Shiromani Akali Dal

Mainstreaming itself

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal (right) and SAD president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal at an election rally at Maur Mandi. Photo: PTI

WHEN Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal invited Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley to contest his maiden election from Amritsar, it marked a significant shift in the State’s politics. Parkash Singh Badal declared that Jaitley should be made Deputy Prime Minister if the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre. Political observers said this was the first time that the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), or SAD (Badal), was looking at a serious decision-making role at the Centre. And Jaitley, seen as a close supporter of the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, could be the representative of Punjab’s interests at the Prime Minister’s Office. The SAD is known for its anti-Centre politics and as a party representing the Sikh sub-nationalist trend, and therefore its invitation to Jaitley is seen as its “ideological mainstreaming”. Its efforts to go national are clear from the fact that it contested four seats as the BJP’s ally in the 2013 Assembly elections in Delhi and is supporting a few Indian National Lok Dal (INDL) candidates in Haryana in the parliamentary elections.

Despite being a constituent of the NDA for more than a decade and a part of the government during the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee, the SAD has remained in the background because it could not shake off the memory of being the only representative of the Sikh Panth in the aftermath of a highly charged Khalistan movement of the 1980s. However, in the last decade or so, after the ascendancy of Sukhbir Badal in the party, the SAD has consistently tried to reinvent its image—from being a strictly Sikh Panthic party to a development-oriented force.

Political observers such as Pramod Kumar, director of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication, believe that old emotional issues such as river water-sharing and Operation Blue Star, which symbolised assertive Sikh sub-nationalist politics in the State of which the SAD was the only representative, began to lose their appeal as a new generation of voters, without political memories, emerged. A larger consensus among political parties to restore peace in the post-militancy period also forced the SAD to reinvent itself by coming out of the clutches of the Sikh Panth and finding new issues such as good governance and development.

These efforts paid off as the SAD, which pitched its last two electoral battles for the State Assembly solely on issues concerning development, managed to defeat the Congress. Bucking the trend, the SAD-BJP combine, under the leadership of Sukhbir Badal, was re-elected in the 2012 Assembly elections. Together, their vote share was around 42 per cent as opposed to the Congress’ 40. It was the first time in the history of Punjab that a political party was elected to power for two consecutive terms.

Hailed by political observers as the oldest and the most organised regional political party, the SAD has had only one consistent characteristic: anti-Congressism. Founded in December 1920 as a political front of Sikh religious bodies such as the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the SAD went on to become the only voice of Sikh sub-nationalism in the early decades of independent India. Until the end of the last millennium, the party had epitomised Sikh Panthic politics. Demands such as a separate Punjabi Suba in the early 1960s, greater autonomy in the 1970s after Punjab was carved out as a Sikh-majority State in 1966, and opposition to Operation Blue Star in the 1980s served as the crux of the Akali movement. After surviving the Emergency, suffering many splits and competing with the extremist Khalistan movement in 1980s, the SAD has become the flag-bearer of a broader identity politics of “Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat”, as espoused in the Moga declaration of 1996, encompassing the aspirations of both Sikhs and Hindus in the State. The first significant shift in the SAD’s ideological stance was when it foregrounded Punjabiyat as opposed to the Sikh identity.

Through all these tumultuous times, the SAD emerged as the sole opposition to the Congress, both in the State and at the Centre. Anti-Congressism forced the SAD to make tactical alliances across the political spectrum from time to time. It allied with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and also with the Left parties before settling for the BJP as an electoral ally. The alliance with BJP is both tactical and ideological. Apart from its common anti-Congress stand, the SAD-BJP combine could be sustained because of the support it enjoys in diverse constituencies. The SAD primarily articulates the concerns of the dominant agrarian classes—the Jat Sikhs—and appropriates Sikh religious symbols whereas the BJP draws its support from the urban Hindu business classes, primarily Hindu Khatris. This makes the combine a solid force against the Congress, which draws its support from all classes and castes.

Such has been the Akali dominance in the Punjabi political and emotional memory that the BJP and the Congress had to address the regional concerns. “Traditionally, the BJP has opposed the Akali demands of Punjabi Suba and a Sikh homeland. However, in the post-terrorism phase, the shift in the stance of the BJP from a strong Centre to greater autonomy for the States and its opposition to Operation Blue Star and the November 1984 [anti-Sikh] riots [in Delhi] increased its acceptability among the rural Jat peasantry,” Pramod Kumar writes, explaining the ideological alliance of the two parties. Similarly, the Congress was also forced to address the regional concerns within the Sikh Panthic identity and accommodate former Akalis and Hindu Mahasabhites into its fold. The Congress’ tallest leader in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, is a former Akali.

Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science in Panjab University, says that despite the fact that the SAD-BJP alliance is tactical, the SAD has ensured that it remains an unequal one. “The SAD has seen to it that the BJP remains a smaller force. It has ensured that the regional BJP leaders do not get adequate representation,” Ashutosh Kumar said. Not surprisingly, out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP is contesting only three. Two of these have been given to “outsiders”—Vinod Khanna and Arun Jaitley— on the SAD’s insistence. Similarly, in Chandigarh, the BJP has nominated actor Kirron Kher, much to the displeasure of regional leaders such as Satyapal Jain.

The SAD, for the first time, has launched a single-point campaign—“Modi for PM”—for the coming elections. Through this strategic move, the party hopes not only to cash in on the Modi cult among a substantial upper-caste Hindu population but also to beat the anti-incumbency sentiment in the State. At the same time, it is also seen as a bargaining chip with the BJP’s central leadership to ensure the SAD’s continued dominance over the BJP State unit.

In the present times, the rise of the SAD has been synonymous with the rise of the Badal family. In the post-militancy period, the Amritsar Declaration brought all the Akali factions together to fight against the Congress. However, this phase also marked the ascendancy of Parkash Singh Badal and his family in Akali politics.

The SAD (Badal) graduated from being one of the Akali factions to become the most powerful force in State politics, virtually holding sway over all the Sikh religious bodies and other state institutions. The Badal family also holds a monopoly in sectors such as public transport, cable television network, mining, regional entertainment and news channels. The continuing hold of the extended family of Badal has changed the nature of the SAD. The SAD’s graduation from an identity-driven party into a development-centric party coincided with the Badal family turning into a business empire. Political observers believe that the Badals gained their legitimacy by giving adequate sops to the upper-caste Jat Sikhs and, in the process, transformed a radical party into a feudal, conservative one.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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