Even in Amritsar, the heart of Sikhism, the Shiromani Akali Dal did not insist on a Sikh candidate

The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab has come a long way since its 75 anniversary of 1996 when it shed its Sikh ‘panthic’ religious moorings and became a party that represents the interests of all Punjabis. It has since opened its membership to Hindus and fielded them in elections, has a durable mutually fruitful alliance with the BJP, and shifted its priorities from the ‘Sikh panth in peril’ cry of the 1970s and 80s to development and governance.

Traversing the distance from holding political conferences in gurdwaras, it is today unabashedly sharing the Harbans Lal Khanna Samarak in Amritsar — made in memory of the BJP leader who allegedly desecrated Sikh symbols and was assassinated in 1984 — as its joint election office with the BJP, whose candidate is Arun Jaitley.

“Natural allies”

The SAD’s alliance with the BJP has survived flak from Sikh hardliners and also the Congress because the electoral dividends that it brings the Akalis are far more valuable. As Mr. Jaitley recently told this correspondent, “Our alliance has matured and settled over the years. We are natural allies as we represent the two main social groups [Hindus and Sikhs] in Punjab.” While the Akalis have traditionally represented the Sikh peasantry in the villages, (roughly 60%) the BJP counts the urban Hindus (40%) among its voters. If the Akalis do not have the BJP by their side, they will risk pushing the Hindu voter towards the Congress.

In the 2012 Assembly elections, the SAD even fielded 10 Hindus to reduce its dependence on the BJP. This strained the alliance somewhat, but when most of these candidates won and the alliance came back to power, the SAP action was forgiven.

In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, of the 10 seats the SAD is contesting in Punjab, it has fielded one shorn Sikh and a clean shaven Dalit. Even in Amritsar, the heart of Sikhism, the Akalis are comfortable with a Hindu face and did not insist on a Sikh candidate like the former BJP, MP Navjot Singh Sidhu. So, when party president and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal says the SAD is now a party of all Punjabis and not just the Sikhs, it is a recognition of the political reality in Punjab, where use of religion for political gains brings diminishing returns.

“In the post-terrorism phase in Punjab, the dominant political discourse has been shaped by Punjabi identity and Punjabiat rather than religious fundamentalism, says Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political analyst. He, like many others, feels that the non-panthic thrust of the Akali Dal will depend on its performance in development and governance. A common perception, therefore, is that if the party falters in its foray into a modern political idiom, it could return to its religious agenda. And the door to that is always kept carefully ajar.

The party, for instance, is fiercely possessive of maintaining a firm hold over Sikh religious institutions like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee and consciously appeases Sikh hardliners off and on. The tacit approval for the construction last year of an Operation Bluestar memorial inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar or allowing hardliners to honour former terrorists is evidence of the party catering to its core Sikh vote bank.

But sailing in two boats is not easy. Gurtej Singh, a hardline Sikh scholar, says: “They are playing a fraud on the Sikhs, as they are not serious about protecting Sikhism and have always used it for their political ends. But now the people are wiser and do not believe them anymore.”