On January 18, rebelling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders met at Delhi’s Constitution Club to stitch together a coalition to challenge Sukhbir Badal’s leadership of the party. They had already identified SAD’s Rajya Sabha MP, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, to anchor this coalition. Sukhdev, who for three decades had occupied the position of party secretary general, resigned in October last year from the leadership of the SAD in the Rajya Sabha. Soon after, his son, Parminder Singh Dhindsa, gave up his post as chief of the party unit in the Punjab assembly.
Politically, the SAD has been struggling to enthuse its core base — panthic voters, who are more alive to issues relating to the Sikh faith. Badal’s rivals have accused the party of mishandling the fallout of the June 2015 desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. There were public protests and the police had opened fire on protesters in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan in Faridkot. Punjab was governed by a BJP-SAD coalition at the time.
Speaking to India Today, Sukhbir insists that, politically speaking, the worst was over for the SAD, though many of his party colleagues disagree. To illustrate, they point out that in mid-January, similar unrest was witnessed when PTC Punjabi, a TV channel owned by the Badals, claimed intellectual property rights over the daily hukamnama telecast from the Golden Temple. This really angered the Sikh community. “The SAD cannot afford another religious controversy,” points out an Akali Dal legislator. With the assembly election just two years away, the party needs to plan its revival strategy soon, or risk giving ally BJP more bargaining power and, worse, strengthening the hand of the ruling Congress.
Sukhbir is aware that recent events have made reviving the party’s fortunes more difficult. His father, five-time Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, now 92, has been staying away from public appearances. Other challenges include former party stalwarts Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Rattan Singh Ajnala and Sewa Singh Sekhwan, who, following their sacking from the SAD in late 2018, formed the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali) in December the same year. These leaders have influence with voters in the Majha region-which consists of the Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts in northwest Punjab. Worse, leaders of other Akali factions-such as Paramjit Singh Sarna, Manjit Singh G.K. and Ravi Inder Singh-appear to be aligning themselves with the Dhindsas. Sukhbir argues that these leaders don’t have mass appeal, but they are pulling away, and it could only weaken the party.
Sukhbir Badal is aware that the exit of top SAD leaders has made the task of reviving the party much more difficult.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the SAD managed to win just two seats — Ferozepur and Bathinda, won by Sukhbir and his wife, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, respectively — despite a slight uptick in its overall vote share from 26.3 per cent to 27.5 per cent. What is especially worrying is that apart from these seats, the SAD was not a major contender in the state’s Malwa region, which accounts for 69 seats in the 117-seat assembly. While Sukhdev Dhindsa might not have a huge voter base around his pocket borough in Sangrur (in the Malwa belt), his exit will complicate matters. His understanding of religious issues made him indispensable to the SAD and his exit will mean a longer recovery period for the party among panthic voters in the region.
Sukhbir disagrees with that assessmen — but according to Parminder Dhindsa, “that is exactly the problem.” Sukhdev Dhindsa elaborates: “I requested SAD leaders to offer an apology to the Akal Takht. Initially, they agreed, but they eventually did not go.” Parminder says: “It would not have been an admission of guilt, but would have pacified the agitators.”
Worse, the SAD’s allies may also be looking to profit from its troubles. On January 17, at an event in Jalandhar to elect new state BJP chief Ashwani Sharma, many leaders spoke of abandoning the BJP-SAD alliance. Although the party leadership is treading cautiously on the issue of abandoning an ally of two decades, especially given the recent split between the BJP and its allies in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, this will not prevent BJP leaders from opening channels with the new Akali Dal (Taksali).
For over two decades, thanks to its strength in the state, the SAD managed to retain a leadership position in its alliance with the BJP. However, BJP leaders believe that recent results — such as the increase in the alliance’s vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha election — are a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. This could encourage new alliances — such as with the Dhindsa-led Akali Dal (Taksali). The first overtures in this regard appear to have come from the Centre. In January 2019, the Union government honoured Sukhdev Dhindsa with the Padma Bhushan — and in his bid to stitch together a new alliance, Dhindsa has avoided taking potshots at the BJP while training his fire on the Badals. Further, on January 20, the BJP snapped ties with the SAD for the Delhi election, and is in touch with the rebels for support in the assembly poll.
Dhindsa’s new status as an opposition leader close to the BJP could also upset the Badal family’s fortunes when it comes to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Elections to this body, which administers gurudwaras in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, including the Golden Temple, have been due since 2016, with the Amit Shah-led home ministry yet to decide on a date.
For the moment, the BJP appears happy to wait for the Dhindsas to build a new Akali Dal and attract panthic votes. The BJP has frequently used a combination of such voters with its own base to win key urban centres such as Jalandhar, Bathinda, Patiala and Ludhiana. “We can do it for the new [breakaway] Akali Dal as well,” says a top BJP leader.
Sukhbir dismisses the conjecture. “We have clear alliance terms,” he says. “They know their 23 assembly seats, we have our 94. Similarly, we have a 10-3 arrangement for the general election. This will continue.”