It's a comeback not many were expecting. Till about 10 months ago, speculation was rife that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) would be wiped off the political map of Punjab, given the anti-incumbency factor it was facing after nearly 10 years in power.
But the times they are a-changing, and the Akalis seem back in the fight. The disarray in the AAP ranks and the slowdown in the Congress campaign has given them the breathing space they wanted, and now they are threatening to make it a bitter three-way battle in Punjab, with the polls less than a month away.
How Badals turned the tide
The Badals began their comeback bid during the budget session of the state Assembly in March last year.
At the time, the AAP leadership was carrying out grassroot campaigns on the drug menace and farm distress marked by continuing farmer suicides. State Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh had started to pick up the strands after taking over the reins of the party, and had begun attacking the Badals. The Akalis were on the back foot on other important issues like the incidents of desecration of holy books across the state, the terror attacks in Dina Nagar and Pathankot, along with economic issues like job creation, industrial downturn etc.
Then, Badal senior began getting his act together. Setting the agenda for the session, he successfully raked up the issue of the sharing of Punjab waters, and the construction of the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.
While the Congress was compelled to counter every move of the Akalis on the issue, AAP with no presence in the Assembly, was reduced to a spectator.
The Badals next took a life out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's book. Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, had raised the question of Gujarati asmita, and similarly, the Badals began accusing the Opposition of defaming Punjab and Punjabis.
There was a blitzkrieg on the social media with advertisements in cinema halls, on radio networks and at other functions, with frequent statements coming from both CM and deputy CM, attacking their opponents.
This campaign was combined with another one highlighting the achievements of the decade-old SAD-BJP regime. While a large section of the population agrees that there has been rampant corruption, Punjab has witnessed massive infrastructure development in the form of new roads, stadiums etc.
Punjab's sop story
Parkash Singh Badal has proven once again that he can never be underestimated. Old timers recall how the Akalis had bounced back on the political scene of Punjab in 1997 when they had won the state Assembly polls under the Badal-Gurcharan Singh Tohra combine.
Badal, now in the 90th year of his life, has toured the state extensively over the last 10 months, holding his Sangat Darshan programmes in remote villages and towns. He has used this platform effectively to communicate with the people and announce sops.
Punjab's sop story is another factor that might help the Badals in a big way. Irrespective of the bad financial health of the state, the Akalis, in their last year in power, have showered the population with sops.
There have been mass recruitment in various state services, promotions have also been given to officials and a lot of them have been posted to places of their liking.
While the Opposition has been blaming the SAD for placing the state under a Rs 2 lakh crore debt, the Akalis have gone ahead with their sop drive.
Another strategy adopted by Badal has been the heady mix of religion and politics that has always been the hallmark of the SAD's politics. This is evident from the project involving the beautification of the holy city of Amritsar, and Badal's Mukh Mantri Tirath Darshan Yatra, which offers free pilgrimages to the people of the state by train.
The government also organised a 'Bhagwan Valmiki Ji Darshan Yatra' from 20 November, which saw a six feet gold-plated idols weighing 800 kilograms being installed at Amritsar during a mega state level function.
The Akalis have also adopted a careful approach to ticket distribution. Unlike their traditional rival, the Congress, they have distributed tickets well in time, allowing their candidates enough time to campaign.
Ticket distribution has been carried out meticulously, with 15 sitting MLAs considered duds being dropped. There are new faces in 26 Assembly constituencies. It has also fielded eight 'winnable' Hindu faces, although the number is down from 11 last time.
There are 34 MLAs who have been fielded again from their respective seats, while seven have been shifted to 'safer' seats. There are reportedly a dozen candidates who have been fielded again, despite the fact that they had lost last time.
To prevent rebellions, the government has taken a massive exercise over the last two months to ensure that a large number of its political faces are given posts in government sector boards and corporations. Reports put the figure of such potential troublemakers at 300.
Badals vs cadres
Above all, the most important move by the SAD has been to retain Badal senior as its mascot instead of party president Sukhbir. This has been done keeping in mind the public anger that has been on display against the family at several places.
While Sukhbir is often dubbed 'arrogant and brash', Badal is still seen as easily accessible.
There have been occasions in the recent past where functions addressed by the Badals have seen protests at the venue or outside. This has happened even on their home turfs.
There have also been events where people, including Akali cadres, have refused to turn up, and seats have been filled with students from various educational institutions.
In fact the Akalis are flummoxed by the resentment among their cadres. Observers point out that while their cadre is angry with the Badals, particularly for 'caramelising' businesses, the cadres are not against the Akali Dal itself. The biggest challenge is to stop them from deserting the party as voters.
Veteran observers point out that if the Akalis manage to retain their cadres, they would have an upper hand with the arithmetic supporting them, as Opposition votes would be split between AAP, Congress and other splinter groups across the state.
What remains to be seen is whether they are able to hold on to their traditional votes, and whether Badal is able to pacify the detractors within the party fold, like Tohra used to do in an earlier time.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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