Business Standard

Stir causes stirrings in Punjab politics


Winds carrying suspended particulat­e matter usually blow towards Delhi from Punjab. This time, the plumes from teargas shells used on farmers on Delhi’s borders will likely cloud the vision of those in the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) negotiatin­g to revive the alliance between their party with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab.

In 2020, when the last round of the farmers’ agitation took place, SAD supremo, the late Parkash Singh Badal, and S S Dhindsa returned their Padma Bhushan awards, protesting the government’s treatment of farmers. The casualty of round two of the ongoing stir will be an alliance between the two parties. This means that while the SAD might win a seat or two of the 13 in the state, the BJP will be lucky if it scores even one.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won two seats, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur. It contested in alliance with the SAD. But although its independen­t vote share has inched up since then, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in power in Punjab, remains highly popular.

The last Lok Sabha election in the state was for a bypoll for the Jalandhar seat in May last year. The BJP polled 16 per cent of the vote, while the SAD got 18 per cent. They fought separately. The AAP got 34 per cent of the vote share compared to 2.5 per cent it had notched up in the same constituen­cy in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Now, with farm stir #2, the SAD is in no hurry to strike any deals with the BJP.

When Mr Dhindsa, once number two in the SAD as secretary general and a confidant of five-time chief minister and Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, quit the party, ostensibly it was over its poor performanc­e in the 2017 Assembly elections. His real grouse was Sukhbir Badal’s promotion by his father. Mr Dhindsa resigned as the party’s Rajya Sabha MP, while his son, Parminder, who was finance minister in the SAD-BJP government, walked out of the SAD. “Badal saab key asli vaaris hamare saath baithe hain” (Badal saab’s real heirs are on our side). Prime Minister Narendra Modi had remarked in the Lok Sabha about Mr Dhindsa’s exit, in mocking reference to family rule in the SAD.

Now, the younger Dhindsa is reported to be in consultati­on with his supporters to make his way back to the SAD.

“There’s a word — anak. It is untranslat­able but loosely, it means pride. Sikhs will lose everything. But they will not compromise on their pride,” said a senior SAD leader.

The last round of “negotiatio­n” between the BJP and the SAD took place at the level of Sunil Jakhar, former Congressma­n who joined the BJP and became the head of its Punjab unit. That was around six weeks ago. A survey by the BJP was cited in negotiatio­ns in which it demanded six Lok Sabha seats, leaving seven for the SAD. For the Akalis, this doesn’t work. Their thinking is, in an alliance, the balance of advantage is with the BJP — that party will add Hindu votes to its kitty, while the SAD will lose Jat Sikh votes as a consequenc­e of the alliance. They feel the BJP needs them in the Lok Sabha, whereas the SAD can take or leave the 2024 elections. Their eyes are fixed on the Assembly elections three years away (2027).

A lot can happen between then and now. For instance, the killings of Sikhs agitating abroad to get the US and Canada to pressure the Indian government for a fair deal with the Indian state, was top of the mind politicall­y till about a month ago in Punjab. But now it has retreated. And right now, given the farmer agitation, the SAD reckons it is best to not even be seen as negotiatin­g with the BJP. The more the BJP and its affiliates criticise farmers, suggesting they have been infiltrate­d by “foreign forces” and “antination­als”, the better it looks for the SAD in Punjab.

Instead of getting distracted with the Lok Sabha elections, the SAD will likely work to persuade disaffecte­d Akalis to return to the fold and build up the party. That leaves the field free for the Congress and AAP in the Lok Sabha space. If everything goes according to plan, a resuscitat­ed SAD could emerge as a central player in Punjab in three years.

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