory.”
Further riling SAD, the ministers also criticised Sukhbir's wife and union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal for her presence at the “meetings of SAD’s core committee, despite not being its member”.
Hitting back, Akali Dal accused the Congress of attempting to weaken the party, stating that the ministers’ statement proved Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his son Parminder were being used as pawns by Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
“The cat is out of the bag. The Dhindsa faction, which consists of Dhindsa, his son Parminder and son in law Tejinderpal Singh Sidhu only, are being feted and supported by Congress with the sole aim of splitting the panthic votes,” SAD leaders said in a statement.
MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal justified her presence at the core committee of SAD and targeted the Dhindsas. “Normally parents sacrifice everything for the growth of their children. But in the present case, he (Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa) himself enjoyed all senior positions in the party and when the turn of his son (Parminder Dhindsa) came to witness political growth…family pressure is being put on him. It is really a sad state of affairs. I don’t want to say anything more on this issue.”
The expulsion of the Dhindsas from the Shiromani Akali Dal has thrown the century-old party into a fresh bout of turbulence. Already battling the ‘sacrilege’ storm, this turmoil has shaken SAD’s footing. It has sown seeds of hope in the splinter factions, which see this as an opportunity to forge a ‘panthic’ front in Punjab.
At present, the fight is on to emerge as the better, more devout, panthic Akali. The image of the Shiromani Akali Dal as a ‘panthic party’ has taken a dent ever since it got embroiled into a controversy related to sacrilege, firing on Sikh protesters and granting pardon to controversial Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim.
The splinter Akali groups, like the Congress, are trying to build their bastion on the very foundation of religion, and hence trying to keep SAD at bay.
From this churning have emerged signs of another ‘panthic’ front in Punjab politics. The suspension of the Dhindsas has strengthened the morale of the splinter groups who plan to unite in Delhi on January 18 and hold a “Badal Nahin Badlav” meeting at the residence of MP Dhindsa.
In a way, the splinter factions are trying their very best to wrest control of SAD from the Badals. After his and his father’s expulsion, Parminder Singh Dhindsa had said, “We are fighting to restore the democracy and accountability in SAD,” adding that the party had to “go back to the basic ideology and introduce collective leadership in the Akali Dal”.
For the veteran Dhindsa, SAD’s nadir provides him an opportunity to position himself as the prime mover in the efforts to forge a front of disgruntled Akali leaders and ragtag factions.
No wonder Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa is thinking something big here.
In Punjab, politics has forever revolved around religion. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made inroads into almost each state in the country, and is certainly eyeing Punjab. But it lacks a Sikh face for this Sikh state, which can counter the charisma and stature of a Parkash Singh Badal or Captain Amarinder Singh.
SAD and the BJP have been at loggerheads recently. Be it the issue of seat-sharing in Haryana or the BJP’s open declaration of becoming the largest party in Punjab by 2022, the rumblings of disagreement have grown louder every passing day.
During the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP severed its alliance with its traditional ally in Haryana and tried to pressure SAD to give into its demands for a larger chunk of seats in Punjab. The alliance for the February 8 Delhi assembly polls is yet to be finalised and SAD is bargaining for more seats. The BJP is yet to respond, with the body language of its leaders suggesting it might even go alone.
For the BJP’s ambition to come true in Punjab, Sukhdev Dhindsa can be the vanguard. With his sobriety and moderate moorings, Dhindsa can be pitted against Parkash Singh Badal, or for that matter, his son Sukhbir.
And if the senior Dhindsa falls short of the sought-after Sikh-face tag, Parminder Singh Dhindsa has set the ball rolling by stating that former minister and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu had an important role to play in the future politics of the state.
“He (Sidhu) is a popular leader amongst the masses. Nobody can deny this fact. Only time will tell what decision he takes. But that decision will have a huge impact on Punjab politics,” said Dhindsa.