Merely a few weeks ahead of their centenary celebrations in December 2020, the Parkash Singh Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) walked out of the National Democratic Alliance, that is the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in the centre. The face of the SAD in the centre, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the then Cabinet Minister of Food Processing Industries, led the walkout, contradicting her own stand on the three progressive farm laws.
A year later, the repeal of the three farm laws, ahead of the Assembly Elections in Punjab, was not enough to get back the SAD into the NDA fold, but by then, they had been conveniently replaced by Captain Amarinder Singh, another Punjabi leader who had failed to read the writing on the wall.
In their history of over a hundred years, the Akalis have been politically indispensable to the state of Punjab. For a party that has its origins even before Mahatma Gandhi emerged as one of the most visible leaders in India’s freedom struggle, the roles have been varying. In its inception, it was a task force of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee or the SGPC as it is commonly known, and thus a representative of the Sikh community in an undivided British India.
Post-independence, the party adopted various stances, given the political situation, from protesting the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal to adopting a secular Punjabi identity in 1996 at the famous Moga conference. Yet, the party’s longest run as a part of the state government came as late as 2007, when they won two consecutive terms (2007-2017), with the BJP, but that is a history long gone. Today, the party only suffers the repercussions of those ten years, of the tenures many remember as a decade of misrule, corruption, drug menace, and faltering economic growth.
Come 2017 and the party’s reputation was in such tatters that even the debuting Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) garnered more seats to emerge as the principal opposition party in the state.
The spillover of the ten years of misrule was visible in 2019 as well, when the vote share remained more or less on the levels of 2017, and the party managed only two of the ten seats they contested on, those of Sukhbir Singh Badal and Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
The debacle was such that Harsimrat Kaur Badal barely managed to win her seat, trailing for the most part on the counting day, before scraping through with a margin of merely 21,000 votes, one of the lowest in the state that election. On the contrary, the second fiddle in that alliance for ten years, the BJP, won two of the three seats they contested on.
Come 2022, and the national elections of 2024, and the party has a lot to ponder over. Firstly, it is the leadership of Parkash Singh Badal, who turned 94 recently.
Put simply, Badal Sr. is to the SAD what perhaps the Gandhis are to the Indian National Congress in terms of a glueing force. Amongst the many realised public secrets in Punjab, a prominent one is that the pull of the Badal couple (Sukhbir and Harsimrat) would be far weaker without the political presence of Badal Sr. As per some observers, without his father, one of the tallest stalwarts of Indian politics, Sukhbir Singh Badal would not be able to even retain his seat, forget the state.
Two, the NDA walkout. For a party that has reaped the fruits of privatisation in the state through several businesses, to protest the same for agriculture was an oddity, especially when they backed the reforms in the first place. However, the question was not about the economic opportunity but losing out on the one voter community that has backed them in good times and bad, that of Jat Sikhs.
In 2002, Congress had 23 per cent of the Jat Sikh vote while SAD-BJP had 55 per cent. In 2007, Congress had 30 per cent while SAD-BJP had 61 per cent. For 2012, it was 31 per cent for Congress and 52 per cent for SAD-BJP, and in 2017, Congress had 28 per cent, SAD-BJP had gone down to 37 per cent with AAP eating into their Jat-Sikh vote share and getting 30 per cent. For the SAD, to back the farm laws was to lose the support of the Jat Sikhs altogether, as many more, compared to 2017, would have moved towards the AAP, thus wiping them clean in the Malwa belt with 69 of the 117 assembly seats.
Now, what would the Jat Sikh dynamics look like in 2022? The farmer protests would be weighing on the mind of the Jat Sikh voters, one, and two, a shift in the power centre in the state with Channi emerging as the first Dalit-Sikh CM could rattle many voters in this faction, pushing them towards the Akalis. However, can the Akalis recover the Jat Sikh voters they have lost to the AAP, or will the latter, as the current favourite to win the election, be the new political centre for this faction in the state?
For the Akalis, in 2022, the following scenarios could play out. One, they go ahead and ally with the AAP. Unthinkable at first, but for the SAD, to remain out of power for another five years and consequently lose a majority of their Jat Sikh voter base to the AAP would be politically suicidal, assuming AAP does collude with the Congress or manages to scrape through alone.
Two, in the event of a hung assembly, and if reelections are conducted (long shot), they must find themselves back in the NDA fold. As of today, with the hung assembly looking more and more real post-March 10, would the SAD want to fight reelection with BJP, Captain Amarinder Singh and BSP and emerge as the largest party in the long-term or ally with the AAP for an unsustainable alliance for a short-term?
Assuming they choose to go back to the NDA, chances are that Captain Amarinder Singh may return as the Chief Minister of Punjab with the Akalis retaking their cabinet berth in the centre, thus marking a return to the status quo before September 2020. Given both Captain and the Badal leadership are spent forces in the political scheme of things, they both need each other to face off against the AAP and a new Congress under Channi and Sidhu, and they also need the Hindu vote, that going forward makes a partnership with the BJP inevitable.
BJP is playing the long game in Punjab, as its political activities in the recent weeks suggest, but for the SAD under Sukhbir Singh Badal and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, some difficult questions linger on, mainly that of the leadership after Badal Sr. retires from active politics.
Without being a part of the NDA, can they win back the state alone in 2027 or even half of the Lok Sabha seats in 2024, and if they are to play a second fiddle in a coalition, would they rather be with the AAP, eroding their vote share like a political parasite in the alliance, or with their decades-old trusted partner, the BJP that brings them the Hindu vote, the cabinet berth, and an opportunity to fix their infamous reputation?
It is common knowledge in the state that Akalis are the unofficial, unelected, and unchallenged political bosses, but a decade ago, the same was said for the Indian National Congress led by Sonia Gandhi. The state dynamics are changing, for conversions are rampant, the always alienated Dalit Sikh voter has a new hero, the Hindu vote is getting stronger by the day, the AAP is growing with each election, and the criminal baggage of the years of misrule is beginning to catch up with the SAD, as evident by Bikram Singh’s Majithia legal troubles.
The future of Punjab’s GOP depends on how they play their cards this season.
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