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Why BJP And SAD Need Each Other For 2024

By Aditi Phadnis
July 18, 2023 10:29 IST
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For Sikhs, they say, honour is the bottom line; and whatever the state of the SAD's political fortunes today, arrogance will not be helpful in the negotiation, points out Aditi Phadnis.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi D pays his last respects to former Punjab chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal patron Parkash Singh Badal in Chandigarh, April 26, 2023. Photograph: PTI Photo

On his return from a two-week vacation in Europe, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sukhbir Singh Badal called a meeting of the most important district-level leaders of the party.

While on holiday, he was amused to find frantic speculation about a reunion between the SAD and the Bharatiya Janata Party, including the number of seats the two parties would contest in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls and the Cabinet berths they would be offered in the interim.

So far, no meaningful negotiations have taken place, leaders from both the parties say. Both are wary. And the problems are myriad.

First, the SAD is in a seriously weakened political position. To say that it is fighting to survive may be an exaggeration: This is the party that controls gurdwaras, has a highly vocal diaspora, and faces no dearth of funds.

But they have lost two assembly elections (2017 and 2022) in succession and have only three MLAs in the assembly.

The recent bypoll for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat illustrated the problem -- the SAD finished third and the BJP fourth with 17.85 per cent and 15.19 per cent of the vote, respectively, as compared to the winner AAP (34.05 per cent) and Congress (27.85 per cent).

The implication of the SAD and BJP together getting 33.04 per cent of the vote is lost on no one.

But the SAD also nurses grievances. Once its ally and friend, the BJP turned the biggest poacher on the scene.

Important leaders like former Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee chief Manjinder Singh Sirsa, former SAD MLA Didar Singh Bhatti, SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) member Surjit Singh Garhi, and the late Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra's grandson Kanwarveer Singh, have all been lured away by the BJP.

Of course, both Mr Bhatti and Kanwarveer Singh were fielded in the 2022 assembly elections and both lost.

Mr Garhi was a member of the Political Affairs Committee of the SAD and of the SGPC.

Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa's SAD (Sanyukt Akali Dal) had an alliance with the BJP and leaders of the SAD say his party is a creation of the BJP.

In short, the BJP is attacking the SAD and making no bones about doing so.

Internally in the BJP, there are two views about the SAD.

Repeatedly, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has ruled out the revival of an alliance between the two parties on the grounds that the BJP's growth and development -- and its spoken reputation -- in Punjab had been seriously harmed by its association with the SAD.

There are others who note with concern that the middle ground in Punjab -- and outside -- is shrinking.

A factoid is revealing: Australia has around 200,000 Sikhs and they are 0.8 per cent of the country's population.

Punjabi is Australia's fastest-growing language, the census in that country notes.

But guess how many Sikhs were present at Prime Minister Modi's triumphant Australia public meeting earlier this year. Six.

Sikhs, say BJP leaders, have long memories. They still haven't forgiven General Reginald Dyer, who ordered the firing in Jallianwala Bagh (1919) and the coercive action the BJP government took against protesting farmers (2020-2021).

So the BJP can make a virtue of a necessity and continue to keep its distance from the SAD.

But it should not forget that the SAD needs the BJP, and the other way round too.

The BJP's latest appointment -- of Sunil Jakhar -- is part recognition of this fact of life.

Mr Jakhar is a Hindu and joined the BJP literally months ago.

The BJP has not elevated Amarinder Singh (also a newcomer) or any of the other Sikh leaders who have been serving the party for decades.

SAD leaders claim a high level of resentment in the party at the appointment.

The rank and file of the BJP itself is keeping a studied silence.

IMAGE: SAD President Sukhbir Singh Badal addresses supporters at a meeting in Jalandhar. Photograph: ANI Photo

Areas of difference between the two erstwhile allies are growing, not shrinking. The SAD is opposed to the Uniform Civil Code.

Old issues continue to fester: A decision on the sentence and release of those still in jail for sedition and murder (like Balwant Singh Rajoana, who has been on death row since 2007 on charges of the assassination of Beant Singh in 1995 when the latter was Punjab chief minister and the ministry of home affairs' repeated postponement of a decision on his mercy plea); and some who are in jail on sedition charges for a life term (14 years) but have not been released even after 33 years in prison.

The SAD says negotiations will probably happen ultimately.

But they will be cold and emotionless and Sukhbir Badal will "speak American", quite unlike the warmth and mutual respect between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Parkash Singh Badal.

For Sikhs, they say, honour is the bottom line; and whatever the state of the SAD's political fortunes today, arrogance will not be helpful in the negotiation. The BJP's response is awaited.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Aditi Phadnis
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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024