Akali Dal at a Crossroads: What Does This Mean for Punjab Politics?

The Akali Dal has played a pivotal role in shaping the politics of the state after independence.

The Akali Dal’s momentous decision to withdraw from an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party is an important development which is likely to have far-reaching consequences for politics in Punjab.

Akali Dal, the oldest state party in India, is not just another electoral party. Formed originally as a ‘panthic’ party by a religious congregation in 1920, it was mandated to serve the religious and political interests of the Sikh community. Originally set up as a cadre-based and ideologically rooted movement party, Akali Dal has long viewed itself as the custodian of the social, cultural and political interests of the Sikh community. Arguably much more than the other two long-standing ‘ethnic’ state parties – the National Conference (1939) and the DMK (1949) – Akali Dal has played a pivotal role in shaping the politics of the state after independence.

Looking back its long chequered political career, Akali Dal since inception found itself as one being trapped at the crossroads of region and religion, as Punjab underwent significant territorial and demographic changes during Partition and after. This explains why the party moved from pursuing the politics of ‘representation’ in colonial Punjab to the pursuit of a Sikh-majority state within the Indian Union.

The devious mechanisation of the dominant Congress to weaken an already factionalised Akali Dal and the party’s own inability to draw the bulk Sikh votes compelled it to pursue autonomist politics even after the creation of the Punjabi Suba. It had disastrous consequences for the state, as the it witnessed an armed militancy and the breakdown of constitutional order. It was the realisation about the grave implications of the pursuit of autonomist politics that drove the moderate Akali leadership to reinvent the movement party as a mainstream ‘electoral’ ‘electoral’ populist party standing for ‘Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiat’ (besides panth) in alliance with the BJP, thus effecting a discernible shift in its ideological focus and political practices to accommodate a broader support base.

The Akali compulsion

Interestingly, even while pursuing hard core panthic politics, the Akali Dal was not averse to an alliance with the Unionist Party in colonial Punjab as Sikhs constituted only 15% then, and then with the Jana Sangh after the reorganisation in 1966 in search of political power even when the latter regarded ‘the Sikhs as part and parcel of the Hindu society’ and was vehemently opposed to the demand for a Punjabi Suba and pushed for Hindi as the second official state language. Besides having the common plank of ‘anti-Congressism’, the following explanatory factors can explain this ‘unnatural’ alliance and its longevity.

First, the Akali leadership realised that even the creation of a Punjabi Suba was not going to ensure an electoral majority in the party’s favour. The Congress not only put up an impressive number of Sikh candidates but also continued to enjoy the support of both Sikhs and Hindus. It would be only in exceptional elections, like the one in 1985 contested under the shadow of the militancy, that the party would be able to win a majority on its own. Not only was the Akali Dal always faction ridden, Sikhs have been divided across caste lines, with the Mazhabi Sikhs voting for the Congress.

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Second, the territorial remapping of the constituencies in the third delimitation exercise of 1971 meant that the electoral constituencies were no longer predominantly urban/rural or Hindu/Sikh in demographic terms, a factor that went in favour of the Congress that has always enjoyed a broader spatial and ethnic support base.

Third, the image of being the party of the Sikhs in a state where Hindus are only slightly less than half of the population also impelled the Akali Dal to look for an alliance with the BJP or even with the Bahujan Samaj Party earlier. This is one of the reasons why the party, despite having a majority of its own, invited the BJP to join the government after the 1997 assembly elections, besides the desire to bring communal peace in then divided Punjab. The alliance set the long-term pattern of power sharing between the two parties, claiming to strike a social balance which neither could establish on its own.

The BJP’s take on the alliance

For the BJP, having alliance with the Akali Dal has been a part of the party’s strategy to mark its electoral presence in the state. In the past too, it has entered into alliances as a junior partner with state-level parties that are pitted against the Congress (including the TMC, JD(S), BJD, JD(U), TDP, AGP, INLD, Dravidian parties to name a few). This has been the way the party has gradually strengthened its position in the last decade or so.

However, much to the dismay of the party leadership, Punjab has been the only state where the BJP has not been able to make much headway despite sharing power with the Akali Dal. The party has not been able to project even a single leader till date who has state-wide recognition or support. It has also been unable to retain its traditional upper-caste support base in the urban constituencies.

As a constituent in the coalition government, the party was seen as being unable to safeguard its core social constituency’s economic interests. Despite its demand, the party neither got the deputy chief ministership nor could increase its quota of 23 and four assembly and Lok Sabha seats respectively. It has also not been allocated the seats of its choice.

This explains why since its electoral victories across states, especially in neighbouring Haryana, the Punjab state unit has been expressing its discontent. These voices have become louder after the 2017 debacle, when the Akali Dal for the first time was replaced by the Aam Aadmi Party as the main opposition party.

However, the BJP national leadership did not encouraged the naysayers, as it remained apprehensive that breaking the alliance would help the Congress – BJP’s chief national rival – electorally. Also, it believed that the party going alone at this juncture might be electorally disastrous.

Explaining Akali Dal’s decision

The Akai Dal’s decision to break the alliance must be viewed as an act to save the party from losing its support base among the Jat Sikh peasantry, its core social constituency. At the same time, the delayed decision also showed today’s party leadership (read Badal family) in out of touch with the ground reality, in contrast to the party old guards. What must have counted in the leadership’s calculations in taking the decision is the fact that already, the rival Akali faction led by Sukhdev Dhindsa, an old guard, is ready to take on the official Akali Dal, accusing it of decimating the internally robust democratic character of the party and also undermining the autonomy of the other two Sikh institutions – the Akal Takht and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

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That the party has abandoned its panthic agenda in search of power received credence due to damaging incidents like the desecration of the sacred Guru Granth Sahib which was followed by police firing under the last Akali government in 2015. The party also failed to deliver on its promise of bringing about good governance and development as the state under its watch witnessed the continued deceleration of economic growth and the rise in institutionalised corruption and mafia raj. What damaged the party image most was the accusation that party leaders allowed/were complicit in spreading the drug menace, an accusation which helped the AAP emerge as a political force in the 2017 elections.

What does the breakup mean for the future?

Whether the Akali Dal will be able to go back to its agitational mode of politics against the Centre, like its dharam yudh morcha days, is a moot question. It is clear that the party is not the same cadre-based ideological party of the past.

The post-Bluestar generation leaders, almost all from political families and Jat Sikhs, and most of them related to each other by marriage, have not risen from the grassroots like Badal senior or Gurcharan Singh Tohra. They have been in power for most of their career, so the needed resolve to sacrifice and create a sustained agitation, which the older leadership showed during the Punjabi Suba movement or during the protest against Emergency, may not be there.

However, the party still has its dedicated cadres in rural Punjab, and religion and language are still potent factors in the Punjabi suba as evidenced in the sporadic protest in the state against the National Register of Citizens and also against the recent exclusion of Punjabi from the list of official language in Jammu and Kashmir.

So far, it is a net disadvantage for the BJP as the party would not have wanted to lose another ally after the Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party at this moment, with the Bihar and West Bengal elections around the corner and simmering tensions on the border. So one needs to wait and watch to see whether there would be rapprochement, or it is a permanent break. Right now, the Congress and the AAP have been trying their best to win political dividends out of the tense situation, and it is much easier for them to accuse the Akali Dal of collusion.

Ashutosh Kumar is Lala Lajpat Rai Chair Professor at the Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.