The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a key constituent of the NDA, is battling an internal struggle with months to go for next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Last week, a Lok Sabha MP quit all party posts, following a Rajya Sabha MP last month. What is it about? Can it matter to the long-time NDA constituent’s prospects in Punjab?
By all indications, the events unfolding in Punjab appear to underline a challenge to the dominance of one family in the party. A section of the party’s old guard, who are referred to as Taksali Akali leaders, has been questioning the functioning of SAD under the command of party president Sukhbir Singh Badal. They have pointed to the 2017 Assembly elections, in which SAD won just 15 of Punjab’s 117 seats, and have stressed the need to resurrect the party.
According to Taksali Akali leaders who have come out in public, they had been raising their concerns at party meetings since the polls but had not been given attention. The underlying reason for the present crisis appears to be the prospect of dynastic succession. Since the 2017 elections, Parkash Singh Badal has all but passed on the baton of party affairs to Sukhbir Badal. When Sukhbir took over as SAD president in 2008; it was the first time in the history of the party (formed in 1920) that the leadership was passed from father to son.
Many of the veterans who are complaining, too, have sons for whom they want to create space in the party. Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s son Parminder Singh Dhindsa is a former cabinet minister and currently MLA; Sewa Singh Sekhwan’s son Jagroop Singh Sekhwan is former senior vice-president and core committee member of Youth Akali Dal; Ranjit Singh Brahampura’s son Ravinder Singh Brahampura is a former MLA; Rattan Singh Ajnala’s son Amarpal Singh Bonny Ajnala is another former MLA.
How it unfolded
The flashpoint came after the Justice Ranjit Singh (retd) Commission report was tabled in the Assembly in August. It indicted Parkash Singh Badal for the October 2015 Kotkapura police firing on anti-sacrilege protesters. In the party’s core committee meeting on August 30, veterans such as Tota Singh and Lok Sabha MP Prem Singh Chandumajra questioned the decision of SAD legislators led by Sukhbir Singh to boycott a debate.
A month later, Rajya Sabha MP Dhindsa quit all party posts — secretary general and core committee member — and is now only a party member. Though he cited health reasons, his silence after that has fuelled speculation whether he had stepped down as a mark of protest.
Then Akali veterans Ranjit Singh Brahampura, Sekhwan and Rattan Singh Ajnala held a press conference in Amritsar questioning moves that they said had cost the party in the elections. They cited the pardon in 2015, later revoked, by the Akal Takht to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, as well as inept handling of Panthic issues. A few days ago, Brahampura (a Lok Sabha MP) resigned from party posts on health grounds.
The other protest
There is also the Bargari Morcha, an ongoing protest assembly of various splinters of Panthic parties and groups. Led by a parallel jathedar of Akal Takht appointed by “Sarbat Khalsa”, Dhian Singh Mand, it has demanded action against those behind the 2015 incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing on protesters. He has been critical of the previous SAD-BJP government and the present Congress government, besides raising other demands related to Sikh issues.
For Sukhbir Badal, his succession is sealed, and his father has come out strongly to defend his leadership abilities. Except for a meeting with Dhindsa to persuade him to take up party posts again, Badal has not made efforts to reach out to the unhappy veterans. In the only core committee meeting held so far after the crisis broke out, Brahampura and Sekhwan were not present, with Sekhwan saying that he was not invited.
Political Science Professor at Panjab University Ashutosh Kumar described the voices of dissent as a sign of “resurrection” of the party to its original Panthic character. “Earlier, SAD seemed to have lost its mojo. But, the way veterans are asserting themselves, I think SAD has resurrected itself. The Badals undermined the Sikh institutions of SGPC and Akal Takht and the Akali Dal which spoke for Sikhs issues, be these religious, social or political. It was a pressure cooker-like situation. It boiled over and now the voices of dissent are out in open,” said Kumar.
He added that Panth had been the core constituency of the party, but the Badals brought it under “family rule”. “Now there are voices of dissent and the family rule is being challenged. You cannot change the DNA of a party,” he said.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections will throw up an additional challenge for SAD, which has already been upstaged by the Aam Aadmi Party in the Assembly. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP matched SAD with four seats while SAD ally BJP won two more, out of 13 in the state. In the 2017 Assembly elections, won by the Congress, SAD finished third with 15 seats, behind AAP with 20. While SAD had a better vote share (31% in seats contested) than AAP (25%), the unrest within means 2019 will be a crucial test.