About eight months before Punjab votes to elect the next government in the state, the state’s biggest Panthic party – the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) – and the party that claims to represents the Dalits – the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – have announced a tie-up.
This isn’t the first time that both parties have come together to fight elections jointly. But this is certainly the time when both parties need each other more than at any time in the past – the Akali Dal more than the BSP.
The BSP is a shrinking party – the majority of the Dalits don’t seem to trust Mayawati’s politics any longer and are suspicious of her actions and the perceived reasons behind them. The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) too has been steadily losing its stranglehold over the Sikh vote bank that the Badal family patriarch Parkash Singh Badal had cultivated and nurtured over several decades.
That the two parties would announce a tie-up soon was an open secret in Punjab and the region, especially since the Akali Dal walked out of the BJP-led NDA alliance over the three farm laws issue, and faces an uphill task to try and return to power.
But there are many who are skeptical about the efficacy of the tie-up working at the ground level.
Mayawati and the BSP have almost zero base in Punjab now
The founder of the BSP – Kanshi Ram – hailed from a village in Ropar district of Punjab, about 50 kms from Chandigarh. It took him years of hard work to set up the party’s base in his home state as well as states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, etc.
But unlike Uttar Pradesh, where the party tasted electoral success and also held the reins of government several times, Punjab never bought Kanshi Ram’s upliftment-of-Dalit talk. The BSP never emerged as a serious player in the state, which is inexplicable considering Punjab has more – about 32 per cent of the total population – Dalit voters in the country (percentage of the total population-wise) than any other state.
The best that the party did in the Assembly elections was in 1992 when it won nine seats out of the 105 seats that it contested. Since then, it has been all downhill. In the 2017 Assembly elections, it fielded candidates on all 117 seats and, barring one, all its candidates lost their deposit. And the only candidate – the party’s then state unit chief Avtar Singh Karimpuri – who managed to secure his deposit, finished fourth in Phillaur constituency, which, incidentally, is a seat reserved for scheduled caste candidates.
Here’s a fascinating factoid: In 2017, The BSP received just 1.5 per cent – 234400 votes to be exact – of the total votes polled (http://ceopunjab.nic.in/English/Elections/SE/VS2017/PercentageVS2017.jpg).
Under Mayawati, the entire focus of the BSP has been in Uttar Pradesh, and her party isn’t seen as a serious-enough player by the Dalits in Punjab.
She no longer has the ability to transfer her votebank to her alliance partner. The BSP doesn’t have a cadre in the state, it doesn’t have a recognisable face in the state – the last known face was former state unit chief Satnam Kainth, who later joined the Congress.
Very little is known about the current state unit president – Jasbir Singh Garhi.
Even for Mayawati, her focus will remain on Uttar Pradesh, where she wants to remain relevant. Barring 1-2 small rallies, she may not even visit Punjab much to campaign for the alliance in the next year’s elections.
The Akali Dal base may still be upset with the Badals
The Sikh voters may not have forgiven the Badals and the Akali Dal for the alleged role of the previous SAD-BJP in mishandling the 2015 Guru Granth Sahib desecration case.
While the matter and the subsequent deaths of protestors of protestors in police firing is subject matter of a much-delayed investigation – the special investigation team was recently reconstituted after a rap from the Punjab and Haryana High court, the anger with the Akali Dal, especially among the Sikh peasantry is still very visible.
Equally visible is the feeling that Badals have some kind of “setting” with current Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, one reason a big section of the ruling Congress, including ministers and MLAs, are upset with their own government and Chief Minister.
As elections draw near, trust the anti-Badals’ clamour to turn into a feverish war-cry. In such a scenario, will the BSP voters be enough to help the beleaguered Akali Dal?
And with Badal senior (Parkash Singh Badal) no longer the agile 24×7 politician that he once was, Sukhbir may find the going tougher than his supporters think. He isn’t his father yet.
BJP will try and polarise the campaign
Having decided to contest the next year’s Assembly elections on its own, the BJP, which is facing the brunt of a major backlash in Punjab due to the ongoing agitation against farm laws, is expected to resort to the tried and tested Hindutva formula. In Punjab, the BJP was content playing second fiddle to its oldest alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal. Now that the two partners have parted ways and BJP has decided to go solo, it is likely to forcefully target the Hindu voters. And Dalits are Hindus, after all.
A third-front is taking shape
There are enough indications that several farmers’ organisations are quietly backing the formation of a third front comprising erstwhile leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal like Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, as well as the leaders of the Lok Insaf Party – the Bains Brothers of Ludhiana – and leaders of the breakaway faction of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Most of the farmers’ unions that are part of the ongoing agitation have yet not forgotten the strong defence that Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Sukhbir Badal’s wife and Lok Sabha MP, who was then a member of the Narendra Modi cabinet, put up of the three controversial farm laws. In fact, videos of her TV interviews where she questions those who were objecting to the farm laws are being shared on various whatsapp groups across Punjab even now.
The third-front, if it becomes a reality, may end up hurting the SAD-BSP alliance more than it would hurt the ruling Congress.
AAP remains a potent force
In the 2017 elections, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did well – though many still feel it was an election it should have won but lost due to poor planning and some campaign-time mistakes. Within two years, the party imploded, with many prominent faces parting ways, accusing Kejriwal and the Delhi leadership of being dictatorial.
But the farmers’ stir has come as a blessing in disguise for the party, which is again getting some traction even though it is still a long way away from its 2017 impetus. If the farmers and other sections, which are upset with both the Akali leadership as well as the poor performance of the Amarinder government, see a viable alternative in AAP, then this could be the election that does it for them.
And guess who loses out if AAP gets some traction? The SAD-BSP alliance.
(Maneesh Chhibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.)