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Why is BJP keen on retaining Akali alliance in Punjab?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:39 IST

The decision

  • BJP president Amit Shah has decided to continue the alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal
  • The decision was taken after a recent meeting with SAD president Sukhbir Badal

The displeasure

  • BJP cadres in Punjab wanted to break the alliance and go it alone in the 2017 Assembly polls
  • Their objections were rooted in the anti-incumbency factor and local-level skirmishes between party workers

More in the story

  • The state of the BJP in Punjab - could it have walked alone?
  • Why have cracks appeared between the old allies?

Despite murmurs to the contrary, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance will stay in Punjab.

BJP leaders had recently raised issues about continuing with the alliance, advocating that the party go it alone in next year's Assembly polls. But after a meeting between party president Amit Shah and his Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) counterpart Sukhbir Singh Badal, the air has been cleared. The alliance, which has been in place since 1967 barring a few minor hiccups, is set to continue.

Also read - Congress's decision to opt out of Khadoor Sahib is a good move

Shah has also reportedly agreed that the BJP will contest the same number of seats - 23 - that the party has been contesting over the last four Assembly elections.

Why the alliance continues

A large section of the BJP cadre in the state had opposed a continuation of the alliance. At the very least, the cadres wanted the party to extract its pound of flesh from the SAD, which is facing heavy anti-incumbency after nearly 10 years in power.

The question is, what made Shah agree to continue with this arrangement?

The first issue is timing

A large number of BJP leaders feel it's too late in the day to take a decision as big as going it alone in the Assembly polls. "We want the party to stand on its feet in Punjab, and contesting all the seats would mean our leaders, who have worked for decades on the ground, will get an opportunity to contest the polls. But a decision like that should have been taken at least a year ago. The public anger against the government has increased, and now we stand helpless," said a BJP leader.

BJP chief Amit Shah and SAD boss Sukhbir Badal met recently and decided to continue the alliance

The second issue is the readiness of the party

The BJP has always been projected as a party that has a presence only in the urban areas, with negligible presence in the rural areas. The Akalis have always claimed to have a strong rural base. That's why it has been a win-win situation for the alliance - the BJP can concentrate on the urban areas while the SAD can take care of the rural areas.

However, some BJP leaders contend that this is not true anymore, as the party now has an organisational structure right down to the booth level. These leaders want more representation in the state, across all the districts.

Complete disarray

A senior party leader told Catch: "The BJP, and before that, its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, have been Akali allies since the late 1960s. Only on two occasions, once in the early 1970s and then in 1992, that the two did not contest the polls together. Now, we have our workers right to the poll booth level. We should be given justice and respect.

"Our contention is this: why are the seats in the border districts given to the BJP, while we are not given representation in the Malwa belt? It is not that the Akalis have been winning these seats all the time. There are seats that the Akalis have not won on several occasions in a row."

But at the same time, there is a split within the party, with rival groups fighting it out for supremacy. This puts a question-mark over poll preparedness.

The party is yet to declare its new state president, while the incumbent, Kamal Sharma, is facing stiff opposition. His rivals are raking up the issue of his aides being allegedly involved in drug trafficking, which had led to massive protests from the Opposition parties in almost all the districts in the state last year.

The BJP and its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, have been Akali allies for the most part since 1967

"How can we seek votes while knowing that drug abuse and smuggling is going to be the key issue in the next polls? If the national leadership decides to impose him on us for another term, many of us would rather sit at home than work for the elections," said a leader from a rival camp.

Sources say Shah is quite annoyed at the present state of affairs. At a recent meeting with party representatives, he went to the extent of saying that the organisational structure was not visible. The source say that while the party may have workers up to the booth level, it is not in a position to organise mass rallies and events.

Also read - Mr Badal's drug war: Punjab has 70% addiction. He insists it's just 0.7!

Ideological ties

There is also an ideological reason for the BJP deciding to stay on with the SAD. Its leaders feel that alienating the Akalis might lead to the latter taking a hardline stance on issues.

"It is because of the BJP that you see nationalist statements from the Akalis. You can compare the statements made by them now and some years earlier," said a senior BJP leader.

The main sticking points

The two parties have recently been sparring at the ground level.

1. The BJP's Tarn Taran unit has decided not to support the Akali candidate, Ravinder Singh Brahmpura, in the Khadoor Sahib by-poll on 13 February.

The BJP district president, Navreet Shafipur, has reportedly said that not only would the BJP workers oppose the Akali candidate, but would also use the opportunity to expose the Akali leadership and their wrongdoings. He claimed that the BJP has a well-established organisational structure, which will have an impact in the by-poll.

The rift began when Raja Joshi, district vice-president and younger brother of Punjab local bodies minister Anil Joshi, along with other BJP workers, was allegedly thrashed and manhandled by Akali workers during the municipal council elections on 11 February 2015.

2. Prior to this, Amritsar (East) MLA and chief parliamentary secretary, Navjot Kaur Sidhu, had reportedly said if the alliance continued, people should vote for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Navjot, the wife of former MP and ex-cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, also expressed her reluctance to contest the polls if the alliance continued. She maintains that the party should come out of the Akalis' shadow and contest all 117 seats.

3. More recently, the two parties have sparred over the non-participation of the Sikh Regiment in the Republic Day parade. This issue was raised by CM Parkash Singh Badal in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where he said it was "sad and regrettable".

Punjab BJP chief Kamal Sharma has faced allegations that his aides are involved in the drug trade

Badal said the exclusion of the Sikh regiment from the parade would be regrettable at any time, but it was doubly so this year, "because of the presence of the French President as a special guest at the event. Sikhs have been facing several practices in France which amount to the denial of freedom to observe the fundamental religious practices to the community, including a ban on the wearing of turbans, one of the five symbols of the religion".

Senior BJP leader and Punjab industries minister Madan Mohan Mittal went on to ask the Akali leadership to exercise restraint and check facts before hitting out at the NDA government at the Centre. Punjab BJP president Sharma had said the issue was being given a political colour for no reason, as a unit of the Sikh Light Regimental Centre had featured in the parade through its marching band.

4. The Akalis had also protested the reported comment by Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, that Punjab should continue to bear the tag of a 'disturbed area'. The ministry later issued a clarification on the issue, after an Akali delegation took up the matter with Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

More in Catch - Punjab has space for a third force. Why did Manpreet Badal fail to fill it?

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First published: 11 February 2016, 7:06 IST