Is it the end of the road for the Akali Dal?

Even as Punjab itself is in a deep political churn, the Shiromani Akali Dal is yet to reinvent itself after the breakdown of its alliance with BJP.

Published : Jun 21, 2024 17:54 IST - 9 MINS READ

SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal leading a protest march against the controversial farm laws, in New Delhi on September 17, 2021. Despite such protests, the party has lost public support and ceded much of its political space to other parties and radical elements.

SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal leading a protest march against the controversial farm laws, in New Delhi on September 17, 2021. Despite such protests, the party has lost public support and ceded much of its political space to other parties and radical elements. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which came into existence in 1920, is at a crossroads. The party, according to observers of Punjab’s politics, is fast ceding political space to radical Sikhs (neo-Panthics) and other parties, mainly on account of an “indecisive” leadership that departed from regional identity politics and started a journey of self-destruction by siding with the Narendra Modi government.

After the Assembly election in 2022, the SAD suffered another body blow in the recent Lok Sabha election. Although it retained its bastion of Bathinda from where Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of party president Sukhbir Badal contested, its overall vote share nosedived to 13.42 per cent from 27.76 per cent in 2019.

Despite a three-month-long “Punjab Bachao Yatra” by the SAD leadership across the State, 10 of its candidates lost their deposit. The party could put up a fight only in Firozpur and Amritsar. What is even more worrying for advocates of federal politics and SAD loyalists is the fact that the party has slid to fourth position in the State, falling far behind its former junior partner, the BJP.

Also Read | Punjab: The paradox of Congress resurgence and radical rise

The Congress is right now on top, having won seven seats and garnered 26.30 per cent of the vote share, followed by the AAP, which managed to win three seats and gain 26.02 per cent of the vote share.

Harjeshwar Singh, a political commentator who teaches history at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh, said: “The party that has historically stood for the rights of Punjab, Sikhs, and farmers is now irreversibly sliding towards irrelevance. Its leadership stands discredited and it has nothing new to offer.”

He added: “Despite giving some good candidates and making a decisive break from the BJP, past mistakes have continued to hang around its neck like a millstone. The party still has committed cadre but the people are avoiding it.”

Rise of radicals

According to him, a prominent feature of the election was the rise of radical Sikhs. “Not confined to a single political party, they are an assorted group comprising the old Khalistani warhorse Simranjit Singh Mann, whose party SAD (Amritsar) contested nearly all seats, and Independents like Amritpal Singh, the radical preacher currently lodged in Dibrugarh jail [in Assam], and Sarabjit Singh Khalsa, son of Beant Singh, the assassin of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.”

Amritpal Singh won by over 1.97 lakh votes in Khadoor Sahib, and Sarabjit Singh in Faridkot won by just over 70,000 votes. Amritpal’s was the highest victory margin in the State. “Simranjit Singh Mann managed to secure 1.87 lakh votes in Sangrur. Others, like Lakha Sidhana (Bathinda), Mohinder Pal (Patiala), Kamaljit Brar (Ludhiana), and Raj Jatinder Singh (Fatehgarh Sahib) also secured a significant number of votes,” Harjeshwar Singh stated, adding that collectively the radical Panthic factions secured about 10 per cent of the votes.

Supporters of Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh, an Independent candidate from Khadoor Sahib constituency, during an election campaign in Tarn Taran district on May 28. Amritpal won the seat with a huge margin, triggering worries about the rise of radicalism in the State.

Supporters of Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh, an Independent candidate from Khadoor Sahib constituency, during an election campaign in Tarn Taran district on May 28. Amritpal won the seat with a huge margin, triggering worries about the rise of radicalism in the State. | Photo Credit: MUNISH SHARMA/REUTERS

The SAD was formed as a political institutional wing of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the highest Sikh religious body, to lead the gurdwara reform movement. Ashutosh Kumar, head of the political science department at Panjab University, said: “The party emanated from a homegrown movement, like the National Conference in Kashmir and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. As regional entities, the three parties have pursued cultural and geographical region-specific autonomist politics vis-a-vis the Centre. The SAD’s stand has always been based on the adoration of the two political identities of Sikh nationalism and Indian nationalism.”

Kumar said that at the time of its inception, the SAD was conceived as a Panthic party formed to serve the religious and political cause of the Sikh community wherein religion and politics have historically been linked under the tenets of “Miri Piri”, a Sikh principle highlighting the importance of worldly and spiritual power. It finds representation in the iconic emblem of Sikhism: a double-edged sword (khanda) at the centre, a chakkar (circular weapon), and two single-edged swords on either side of the khanda and the chakkar.

After Partition, the party waged a long political battle first to secure a Sikh-majority Punjabi Suba, or Punjabi-speaking State, to fulfil its long-cherished agenda of securing a “territorial homeland” for Sikhs. Later, it campaigned for the newly reorganised State’s autonomy vis-a-vis the Centre.

Amritpal detention extended
On June 20, the AAP-led Punjab government extended the detention of Amritpal Singh for one year. The perceived indecisiveness and lack of ideological clarity in SAD’s reaction to this development was inescapable. Although Sukhbir Badal directly attacked Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann for his alleged “anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab face”, he chose not to mention the NDA or name Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, Badal referred to the Central government as “Delhi” in his social media rant, implying that he was open to forging an alliance with the BJP again. “Our differences of ideology with Bhai Amritpal Singh apart, we will oppose repression and injustice against him or against anyone else and we don’t care what political cost we have to pay for this,” Badal wrote on the X platform, stressing that his party was opposed to “the black laws” NSA and UAPA. 

SAD-BJP ties

Before the BJP, it was allied with the Jana Sangh. While the party resisted the Emergency, it surrendered to radical elements during the period of insurgency before making a comeback as a mainstream party of “Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat”, with a discernible shift in its ideological focus and political practices. It forged an alliance with the BJP in 1996.

The SAD-BJP alliance government in Punjab from 2007 to 2017 saw rampant drug trafficking, illegal mining, an increase in gang wars, the high-handedness of Akali leaders, the Badal family tightening its grip over the transportation sector, and incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. All this led to an erosion of public support for the party and its defeat in the 2017 Assembly election, in which it bagged just 15 of the total 117 seats.

The Badal family, which leads the SAD, has been accused of abandoning the party’s core ideology after joining the National Democratic Alliance. While in the NDA, the Akali Dal never raised its voice against atrocities on Muslims and Dalits. When the whole of Punjab was raising its voice against the abolition of Article 370, the SAD sided with the Modi government.

The SAD quit the NDA only after more than 700 farmers died during the year-long agitation against the three controversial farm laws brought in by the Central government. According to observers, electoral politics, and not the BJP’s “insensitivity” in issues concerning Punjab or Sikhs, was central to the SAD’s decision to quit the NDA.

Before the Lok Sabha election, the SAD and the BJP attempted to form an alliance but failed to reach an agreement regarding seat-sharing. In the election, the BJP did not win any seat but its vote share was a significant 18.56 per cent. In 2019, when it was in alliance with the SAD, the party’s vote share was 9.63 per cent.

“At least 10 BJP candidates secured more votes than Akali candidates in this election. In case the BJP decides to throw a political lifeline to the Badal family in the future, the SAD will have to be a junior partner this time,” said Harjeshwar Singh. But time may be running out for Sukhbir Badal and the Akali Dal with the rise of the neo-Panthics, and a resurgent BJP and the ruling AAP looking to poach its supporters, leaders, and cadre.

Indeed, party leaders like Prem Singh Chandumajra, SAD spokesperson and former MP from Anandpur Sahib, and Daljit Singh Cheema, former State Education Minister, are a worried lot. “At a time when regional parties are growing everywhere in the country, it’s a cause for concern that the party which has been at the forefront of advocating regionalism has got marginalised,” Chandumajra told Frontline.

He added: “We were not with the pro-Modi or the anti-Modi group. Then we saw a new wave of Panthic politics, but we couldn’t co-opt it. Similarly, we couldn’t formulate a third front after bringing together democratic-secular forces like the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] or the CPI(M).” This indecisiveness has been the SAD’s undoing.

The polarisation factor worked in this election, said Cheema. “For the first time in the past 23 years we have contested the Lok Sabha election separately from the BJP. The party was weak in the seats where the BJP used to contest as part of the seat-sharing arrangement.”

Rumbles within

In the past years, senior party leader and former Union Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and former SGPC president Bibi Jagir Kaur were among those who questioned Sukhbir Badal’s decisions and demanded reforms within the party.

Following the rout in the 2022 Assembly election, former MLA Iqbal Singh Jhundan led a 13-member committee that aimed to suggest course correction measures. The committee, in its report, recommended the introduction of “accepted faces” into the party leadership. While some of the recommendations have been implemented, the rest too will be implemented gradually, said Cheema. He maintained that the party was still introspecting to strengthen its organisational structure.

Also Read | Contrarian Punjab may throw up a surprise again

On the rise of radicals in this election, Cheema said that Operation Blue Star and the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres in Delhi are issues which the Sikh community has not forgotten. “In both cases, justice has not been done. This feeling of injustice keeps manifesting itself in one form or another from time to time. The long-standing issue of Bandi Sikhs [political Sikh prisoners] is also a part of it now.”

Harinder Singh Khalsa and Simranjit Singh Mann had contested and won Lok Sabha elections on similar sentiments. Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa rode a wave of sympathy in Faridkot for his father, Beant Singh.

The SAD’s Khadoor Sahib candidate, Virsa Singh Valtoha, was imprisoned under the National Security Act in the 1980s and was an associate of the separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. “But it happened over 40 years ago. Today’s generation doesn’t know what happened to him. On the contrary, Amritpal Singh’s case is new. Naturally, people have sympathised with him,” said Cheema.

Speaking to Frontline, Prof. Ronki Ram, a political commentator who is the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair professor of political science at Panjab University, said: “Ever since the SAD distanced itself from regional identity politics and stopped acting as an advocate of a strong federal structure, besides on other basic issues confronting Punjab, it has lost the faith of voters. But it still has some hold in rural areas.”

BJP supporters during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Hoshiarpur on May 30. Although the BJP could not win a single seat, it succeeded in increasing its vote share significantly.

BJP supporters during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Hoshiarpur on May 30. Although the BJP could not win a single seat, it succeeded in increasing its vote share significantly. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Lok Sabha results also indicate growing disillusionment with the AAP, with votes drifting to the Congress. “There is every possibility that the SAD may reclaim lost ground in the near future. But it will have to act as the strongest voice of the region,” Prof. Ram said, adding that the space ceded by moderates was being appropriated by radicals.

BJP and neo-Panthics

Meanwhile, there are persistent doubts about the independence of the neo-Panthics. Said Harjeshwar Singh: “Many believe they have been propped up by Central agencies. Their sudden rise serves many purposes for the BJP-led government: it increases Hindu anxieties, aids the rise of the BJP, restricts the scope of centrist parties like the Congress, AAP, and SAD, and helps diminish the surge of civil society in Punjab, as epitomised by the kisan unions.”

The biggest beneficiary of the rise of the Panthics has been the BJP, which doubled its vote share. Citing the induction of Ravneet Bittu into Modi’s Cabinet despite his defeat in Ludhiana, Harjeshwar Singh said: “It signals that the BJP will continue using him to polarise the State’s politics and fan Panthic grievances.”

Bittu is the grandson of former Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was killed in a suicide bomb blast in Chandigarh in 1995, for which Babbar Khalsa International claimed responsibility.

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