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In search for revival in Punjab, Akali Dal rediscovers its Sikh roots

By Sai Manish
May 16, 2022 17:35 IST
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There are clear signs that the party is re-starting its journey to relevance by going back to its core Panthic agenda, on the basis of which it was founded over a century ago, reports Sai Manish.

By 2027, when Punjab goes to the polls again, Sukhbir Badal will have been out of power for almost a decade, his longest stint in the political wilderness.

IMAGE: Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal (right) at the Golden Temple, March 9, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

Moreover, the Akalis, who have ruled the state alongside the Congress in a bipolar polity for decades, are now displaced even from their perch of the principal opposition party in the state for two successive terms.

 

After a humiliating debacle in the recently concluded elections, Badal sent out a committee across the state.

Though composed of MPs, MLAs, and local leaders, the committee formed smaller groups of workers who panned out across the state, asking people why they rejected the party.

The decision to send non-recognisable faces was to “get out the truth since people wouldn’t reveal the true picture to known faces”, according to one of the members.

The answers for the debilitating loss were all too familiar -- the perception that the Badals were associated with corrupt, dynastic politics; the inaction of the Badal government over the sacrilege cases; kowtowing to the Congress’s top leaders in the state despite being their political opponents; betraying the farmers’ cause, among others.

This diagnosis is nothing new. Many mirror the same line of attack that Navjot Sidhu and Arvind Kejriwal had unleashed on the Badals in the run-up to the elections.

“The writing on the wall is clear. People wanted a change from the two-party rule system. People were manipulated by Aam Aadmi Party's grand promises, which they will never be able to fulfil. There is nothing wrong with our party. We are a party of the Sikhs and for the Sikhs,” said Janmeja Sekhon, a member of the party’s committee.

This is where the Akalis’ road to redemption will now have to be revisited by them.

There are clear signs that the party is re-starting its journey to relevance by going back to its core Panthic agenda, on the basis of which it was founded over a century ago.

Badal has gone public demanding the release of “Sikh prisoners” from the state’s jails.

He has initiated efforts to create a platform uniting various Singh sabhas, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, and other Panthic organisations to launch a movement demanding the release of around 50 Sikh prisoners.

Badal told the media: “We may have individual and political differences, but let us shed that for the cause of the Sikh prisoners.”

Primary among them is Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted for the assassination of then chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. Rajoana was given the death sentence in 2007.

His sentence was commuted to life in 2019 by the Centre.

Badal is also making a renewed pitch for the release of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, convicted in the 1993 Delhi blasts case.

His death sentence was commuted to life by the Supreme Court in 2014. By doing so, Badal has set up a direct confrontation with both the Congress and AAP.

While Bhullar’s release would paint Kejriwal in a poor light in Delhi, the late Congressman’s family has been staunchly opposing any sort of leniency toward Rajoana, calling him a “convicted terrorist”.

Badal has also been vociferous against Hindutva elements involved in the recent riots between Sikhs and Shiv Sena members in Patiala over an anti-Khalistan rally.

This in many ways signals the most visible attempt in recent times by Badal to resuscitate the party’s core Panthic agenda, which even its staunchest supporters accused it of having abandoned.

The party, whose founding charter states that it was formed to safeguard the interests of the “Sikhs in particular”, seems to be charting a more determined course to spring back to relevance than ever before.

While the repeated electoral drubbing may have put a cloud on its relevance, many feel there is no replacement in Punjab for a regional party like the Akali Dal.

In addition to the Sikh agenda, it is seen as an outfit of Jat farmers and the only party capable of demanding more autonomy for the state, synonymous with the Sikhs’ and the state’s own identity.

Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication in Chandigarh, said: “The Akalis are not going anywhere. They are specialists in hegemonic politics and know how to build bridges with various communities and castes. The AAP is a replacement for the Congress not just in Punjab but also in places like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The people of Punjab know well that they need a party like the Akali Dal to represent Sikh demands not just in India but for the diaspora globally. Badal also needs to focus more on economic issues that affect common people than just the Panthic agenda in the future to revive the party.”

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Sai Manish in Chandigarh
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