What was called a Nahu Maas Da Rishta - the relationship between nail and flesh - has finally come to an end, with the Shiromani Akali Dal ending its 24-year-old association with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
There are several layers to this decision. This article will try and bring out each of these layers and try to answer the following questions:
What led to Akali Dal finally deciding to quit the NDA?
Why didn’t this happen earlier?
What are Sukhbir Badal’s calculations?
What lies ahead for SAD and for Punjab politics?
But before we look at these questions, here’s what SAD president Sukhbir Badal said while announcing his party’s decision. It is important to note that Badal mentioned not just the farm Bills but also “insensitivity to Punjabi and Sikh issues”.
What Led to Akali Dal’s Withdrawal?
The problems between the BJP and the Akali Dal began much before the farm Bills. The alliance faced several pinpricks in the past few years - from the BJP’s decision not to spare any seats for the Akalis in the Delhi Assembly polls, to the Akalis’ criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act, Devendra Fadnavis government’s alleged interference in Huzur Sahib Nanded and BJP’s tacit support for Akali Dal rebels, to name a few.
Another factor was that no one was listening to the Akalis in the BJP, especially after the death of Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi’s huge victory in the 2019 elections that significantly reduced the bargaining power of allies.
However, these were reasonably small issues and not sufficient grounds for ending a 24-year-old alliance. The core issue was something else, a bigger trend whose magnitude the Badals hadn’t realised until recently.
Feedback from the ground showed Akalis that PM Modi and BJP are hugely unpopular among Sikhs
A source in the Akali Dal revealed that the party recently carried out a survey to get feedback from the ground. The source said that two things became extremely clear to the party:
The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are highly disliked among Panthic Sikhs, who form the Akali Dal’s core support base.
Urban Hindu voters prefer Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress over Sukhbir Badal at the state level, despite the SAD’s alliance with the BJP.
This basically meant that that the Akalis had nothing to gain by preserving its alliance with the BJP and stood to lose its core support base completely.
There’s an ideological element to this as well. The Akali Dal is unlike any other regional or family-centered party. The undivided Shiromani Akali Dal was envisaged as the political voice of the entire Sikh Panth.
The Akali Dal is unlike any other regional party. It was originally envisaged as the political voice of the entire Sikh Panth
However, the near complete takeover of the Akali Dal by Parkash Singh Badal in the 1990s added a parenthesis to the party name and a great deal of baggage to its politics.
But even then, the Badals cannot afford to go against the current of public opinion in the Sikh community. From the highest temporal body of Sikhs - the Akal Takht - to much of civil society and even artists, the opinion among Sikhs was decisively against the BJP. This is something the Akalis couldn’t ignore.
“Other parties can do it but the Akali Dal doesn’t have the option of going against the opinion in the (Sikh) community. We can side-step it, even ignore it but we can’t go against it. If we do, we cease to be Akalis. That’s it,”
Why Didn’t This Happen Earlier?
Despite the overwhelming sentiment among Sikhs, ending the alliance with the BJP was a very difficult decision for the Badals. Sukhbir Badal wanted to leave a window for rapproachment till the end. Perhaps he still wants to leave that possibility open.
This was evident from the fact that Badal chose not to directly criticise BJP and PM Modi while speaking during the farmers’ protest on 25 September.
Sukhbir Badal refrained from criticising PM Modi during his speech at the farmers’ protest
The Badals feared that they would end up like Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray and Aditya Thackeray, who have constantly been at the line of fire from the Centre and the media ever since they walked out of the NDA and formed a government with the NCP and Congress in Maharashtra.
Now, the long term reason.
The expansion of SAD (Badal) in the mid 1990s must be seen in light of the fact that Punjab at that point was still trying to come out of a conflict. Like ‘mainstream’ politicians in Kashmir, Parkash Singh Badal understood the importance of being in the good books of the Central government.
Like ‘mainstream’ politicians in Kashmir, Parkash Singh Badal understood the importance of being in the good books of the Central government.
This meant not just the political regime but the security and bureaucratic establishment as well. An alliance with a Hindu nationalist party like the BJP also gave credibility to the Badals in New Delhi.
Badal presented himself and his party as forces which could “restore stability” in Punjab and yet reflect the will of the people - Sikhs as well as Hindus. Being on good terms with the Centre became a key part of the Akali Dal’s politics.
The SAD enjoyed power under the United Front government (1996-98), Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA rule from 1998-2004 and the Modi government from 2014 till 2020.
Even during the UPA years (2004-2014), Parkash Singh Badal had a good working relationship with the then PM Dr Manmohan Singh.
The fear of being on the wrong side of the Centre is another factor that prevented the Akalis from breaking off ties with the BJP.
It’s only when the anti-BJP sentiment became so strong that the Akalis felt the alliance could affect their survival. The fact that the farmers’ protests targetted the Akalis and not just the BJP, added to the SAD’s urgency to quit.
Sukhbir Badal’s Calculations
“The next (2022 Assembly) elections are a do or die battle for him (Sukhbir Badal). If he doesn’t become CM, it’s over for him. His main fear is what would happen when God forbid Vadde Badal sahab (Badal senior) is no longer there. The knives will be out against him,” a party source revealed.
Sukhbir Badal is known for his organising skills and his calculation is to now play the farmer card to the hilt and win back the Jatt Sikh farmer votes that the SAD had lost to the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2017 Assembly elections.
SAD’s aim would now be to win back the Jatt Sikh farmer vote that it had lost to AAP in 2014
The AAP has lost ground since then and Sukhbir Badal hopes to recapture that vote. Hence his refrain that “Every Akali is a farmer and every farmer is an Akali at heart”.
The SAD is also hoping for two more things - recapturing the Panthic voters, who may have drifted away from the party due to their alliance with the BJP and a split in the urban Hindu votes between the Congress and BJP.
What Lies Ahead?
Punjab politics is about to undergo a great churn. The Akali Dal will try to go back to where it was in the 1980s - presenting itself as the main party in Punjab that’s taking on an increasingly authoritarian Centre.
The most vulnerable might be AAP as it has been benefitting from disgruntled Akali voters.
The BJP will also now be compelled to expand on its own in Punjab. This is easier said than done. The farm Bills have made the party the worst enemy of farmers, who are a huge votebank in the state. It may even cost them support among grain merchants, who are predominantly Hindu and a traditional votebank of the BJP. Then the only cards left with the BJP would be Hindutva, national security and support of Deras.
The Congress, especially Captain Amarinder Singh, would have to play its cards deftly to avoid its worst nightmare - Hindu consolidation behind BJP, Sikhs decisively moving towards SAD.
The Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing cases can go against the Badals and it is up to Captain if he wants to go after them. However, with the political field opening up, the faction-ridden Congress would also be tested.
The biggest fear for Punjab would be that the BJP ruled Centre may respond to the political challenge in the same way that New Delhi has dealt with Punjab in the past - by seeing labelling criticism as anti-national.
With several pro-BJP social media accounts calling some protesting farmers as “Khalistani”, the signs are not good.
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