New Delhi: The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is now short of three of its oldest members.
The Shiv Sena had parted ways with the saffron party last year, while the Telugu Desam Party had deserted the alliance before the 2019 parliamentary polls.
With the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) walking out of the front, the notion that the Narendra Modi-led BJP has failed miserably to accommodate regional aspirations has gained further traction. This, despite the fact that its state allies, by the way of their unapologetic support to the prime minister’s overtly majoritarian politics, have played a crucial role in the party’s resurgence in the last few years.
The SAD-BJP’s proverbial divorce was perhaps waiting to happen.
Indian Muslims have often been at the receiving end of Modi-Amit Shah’s brand of hardline Hindutva politics. However, the Akalis – who claim to represent the Sikh Panth, too have had a hard time explaining its support to such a force in Punjab.
The Panthic Sikhs, a majority of whom have traditionally supported Akalis, have always taken exception to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s understanding of Sikhism as merely a sect within Hinduism.
Over the last few years, the BJP has made various attempts to make independent inroads in the traditional territories of Punjab but have remained unsuccessful for precisely this reason.
The leaders of SAD and BJP in Punjab have often been caught criticising each other on various issues but the mutual cordiality between the Badals and BJP’s top leadership, as well their electoral interdependence, have sustained the relationship between the two.
However, the Centre’s big pushback against federal principles under Modi have often put the Akalis in a spot, given Punjab’s history of asserting its federal rights.
Additionally, the BJP leadership under Amit Shah has focused more on increasing its footprint in states which give the party a decisive electoral advantage. The SAD – one of its oldest partners, as a result, was reduced to only being a minor player in the larger political scheme of BJP-driven NDA.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who recently resigned from the Union Cabinet, in protest against the farm bills was the only SAD MP in Modi’s government.
The loss of stature bothered the Akalis much more than its traditional alliance with the BJP. On top of it, the Congress, under Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, has expanded its presence among the Panthic Sikhs. Singh, who also enjoys popularity among farmers of Punjab, has catapulted the grand-old party from near oblivion to a position of dominance.
The last two parliamentary polls and the assembly elections reflected the change in political equations. Punjab beat the so-called “Modi wave,” and quite comprehensively.
This has led to a further deterioration in the relationship between the SAD and BJP. The two parties together brought a majority of Sikhs and Hindus together to form a winning combination. With that electoral formula having failed in the last few elections, Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats have become dispensable for the nationally muscular BJP. The shift in the balance of power further reduced SAD’s bargaining power.
The farm bills which will liberalise agricultural markets, and will perhaps put the MSP-dependent farmers of Punjab in jeopardy, were the last nail on the coffin. SAD’s decision to snap ties with BJP over the contentious bills appears to have been their last resort.
They had tested waters with Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation, but Modi’s determination to push the bills through and his message that all critics of the bills were “misleading” the farmers left the Akalis with no other option.
Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the SAD, has therefore taken an equally aggressive stance. He has now called for a “united opposition”, and has resolved to fight against the “Centre”.
By asserting its regional identity and federal nature of the Indian polity, the Akalis have indicated that they will not hesitate to join an anti-BJP front. With Congress still as its primary opposition, it remains to be seen how the SAD will chart its course.
However, its last-ditch effort to regain its political prestige has come at a time when its popularity in rural Punjab is at an all-time low. There are reports which say that farmers had vowed to not let Akali leaders enter their villages once the party was seen dilly-dallying on the farm bills. Since June, when the Centre promulgated the farm ordinances, the SAD has been supporting the Centre. But with backlash against them only escalating over its stance, it backtracked and eventually parted ways with the BJP.
Unlike the Congress, the Akalis have not attacked the BJP for its majoritarian politics and have perhaps left an opening to reconsider their decision. To rejoin NDA anytime soon may be difficult for the SAD as Sikhs have increasingly turned against the BJP over the last few years. Various Sikh forums have made it a point to support Indian Muslims in different agitations, the latest being the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.
The SAD leaving the NDA may not hurt the BJP immediately. In fact, with the only minority-dominated party deserting the alliance, and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) having lost its legitimacy among Bihar’s Muslim community, the saffron party may have got an opportunity to cement its hardline Hindutva agenda further.
The Modi-Shah-led BJP’s dream of a “new India”, dominated by only aggressive Hindus, may have got just the shot in the arm it needed.
For the Akalis, however, this is a do-or-die chance to restore party credibility in Punjab.