During the Punjab Vidhan Sabha Budget Session, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president and former Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal attended the House only on the last day, on February 25.
The day the session started, on February 12, Sukhbir led a protest by family members of farm suicide victims. For most of the remaining 14-day session, Sukhbir was on a tour of the state, interacting with party workers, covering two Assembly constituencies a day.
With senior leaders such as Lok Sabha MP from Khadoor Sahib Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, former Lok Sabha MP Rattan Singh Ajnala and another veteran leader, Sewa Singh Sekhwan, having revolted against Sukhbir in the past year and floated the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali), the SAD president who had steered the SAD-BJP to consecutive victories in the state before the 2017 Assembly polls defeat faces a litmus test in the coming parliamentary elections.
Apart from the revolt by the three senior leaders, Sukhbir is also contending with Akali veteran and party Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s resignation from all party posts on “health grounds”. Dhindsa, who continues to be a primary member of SAD, and the expelled Taksali leaders have been demanding that Sukhbir step down as SAD president, blaming him for the party’s dismal show in the 2017 Assembly elections.
With son Sukhbir facing a crisis, 91-year-old Parkash Singh Badal, who had passed on the baton to Sukhbir almost completely after the 2017 elections, has started making public appearances again. He was visible at the Punjab Vidhan Sabha during the Budget Session — both inside the House and at the party office in the complex — after a long gap. Badal Sr also addressed a press conference at the SAD head office in Chandigarh on February 21, dashing from native Badal village where he had gone in between the session, as he was unwell. At the conference, Badal Sr offered himself up to arrest after Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said in his address to the Assembly that the SIT probe into the Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege incidents and subsequent incidents of police firing, leading to death of two protesters, during the previous Akali government in the state would lead to a “high-up” person.
The Badals have been trashing a report into the incidents, calling it “politically motivated”, and have accused Amarinder of using the SIT formed on the basis of the report to target them.
The genesis of the revolt against Sukhbir by the Taksali group is also the sacrilege and firing incidents, plus the controversial pardon granted to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2015 by the Akal Takht, the chief of which is appointed by the SAD-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The pardon was later revoked after protests. In what was seen by many Sikhs as a ‘blasphemous’ act, Ram Rahim was alleged to have dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh at a 2007 dera event. The pardon was seen as linked to the SAD’s efforts to attract Sacha Sauda’s followers for the elections.
The Taksali leaders have accused Sukhbir of deviating from the “Panthic agenda”, saying it was this that had relegated the party to third place in the 2017 Assembly elections — finishing with 15 seats in the 117-member House, behind the Congress’s 77 and the Aam Aadmi Party’s 20. Currently, the SAD has 14 legislators and the Congress 78 after the Congress won Shahkot bypoll in May last year.
In 2012, the SAD had won 56 seats, three short of a clear majority, and its partner BJP 12.
The humiliating defeat had fuelled the anger against Sukbir, and reached a flashpoint at the SAD’s core committee meeting in August 2018, where party veterans registered their anguish over MLAs led by Sukhbir boycotting a Vidhan Sabha debate on the report into the sacrilege and firing incidents. The report had pointed fingers at Badal Sr, and Amarinder had made scathing remarks against him in his address in the Assembly. The veteran leaders had wanted Sukhbir and other MLAs to counter Amarinder.
In order to keep senior leaders in good humour, Sukhbir recently appointed many of them or their wards to party positions. A good number of such leaders, including those who have found themselves sidelined in the SAD’s generational shift from Badal Sr to Sukhbir, have been included in the 59-member reconstituted SAD political affairs committee and the 37-member new SAD youth wing.
“Sukhbir Badal is trying hard. He has doled out positions to retain leaders,” said a senior party leader, while accusing some SAD leaders of waiting to see him trip.