‘One-man’-ruled Akali Dal faces lowest ebb in Punjab politics

With the mass exodus of leaders, even veterans with grey flowing beards, and the sudden rise of its once two-decade-old coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab, the fractured Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which marked its centennial commemoration in 2021, is facing its worst crisis “structurally, organisationally, and even in terms of ideological leadership”.

People have rejected the SAD in the recent state Assembly polls for the second consecutive term. Its legislators in the present Legislative Assembly of 117 reduced to mere three, down from 15 seats in 2017-22, the lowest-ever number.

The BJP, which had won three seats in 2017 when it had contested in alliance with the Akali Dal, secured two seats this time.

The saffron party is strengthening its roots in the Sikh-dominated state under the leadership of two-time Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is seen as a nationalist and widely respected Sikh leader in politics, and prominent Hindu face Sunil Jakhar.

Both Amarinder Singh and Jakhar, former Congress leaders, are prominent rebels.

In this year’s Assembly polls, the Akali Dal, which becomes a “one-man- ruled” party now, five-time Chief Minister and party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, 94, and his only son Sukhbir Singh Badal faced humiliating defeat from their respective seats.

This was the party’s worst-ever performance in the state Assembly elections, results for which were declared on March 10.

All the Badals as well as their kin lost to Aam Aadmi Party’s greenhorns.

Despite drubbing, the elderly Badal, who firmly believes the farmers’ issue relates to the overall national interest, expresses “immense satisfaction and pride” over the strong and principled stand taken by the party “to save the beleaguered peasantry”.

He’s often quoted as saying, “Sometimes parties face ups and downs. It happens in politics. The Akalis have a long history of rejecting the lure of office and standing up for principles.”

Snapping over two-decade long ties, the Akali Dal pulled out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in September 2020 after sharp differences emerged over the three controversial farm laws.

The Congress, which was out of power in Punjab for a decade (2007-17), got 77 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections after drubbing the Akali Dal-BJP combine.

At that time, the elderly Badal had won the Assembly elections from Lambi by defeating Congress candidate Captain Amarinder Singh by 22,770 votes.

In one of the recent interviews, senior Badal, a founder member of NDA and wants the guilty of both Gujarat and anti-Sikh riots should be punished, told IANS that he’s confident that the outstanding and proud legacy of the Akali Dal will be carried forward with aplomb.

The Akali Dal was one of the oldest allies of the BJP. It was among the first to support the 13-day Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the shortest Prime Minister’s stint in India’s history, in 1996.

To rebuild the beleaguered party Akali Dal and prevent further exodus of leaders, the younger Badal, who was known as the “Super Chief Minister” when the party was at the helm and has business and agricultural interests, is on toes.

Known as ‘Kaka-ji’, a term used in political circles to refer to the sons, mostly spoilt, of Punjab’s political elite, Sukhbir, 60, was Minister of State for Industries in the Vajpayee government in 1998-99. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2001.

His wife, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who held the portfolio of Food Processing Industry in both Modi-led Central governments, is raking up state-specific issues in the Parliament.

The husband-wife duo won the parliamentary polls in 2019.

Despite facing successive electoral defeats under his leadership, in the 2019 parliamentary elections and the 2022 Assembly polls, both with huge margins, and the most recent exodus of veterans like Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s (SGPC) first woman President Bibi Jagir Kaur, party President Sukhbir Badal reconstituted a nine-member advisory board this month to assist him.

Earlier in 2020, Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his legislator son Parminder Singh Dhindsa were expelled for publicly questioning SAD’s top leadership.

“Most of the senior leaders want a change in party leadership. They want to revamp the party. The rebel voices are getting louder. It is high time for party to introspect,” said a senior party functionary.

Interestingly, Akali Dal legislator Manpreet Singh Ayali questioned the party for acting against Bibi Jagir Kaur over her alleged links with the BJP while it supported Droupadi Murmu’s candidature for the post of President even though she was the nominee of the NDA government, that is not concerned about the issues of Sikhs.

In his recent statements, Sukhbir Badal said the Akali Dal would never swerve from its core ‘pro-Punjab’, ‘pro-minority’, ‘pro-farmers’ and ‘pro-poor’ agenda.

He says several issues related to the Sikh community and Punjab remain unresolved and the party is committed to doing its utmost to ensure they reach their logical conclusion.

The issue included securing the release of all Sikh detenues whose sentences have been commuted by the Central government on the occasion of 550th Parkash Purb of Guru Nanak Dev, handing over Chandigarh to Punjab as well as other issues like ensuring the status of Panjab University.

Sounding an alarm in the Lok Sabha, Harsimrat Kaur Badal this week said the drug mafia-politician nexus coupled with the rise of narco-terrorism in the AAP government in Punjab has the capacity to destroy not only the state but even the country.

Asserting that Punjab is akin to a burning volcano and on the brink of civil war due to a combination of drug trafficking coupled with the breakdown of law and order and destruction of peace and communal harmony, she added, “Never has such a situation arisen in the state earlier.”

She was making a statement under Rule 193 on the increasing menace of illicit drugs in Parliament.

She said AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal had promised to wipe out drugs in 10 days before the 2022 Assembly election, but in the last nine months the drug menace was destabilising Punjab and posing a threat to national security.

She added that drugs were being smuggled into Punjab along with weapons and this has witnessed the rise of narco-terrorism with the state now witnessing RPG attacks for the first time.

The Akali Dal-BJP (earlier Jana Sangh) alliance has been described as the oldest and strongest alliance in contemporary politics.

No other coalition has weathered so many political battles since March 27, 1970, when Parkash Singh Badal became the country’s youngest Chief Minister for the first time.

Till date, the Congress enjoyed seven full-term governments — 1952, 1957, 1962, 1972, 1992, 2002 and 2017 — in the state.

The Akali Dal that made history in 1997 by becoming the first non-Congress party to complete its first full term in office since independence and has repeated its feat in 2007 and 2012.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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