The churning for a new front to take on the state’s two main political parties — the Congress and Akali Dal — in the general elections has begun in Punjab. The Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA), the state’s own version of a ‘Mahagathbandhan’, is seeking to occupy the space that once seemed the Aam Aadmi Party’s. But the largest opposition party in the Assembly, which also has four MPs in the Lok Sabha from the state, AAP is fighting internal divisions.
The PDA’s members include two AAP leaders who have fallen foul of the party’s Delhi leadership, three former hardcore Akalis who have rebelled against party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, and the firebrand Bains brothers of Ludhiana, MLAs Simarjit Singh Bains and Balwinder Singh Bains. In a major boost, it has got the backing of the BSP, which was also being wooed by AAP.
AAP MP from Sangrur Bhagwant Mann says talks are still on with the alliance, but the party has reservations due to the presence of rebel members in the grouping.
One of the two rebels is Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi, who stands suspended from AAP and has floated a new front called ‘Punjab Manch’. The chief agenda of Dr Gandhi is “regional autonomy for Punjab” and “true federalism” for the country.
The other ex-AAP leader part of the alliance is Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who quit the party after leading a revolt against Arvind Kejriwal, alleging that the Delhi leadership was dictating terms to the Punjab unit. Khaira enjoys the support of six other rebel MLAs and is now the president of ‘Punjab Ekta Party’ and the voice of the PDA tie-up.
The Bains brothers have formed the Lok Insaaf Party.
The three rebel Akali leaders who are with the PDA call themselves the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali) — ‘Taksali’ meaning pure. Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Sewa Singh Sekhwan and Dr Rattan Singh Ajnala have considerable influence in the Majha area of Punjab, which is considered ultra-orthodox.
Recently, the first Sikh Army chief, General J J Singh (retd), joined the Akali Dal (Taksali) and is expected to get a Lok Sabha ticket. The General fought the 2017 Assembly polls on Akali ticket, and accuses the party leadership of ensuring his defeat in cahoots with the Congress.
Apart from bringing the PDA national heft, the BSP backing is significant as its core vote bank, the Dalits, form a larger share of the population in Punjab than in any other state (31.94 per cent as per Census 2011).
On AAP, BSP state president Rachpal Raju said, “We wanted them to be a part of the alliance but they have objections over Khaira and the Bains brothers.”
One of the key conditions by the BSP for the alliance was that the PDA accept Mayawati as a prime ministerial candidate and support her if need be. “All parties in the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ have agreed to Mayawatiji’s name,” Raju said.
The PDA hopes to attract the AAP voter base in Malwa, from where the party has almost all its MLAs (18 out of 20); hardcore Sikh voters who are disenchanted with the Akalis due to their handling of the incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015; and Congress supporters angry with the government for failing to keep its promise of farm loan waiver and jobs for each household.
Before that though, the PDA needs to get over the hump of sharing Punjab’s 13 Lok Sabha seats. Says Khaira, “We may not contest all 13 seats as we want to mount a credible challenge only where we are strong. But we will soon come to an arrangement.”
AAP, which looks increasingly isolated, said it remained hopeful of tying up with the PDA eventually. “I am in touch with the state BSP chief and I am sure we can work something out,” Harpal Singh Cheema, the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, said.
Dismissing the PDA, state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar said it consisted of disgruntled members of various political parties. “This alliance will be a non-starter,” he said.
BJP national secretary Tarun Chugh said the PDA didn’t pose any threat to the Akali Dal-BJP coalition. “Kahin ki eent kahin ka roda, bhanumati ne kunba joda (The riff-raff have come together). It will meet the same fate as the alliance in Uttar Pradesh. They will end up eating up each other’s vote shares.”