Akalis want to contest polls in UP, Uttarakhand. What's the play?
The Shiromani Akali Dal wants to contest next year's assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, expected to be held simultaneously with the polls in Punjab.
While the SAD is battling heavy anti-incumbency in Punjab after a decade in power, the party believes it can piggyback the BJP, its ally, to gain a foothold in UP. The party also has designs on Uttarakhand, which is also going to polls early next year.
The Akalis have claimed they want to contest the elections in the two states "to ensure due recognition for Sikhs and the Punjabi communities there". It's another question, as political observers have pointed out, whether the party can make a mark.
SAD president Sukhbir Badal has said his party is putting its organisational structure in place in UP and would launch a "concerted campaign" to redress the problems being faced by the Punjabi community there.
The party has appointed former IAS officer Rai Singh as the president of both its Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh units. He has been touring the state extensively, particularly the constituencies with large Sikh populations.
"We are in a position to win at least 40 seats in UP. In Uttarakhand, Sikh votes matter in at least 36 constituencies, where we also have a chance of winning. We are looking forward to an alliance with the BJP in UP. Since we are allies in Punjab and at the Centre, this would just be an extension of the alliance," Rai told Catch.
Sukhbir had earlier formed a committee to find ways to strengthen the party in UP, and identify 40-45 seats with sizeable Sikh and Punjabi populations it could contest. The panel comprised MPs Balwinder Singh Bhunder and Prem Singh Chandumajra, Punjab minister Gulzar Singh Ranike, SAD's Delhi unit chief Manjit Singh GK, and senior party leader Avtar Singh Hit.
In UP and Uttarakhand, Sikhs and Punjabis are concentrated mostly in Terai region, where they came to settle from Pakistan during the partition. Through sheer hard work, they have turned it into a vast tract of fertile farmland. This and the region's high water-table has turned Terai into one of the country's food bowls.
Terai's Punjabis, mostly economically well off, share strong cultural and familial bonds with Punjab; cross-state marriages are quite common.
Sukhbir has been pointing out that the Punjabi community has done a lot for the development of UP. "But still, the community has not got its due in Uttar Pradesh which explains and justifies the need for the SAD to step in to cater to their needs and aspirations."
To present itself as a viable alternative to the Punjabi voters in UP, the SAD has reportedly recruited Tejwant Singh Raina from the Congress and Harjit Singh from the ruling Samajwadi Party. Rai claimed more leaders are on the way.
The observers believe the SAD is working on a long-term plan to expand its reach in Terai. To begin with, it is likely to ask the ally BJP for a few seats to contest. In Punjab, where it is the dominant partner, the SAD has allotted the BJP 23 of the 117 seats to contest in the last four elections.
Meanwhile, AAP has seized on SAD's decision to foray into UP's electoral battlefield to take potshots at the Akali leadership. Senior leader Bhagwant Mann claimed the Badals were "fleeing" to UP because they were certain to lose in Punjab. Noting that the Akalis had been referring to AAP's national leaders as "outsiders" in Punjab, he wondered how the Badals would explain that they weren't outsiders in UP.
Senior political analyst Jagtar Singh doesn't see the Akalis making a mark in UP and Uttarakhand, if they contest that's. "They are in no position to bargain for seats there. They have been making such noises since the late nineties. Sukhbir's announcement is probably just an attempt to infuse some young blood into the party. The party units are lying defunct in UP and Rajasthan. And it has little presence in Haryana."
Also, the party no longer enjoys the wide influence it once did in the Sikh community, he pointed out. For one, delegates no longer come from the US, Britain, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia.
Another senior journalist noted that given the Akalis are fighting an uphill battle in Punjab, they would hardly have the time and resources to mount a serious challenge in UP. "So," he argued, "this appears to be nothing more than mere posturing ahead of the Punjab polls."