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Tottering Shiromani Akali Dal needs a political revival, not a pivot back into NDA

The Jalandhar bypolls reaffirmed that the AAP is firmly entrenched in Punjab with Congress as the primary opposition. A desperate Akali Dal, in free fall since 2015, is rebuilding bridges with a Congressised BJP, a forced political alignment that is easily evident to voters

May 26, 2023 / 03:57 PM IST
Shiromani Akali Dal

Shiromani Akali Dal's Sukhbir Singh Badal. (Centre) (Image source: Twitter/ @officeofssbadal)

In many ways, the late patriarch of the Shiromani Akali Dal, Parkash Singh Badal, and the Shiromani Akali Dal party had way too many parallels. Both were born in the 1920s: Akali Dal was founded in 1920 and Badal was born seven years later.

In 1970, the year Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) completed 50  years in existence, Badal, then 43, emerged as the first among equals when he became the chief minister of Punjab. During the days of terrorism (1980-1993), Badal chose to be an onlooker, and Akali Dal went into slimy silence unwilling to be on any side.

In 1997, Akali Dal came to power and Badal became the CM again. Till 2015, Akali Dal seemed to be on the right course and Badal at 88, was gracefully ageing. He had passed on the baton for all purposes to his son Sukhbir Singh Badal who would tom-tom grandiose ideas of how he envisioned a new and progressive Punjab.

SAD’s Rapid Downhill Trajectory  

At the time Sukhbir was making such promises, the voters witnessed grandiosity elsewhere: Rural Punjabis for whom the city of Chandigarh is aspirational would flock to a new destination called New Chandigarh to see for themselves from some distance the luxurious seven-star Oberoi SukhVilas hotel. And the word slowly spread that in this property Kakaji (a nickname for a pampered male heir in Punjab) allegedly had major stakes. Here, of course, it meant Sukhbir Singh Badal.

The question on everybody’s mind then was: Weren’t the Badals progressing so much more disproportionately than the hoi polloi of Punjab?

Come October 2015, the very quasi-religious tenets that were central to the Akali Dal went for a toss when two Sikh protesters were killed at Behbal Kalan in Faridkot on October 14, 2015. These protesters were agitating against the Bargari sacrilege incidents.

This was the final nail in the coffin but Badals and Akalis would have to wait for another two years to know it – the Punjab Vidhan Sabha polls 2017.

The Akali Dal was wiped out in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha polls winning just 18 seats in an assembly of 117. People thought this was the worst Akalis could fare. Cut to the 2022 assembly polls, and Akalis were decimated to just three seats.

Badal Sr. passed away last month at the ripe age of 95, and the grand old political party of Punjab too is waning and weak. And his absence is likely to accelerate further the slide of the party.

No Takers For Punjab’s Grand Old Party 

Recently, at the condolence function for Badal Sr. some partymen tried to hatch a ploy to bring Sukhbir’s estranged cousin Manpreet Singh Badal, now with BJP, back into the party fold. Manpreet cried, empathised with his elder cousin; the pain for his uncle (tayaji) was palpably visible. But he chose not to speak on the matter of ghar wapsi (homecoming) and distanced himself from Akali Dal and Sukhbir Singh Badal as soon as he stepped out of the condolence meeting.

Fifteen days after the demise of Badal Sr, the Jalandhar bypolls took place on May 10. Sukhbir Singh Badal exhorted that a true homage to his father would be an Akali victory in the elections.

However, the results of the bypolls were disappointing for the Akali Dal.  The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Sushil Rinku polled 3.02 lakh votes followed by Congress’s Karamjit Kaur who secured 2.43 lakh votes. But Akali Dal’s Sukhwinder Singh Sukhi trailed way behind at 1.58 lakh votes, just a shade better than BJP’s Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal who polled 1.34 lakh votes.

These results proved to be a smaller reflection of the larger political landscape of Punjab. From big cities to mofussil towns, the blue turbans (associated with Akalis) are less and less visible, and most of them have politically proselytised to the yellow ones (a favourite with Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann and AAP cadres).

Hollowed-Out Akalis, Congressised BJP

The string of political proselytisations on all sides first began in 2018 when Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Rattan Singh Ajnala, and Sewa Singh Sekhwan all exited the SAD. They formed Akali Dal Taksali which later merged into Akali Dal Sanyukt.

Later, former MLAs Sarup Chand Singla, Mohinder Kaur Josh, Jagbir Brar, and Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal also left the party.

Similarly, after Capt Amarinder Singh’s exit, Congress also suffered a major setback in the state as former ministers Raj Kumar Verka, Balbir Singh Sidhu, Sunder Sham Arora, Gurpreet Singh Kangar, and Sunil Jakhar joined the BJP.

Its net result is that BJP has gained big political names, while AAP has gained huge political space. At 102, though Shiromani Akali Dal is functioning, there has been growing mistrust. That it will attend the inauguration of the new Parliament building is a sure sign of warming up to the old friends. And, with AAP firmly entrenched in Punjab for now, Akalis coalescing with BJP, which is mostly Congressised, would mean a forced political adhesion.

It would seem that Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann can continue to crack his jokes and have the last laugh for a long time to come.

Chandni S Chandel is an independent journalist based out of Chandigarh. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication. 

Chandni S Chandel is an independent journalist based out of Chandigarh. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: May 26, 2023 03:57 pm