The SAD has been feeling a bit lonely after it broke up with long-time ally BJP over three contentious farm laws in September.
The SAD has been feeling a bit lonely after it broke up with long-time ally BJP over three contentious farm laws in September last year and is looking for new friends in Punjab.
The Shiromani Akali Dal, the country’s second oldest party after the Congress, has roots in Punjab and ruled the state for long years, many of them jointly with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which happily played the role of a junior partner for over two decades.
However, the BJP coming to power at the Centre in 2019 and later in Haryana the same year fuelled the dreams of the saffron party’s Punjab unit which started demanding a greater number of assembly seats with some leaders even expressing the desire of having a party government in the northern state.
Though such voices made the SAD leadership uneasy they continued to work with the BJP till the three contentious farm laws passed by the Centre in September 2020 led to major farmer protests across the agrarian state.
Sensing the ruling Congress led by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was getting political mileage by launching an agitation over the central farm laws and then passing separate state laws to negate them, SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal feared an erosion in his party’s largely rural support base and decided to snap the ties with BJP.
Sukhbir’s wife and the sole SAD minister in the Union cabinet Harsimrat Kaur Badal also resigned to protest the farm laws and express solidarity with the peasants.
Though SAD quit the BJP-led NDA citing neglect of Punjab’s interest by the Centre, the regional party got anxious that the saffron juggernaut may soon threaten its existence in the state.
The examples of former BJP ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the current ally in Bihar Janata Dal-United, which parted ways with the BJP in 2013 but came back to it in 2017, had not been lost on the SAD leadership which was looking for an exit route from the NDA and grabbed the opportunity that came its way in the form of the farmers agitation.
The SAD, which turned 100 on December 14, 2020, is facing the local body polls for the first time without the saffron party but has been exploring for new partners who can help it forge a non-Congress, non-BJP front since September last.
While the immediate challenge for the SAD is to do well in the local body polls for eight municipal corporations and 109 municipal councils on February 14, battle lines for the 2022 Assembly polls are being redrawn.
The BJP has declared to contest all the 117 assembly seats alone and would be pitted against the SAD next year. Traditionally, the BJP used to get 23 assembly seats and the SAD contested 94.
The SAD is in touch with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which has influence among the 31 percent Dalit votes in Punjab, for the 2022 assembly polls. The Indian National Lok Dal, which has presence in neighbouring Haryana, may also be consulted.
The SAD is keeping off Aam Aadmi Party, which rules Delhi, as the party essentially competes for the same Jat Sikh-Dalit votes.
Over the past four months, SAD senior leaders have also been exploring ties with other regional parties like Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra to forge a larger anti-BJP grouping.
Ahead of the February 14 local body polls, the SAD is reconnecting with its rural supporters to regain lost ground by opposing the three farm laws while the BJP knows it has little chance given the resonance that the emotive issue has across Punjab.
The BJP is trying to put up a brave face by arguing that the farmers have been misled over the farm laws but the party does not have much hopes for February 17 when results for the local body polls would be out. Half of the seats are reserved for women.
When the two were together, the BJP’s urban voter base added to the SAD’s village-based kitty to give the combine a winning edge. This time, that advantage may go to the ruling Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party.
Sukhbir Badal’s desperation recently showed when he claimed that 40 of the farmers who had died at the protest sites on Delhi’s borders were party activists but the statement was rubbished by the peasants.
Harsimrat Kaur too has been vocal in attacking PM Modi over the issue in an attempt to cover up the Congress charge that she was part of the cabinet that approved the three contentious bills and therefore cannot claim she was not consulted.
The farmer protests have led to some BJP leaders including former state vice president Balwinder Singh joining the SAD since. There has been some churning within the SAD as well. Rajya Sabha member SS Dhindsa formed his own SAD(Democratic) while a section broke away earlier to form SAD (Taksali).
The Congress swept the 2017 assembly polls winning 77 of the total 117 seats primarily benefiting from the two-term anti-incumbency of the SAD-BJP coalition that ruled Punjab from 2007-2017. Debutant AAP had surprised everyone by winning 20 seats and went on to become the main opposition party.
The SAD-BJP alliance was wiped out with the regional party winning 15 seats and the saffron party just 3. In 2015, the ruling SAD had suffered damage over controversies related to desecration of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which dented the credibility of the Badals. The ongoing farmer protests are their chance to regain lost ground in the run up to the 2022 assembly polls.
For SAD, its most well-known and respected face continues to be founder and six-term former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, 93, who returned his Padma Vibhushan to protest the farm laws. Sukhbir though now runs the show.
Besides rural Punjab, the SAD has influence across the Sikh clergy and controls two community bodies, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.
Outside Punjab, the SAD contested polls in Haryana in 2009 and 2014 and in Delhi in 2013 and 2015.