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As Majithia release boosts Sukhbir morale, a question hovers: Can he turn around SAD

The 101-year-old Akali Dal, which had won two back-to-back state elections in 2007 and 2012 in an unprecedented feat, suffered its second consecutive defeat in the 2022 polls.

Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Bikram Singh Majithia being greeted after being released from prison on bail, in Patiala district, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (PTI Photo)

Senior Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Bikram Singh Majithia’s release from the judicial custody on bail has come at a time when SAD president and brother-in-law Sukhbir Singh Badal has been on a sticky wicket, with the party’s senior leaders pointing a finger at the latter for its debacle in the February Punjab Assembly elections.

The 101-year-old Akali Dal, which had won two back-to-back state elections in 2007 and 2012 in an unprecedented feat, suffered its second consecutive defeat in the 2022 polls.

The three seats that the SAD managed to win in this year’s election to the 117-member Assembly include Amritsar’s Majitha, the pocket borough of Bikram Majithia. Although taking up the gauntlet thrown by Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, Majithia switched to the Amritsar East constituency in the election – where both of them were trounced by an AAP debutant – his wife Ganieve won from the Majitha seat by 27,000 votes despite the AAP wave sweeping through the state.

Days after his release from the Patiala jail on August 11 on being granted bail in a drug case by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the 46-year-old Majithia, who has been a three-term MLA from Majitha, was given a rousing welcome as he visited Amritsar city and the Golden Temple over the last couple of days. He was booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act on December 20 last year and sent to the prison on February 24.

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Majithia’s release came on the heels of Sukhbir Badal’s move to dissolve all party units for their reconstitution amidst demands that he should step down from his position.

Last week, some Akali leaders met in Amritsar and sought implementation of the recommendations made by a committee set up to examine the party’s rout in the Assembly polls. Headed by Iqbal Singh Jhunda, the panel has recommended a change of leadership in the party. It has also called for enforcing the one-family-one-MLA rule, an apparent reference to the Badals, among other measures. In the course of the SAD-led Punjab government’s tenure during 2007-17, there were once five ministers from the Badal family, which included besides the then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, his cousin Manpreet Badal, his wife Harsimrat Kaur’s brother Bikram Majithia, and his brother-in-law Adesh Partap Kairon.

A week after his release, Majithia, who has not yet met any of the dissident Akali leaders, tried to signal that “all is well” in the SAD as he parried a question on Dakha party MLA Manpret Ayali – who had while defying the party line boycotted the Presidential polls – by calling him a “brother”. Later, he met Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, a dissenter-turned-supporter, who had rejoined the party before the elections.

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A firebrand leader and former Youth Akali Dal president, Majithia, who is known for his brash utterances and aggressive posturing, appeared to have mellowed after spending more than five months in prison. At the Golden Temple, he congratulated the AAP for its Assembly election triumph, even as he took pot shots at the principal Opposition Congress for not learning any lessons from its defeat.

Majithia, who has always projected himself as a “victim of vendetta politics”, kept his guns trained on senior Congress leaders like ex-CM Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Sidhu who has also been in the Patiala jail in connection with a different case.

While Sukhbir’s supporters might be buoyed by Majithia’s return, the situation seems to have changed substantially in the SAD since its decimation in the Assembly polls, which has emboldened that section of the party leaders who had resented the Badal family’s stranglehold on the party but could do little about it.

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Though Majithia may have his own constituency in the border belt of Majha, partly due to his family ties, his rise in politics is attributed to Sukhbir, and any anger from within the SAD ranks directed at the latter would rub off on him as well. Many Akali old-timers see him as a symbol of the “kaka culture” or dynasty politics and hereditary shift of power in the once cadre-based SAD and thus a “part of the problem and not the solution”.

Meanwhile, Majithia seems to have adopted a “wait and watch” approach, taking to social media and posting messages and pictures.

On Independence Day, Majithia was photographed along with his family and the national flag in Chandigarh. In the sugarcane belt of Jalandhar, soon after paying homage to Bhagat Singh at Khatkar Kalan, he urged the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government to clear the cane dues of farmers.

In Amritsar, Majithia called for the release of Balwant Singh Rajoana, a convict in the assassination of ex-CM Beant Singh, and other “Bandi Singhs (Sikh prisoners)”, many of whom have been in various prisons for decades. It is one of the demands raised jointly by various Akali and panthic groups earlier this summer. Some of these players seemed to be stepping in to fill the panthic space vacated by the SAD, which came to spotlight when SAD (Amritsar) leader Simranjit Singh Mann, known for his radical views, managed to upstage both the AAP and the Akalis to win the Sangrur parliamentary seat in the recent bypoll.

With the AAP ruling the state now and the Congress trying to set its house in order, it would be an uphill task for the Sukhbir-led SAD to reclaim its prominent position in Punjab politics. Majithia may draw huge crowds in Majitha and his release might have given a leg-up to the struggling Sukhbir, but whether he would be able to boost the SAD’s prospects in the state remains to be seen.

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 07:00:54 pm
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