The decision of Shiromani Akali Dal, a long-standing ally of the BJP in the NDA, to withdraw Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Union Cabinet over ordinances related to agriculture reform may be a bid to reverse the decline in its support base in Punjab. The recent reforms in agriculture have been perceived by a section of farmers and traders as inimical to their interests. Protests have rocked Punjab and Haryana over measures that have the potential to radically overhaul and reset the current relations between farmers, traders, and the government. That the Akali Dal has withdrawn its minister while remaining within the NDA, however, indicates the calibrated nature of the party’s response born of its limited options — the Akali Dal lost the last two assembly elections in Punjab and failed to ride the Modi wave that powered the NDA sweep in the 2019 general election.
The absence of any visible overture on the part of the BJP to persuade the SAD to reconsider its decision is also significant. Commanding a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP does not feel compelled, apparently, to reach out to resentful or rebellious allies. In fact, the Modi government has pursued its core agendas, which were deemed contentious in the past and hence kept in abeyance, with purposeful vigour since 2019, and its allies have fallen in line. To be sure, the Shiv Sena left the NDA on the matter of sharing power in Maharashtra, but other NDA members have acquiesced to every decision, even those that have been contentious or appeared to be unilateral, taken by the Modi government. This is a far cry from the NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani (1998-2014), when the BJP was not so comfortably placed in terms of numbers and when regional parties including the AIADMK, Telugu Desam, Shiv Sena, Janata Dal (United) and Trinamool Congress could, at times, compel the BJP to accede to their demands on important issues. In the UPA, too, regional parties such as the DMK exerted a conspicuous influence.
Since 2014, the national polity has taken a turn as a result of which the space for regional parties at the Centre has shrunk, and centralising tendencies have been emboldened. The radical potential of regionalism and sub nationalism seems exhausted and attempts to revive such agendas invite accusations, often with good reason, of opportunistic grandstanding. In the upcoming Bihar election, too, this is the context that will, in all probability, influence the calculations of parties such as JDU, RJD and the LJP. The Akali Dal’s predicament is not unique, it mirrors a political moment where smaller regional outfits must struggle more for space, and in which the dominant national partner finds it easier to have its way.
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