Punjab Diary: The crisis deepens for the Akali Dal

All indicators point to a virtual split in the oldest regional party of India

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal reciting the ardas at the Akal Takht, Amritsar. (Photo: Getty)
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal reciting the ardas at the Akal Takht, Amritsar. (Photo: Getty)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

The oldest regional party of India, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), lost its deposit in 10 out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats it contested this year and saw its vote share decline from 18.4 per cent to 13.4 per cent.

Following the electoral debacle, an open revolt has erupted in SAD (Badal), led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, Prem Singh Chandumajra and Bibi Jagir Kaur who have called for the resignation of party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, implementation of the Jhundan Committee report and reorganisation of the party.

They accuse Badal of privileging family over party and promoting sycophants and family interests. Other grouses include Sukhbir’s controversial decisions like the move to pardon Dera Sacha Sauda head Ram Rahim, supporting the controversial farm laws and putting up candidates against Amritpal Singh from Khadoor Sahib.

All indicators point to a virtual split, with the official SAD(B) faction refusing to endorse the Akali candidate supported by the ‘rebels’ for the by-election in the Jalandhar West assembly seat (scheduled on 10 July), and instead supporting the BSP candidate.

In any case, SAD(B) is not seen as a serious contender for the seat, which will see a triangular contest between the Congress, AAP and BJP. Despite their rhetoric and penchant to play to the Panthic gallery, the SAD(B) rebels have little credibility of their own. Most of them—including Dhindsa, Jagir Kaur and Chandumajra—are seen as close to the BJP.

For all practical purposes, they are analogous to the BJP-backed Shiv Sena (Shinde) in Maharashtra. However, such a comparison does not make Sukhbir Badal the ‘Uddhav Thackeray of Punjab’. In fact, the speed with which the party is sliding after five successive electoral defeats makes a comparison with INLD (Indian National Lok Dal) and the Chautalas in Haryana a more apt one.

Despite the saving grace of party president Sukhbir Badal’s wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal retaining the Bathinda Lok Sabha seat, the electoral debacle despite a three-month-long Punjab Bachao Yatra by SAD(B) leaders, cannot be glossed over.   

It put up a fight only in Firozpur and Amritsar and slipped to the fourth position in the state. The party that historically stood for the rights of Punjab, Sikhs and farmers appears to be irreversibly sliding towards irrelevance. Its leadership stands discredited and it has nothing new to offer.

It retains pockets of influence in rural Punjab but increasingly people seem disillusioned with it. SAD(B) has also been weakened by the radical neo-Panthics. Many believe they have been propped up by central agencies.

Their sudden rise serves many purposes for the BJP-led central government—increasing Hindu anxieties to aid the rise of the BJP, restricting the scope of centrist parties like the Congress, AAP and SAD, and diminishing the surge of a secular civil society in Punjab, epitomised by the kisan unions.

The biggest beneficiary of the rise of the Panthics has been the BJP, which has doubled its vote share. The induction of Ravneet Singh Bittu into the Union cabinet despite his defeat from the Ludhiana Lok Sabha constituency 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. SAD(B)’s utility to the BJP is clearly over.


Social media-led polarisation

The rise of social media with cheap internet connectivity and ubiquitous smartphones has dramatically transformed Punjab’s politics in the last 15 years.

It has not only aided the rise of new political outfits like the AAP and provided energy to social movements like the kisan movement, it has also given voice to the youth, NRIs and civil society groups, democratising politics, society and media.

However, it has also amplified voices of hate and religious bigotry. Sans the gatekeeping role of traditional media, algorithms, social media echo chambers anonymity, ease and speed of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ have proliferated lies, misinformation and extremist content.

Recent incidents like Kangana Ranaut being slapped at Chandigarh airport and provocative yoga by a social media influencer at the Golden Temple in Amritsar polarised public opinion, giving free rein to extremists of all hues.

Encouraged by the resounding victory of NSA-accused Amritpal Singh in the Khadoor Sahib Lok Sabha constituency, his fellow-prisoners in Assam’s Dibrugarh jail—Pardhan Mantri Bajeke, Daljit Kalsi and Kulwant Rauke—have decided to fight the coming by-elections in Punjab. That should be new grist for the rabble-rousing mill.


Punjab chief minister and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann
Punjab chief minister and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann

Mann vs the high command

The Delhi residences of Arvind Kejriwal and Raghav Chadha are the two places where disgruntled AAP leaders from Punjab are flocking for support against chief minister Bhagwant Mann.

The results of the Lok Sabha elections in Punjab came as a rude shock to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party which was able to win only three of the 13 seats, with their vote share declining from 42 per cent to 26 per cent.

AAP leaders blamed the police and the bureaucracy for their failure to control drug trafficking. In an unprecedented move, more than 10,000 police personnel across the state have been transferred. In his meeting with senior officers, CM Mann declared that deputy commissioners and SSPs would be held responsible for incidences of crime and corruption in their areas.

Mann—who had played a leading role in the poll campaign anoand selection of candidates, and was expected to lead the party to victory on his own steam—has come under renewed pressure from the Delhi-based AAP high command.

In the recent Lok Sabha elections, AAP trailed by nearly 29,000 votes behind the Congress and 27,000 votes behind the BJP from Jalandhar West. Sandeep Pathak has taken charge of fighting the by-election on the Jalandhar West assembly seat, coming up on 10 July.

Knowing how crucial each by-election is, Bhagwant Mann has decided to stay put in Jalandhar in a rented house. The chief minister’s wife and sister have also been campaigning for him. The tug of war between Bhagwant Mann and AAP is likely to intensify.

Meanwhile, controversies continue to haunt AAP and its leaders in Punjab. AAP MLA Jaswant Singh Gajjan Majra, arrested in a fraud case, was caught illegally enjoying AC facilities in Patiala’s Rajindra hospital. Congress leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira has accused CM Mann’s family of benefitting from dubious land transfers and indulging in foreign trips.


Congress infighting to the fore

If there is one thing permanent about the Punjab Congress, it’s infighting. Win or lose, Congressmen are sure to trade blows. This time is no exception. While one section of the Congress—under state Congress president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring and CLP leader Partap Singh Bajwa—is crowing over winning 7 Lok Sabha seats, the rest— under senior leaders Pargat Singh, Rana Gurjit Singh and Bharat Bhushan Ashu— are blaming the state leadership for faulty selection of candidates, poor performance in the Malwa region and drop in vote share.

They contend that the Congress win was due more to multi-cornered contests and Rahul Gandhi’s image than the efforts of the state unit or leadership.

Post Captain Amarinder Singh’s era, at least six to seven contenders have emerged for the top spot in the state Congress party. This has ironically strengthened the hands of the Congress high command, now firmly ensconced as the final arbiter of inner party disputes in Punjab.

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