Chandigarh: Months after pulling out of alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the controversial farm laws, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) on Saturday formed an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for upcoming Punjab assembly polls due early next year.
Under the new pact, Akali Dal will contest 97 seats while the BSP will field its candidate in 20 seats which are mostly in Punjab’s Doaba region, where the party still holds some influence due to the presence of its core Dalit vote bank.
The sudden political development in Punjab that was kept under wraps for some time is being seen as an electoral compulsion for Punjab’s grand old party that has been struggling hard to revive after its worst ever political defeat in 2017 assembly polls.
The last election was held under shadow of SAD’s alleged mishandling of sacrilege issue that is believed to have dented its core Sikh vote bank. Then polity of the state went for a change due to emergence of a third political front – Aam Aadmi Party.
If this was not enough, its alliance with the saffron party became a burden after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre enacted controversial farm laws, which triggered massive protest among Punjab’s peasantry class that for long has been associated with SAD.
SAD had to snap ties with the BJP, following the farmers’ protest against the new laws.
The alliance with the saffron party had stitched a perfect Hindu-Sikh coalition in Punjab, making it win three out of five state polls held following their pact in 1997.
Will Jat-Dalit combination work?
SAD has realised that ahead of the next assembly elections, an alliance of Jats and Dalits will be necessary for the party’s success. SAD insiders said that the party is working to launch Hindu faces so that it doesn’t lose support of the Hindu vote bank after breaking alliance with the BJP.
For the BSP – that had a considerable influence in state politics in the 1990s but later became a non-player due to lack of winnability factor – it is an opportunity to regain its lost ground in Punjab that has also been the home state of its founder Kansi Ram.
The electoral arithmetic too appears to be in the favour of the new coalition. As per the 2011 census, Punjab has approximately 25% of Jat Sikhs while it has highest percentage of Dalit population in the country at 32%, out of which 60% are aliened to Sikhism while the remaining are Hindus.
Hence, the SAD-BSP alliance has a potential to capture at least 57% of the state’s overall vote bank. In the 2017 polls, Congress with 38.5% vote share formed the government in Punjab with a two-third majority.
“It is a winning combination and poised to change the state politics,” SAD’s senior leader Daljit Singh Cheema told The Wire soon after the announcement of their alliance in Chandigarh.
“Last time, we entered into a pact with each other in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls that worked wonders for us. Out of 13 parliamentary seats, we won 11 seats, eight for SAD and three for BSP. It was during this election only that BSP founder Kansi Ram won Hoshiarpur parliamentary constituency,” said Cheema.
He said this new alliance would repeat history and bring a new social paradigm in a state where Dalits will be equal stakeholders in government formation.
Political analyst Pramod Kumar, who is director of Chandigarh-based Institute of Development and Communication, said that SAD’s alliance with the BJP in 1997 was more of a political compulsion than an electoral need. The state then had just come out militancy and alliance was stitched to give the state a long lasting peace. It had to end someday.
“But BSP is SAD’s natural alliance because in Punjab’s agrarian economy, Jats and Dalits are interdependent on each other. The class and caste conflict between Jats and Dalits may be real to some extent here but this alliance is an opportunity to bridge that conflict and empower the communities,” said Pramod.
Kumar believed this alliance may prove a booster for both the parties and change the course of the coming elections. When SAD had a pact with the BSP in the 1996 parliamentary polls, its vote share was just 29%, yet the alliance won all parliamentary seats except two.
He said one may argue for a moment that BSP does not have that much of sway over Dalit population in Punjab as it used to have earlier. From 16% vote share in 1992 state polls, it recorded below 2% vote share in previous 2017 state polls.
“But I believe it is natural for any political party to face such a situation when it is not in position to win elections. But with this new alliance, there is every possibility that BSP will regain its lost ground,” said Pramod.
On how the new combine can win over Hindu vote bank that makes up 38% of total population, he said SAD is a moderate party. During the SAD-BJP alliance, Hindus continued to vote for SAD. “I presume SAD will cultivate new Hindu leadership with its party so that it does not lose them,” he added.
‘Alliance should not be a one-time political opportunity’
A retired professor of sociology from Panjab University, Chandigarh, Manjit Singh, who is former head of Ambedkar chair, said that this alliance should not be a mere political opportunity as it must address the existing concerns of class and caste conflict between Dalits and Jats in Punjab.
He said there is no denying the fact that Dalits in Punjab have extremely poor economic conditions. They are landless and face continuous exploitation in the rural economy. There are examples how panchayats even today are passing resolutions to limit their wages, a sign of economic exclusion.
“Then they are in a continuous struggle to reclaim their right over panchayati land. At the social level too, all major Sikh institutions that are mainly under SAD did not work on the ground for social inclusion. That is why we have separate gurdwaras and cremation grounds for Dalits and Jats in villages,” he explained.
He further said if the SAD-BSP alliance is just a ploy to win votes, it may work one or two times but not permanently.
“For it to work longer, we need a serious effort to have a religious acceptability of Dalits among Sikhism. Dalits also must be economically empowered through land reforms. Their housing needs must be addressed like what happened in Kerala many years ago so that they can live dignified lives,” said Manjit Singh.
A change in Congress camp expected
Senior journalist Hamir Singh told The Wire that this SAD-BSP alliance will definitely have some serious political repercussions in the state politics.
He said the alliance may do well in Doaba region where BSP still has strong pockets, and that is why SAD has given 20 seats to the BSP around that area only.
Elsewhere too, the alliance may work since Punjab has a total of 34 reserved seats out of 117 total assembly segments. It may also help tilting the reserved votes in general seats too, given that Dalits have in the past voted for the Akalis when it announced free Atta Dal scheme for them in the 2007 elections, he added.
He said as far as Congress is concerned, it would have wanted the BSP to fight alone in order to divide the Dalit votes. But this alliance that may consolidate the Dalit votes, will definitely increase the worries in the Congress camp.
He said historically speaking, Dalit and Hindus were the main core vote bank for the Congress in Punjab. Jats attached with the party in a big way only after the arrival of Captain Amarinder Singh in the 1990s.
“As several Dalit leaders in the Congress like Shamsher Singh Dhullo are voicing concerns that Dalits are being ignored in the party, we may see some organisational changes in the Congress in a few days’ time. There may be a post of deputy chief minister or acting party chief for Dalit leaders, in order to keep the Dalit vote bank with them,” said Hamir Singh.
But he is of the view that Punjab politics is still in the middle of confusion. It is because the farmers’ protest is not over yet and we don’t know for sure how it will impact Punjab politics in the weeks to come.
What is the SAD-BSP arrangement?
Announcing the tie-up at a press conference, SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal described it as a new day in the politics of Punjab.
“Today is a historic day, a big turn in Punjab’s politics,” he said in the presence of BSP general secretary Satish Chandra Mishra.
Among the seats which the BSP will contest are Kartarpur Sahib in Jalandhar, Jalandhar-West, Jalandhar-North, Phagwara, Hoshiarpur Urban, Dasuya, Tanda, Mehal Kalan, Nawashehr, Chamkaur Sahib in Rupnagar district, Bassi Pathana, Sujanpur, Pathankot, Ludhiana North Mohali, Amritsar North, Amritsar Central and Payal.