Punjab polls Punjab

Akalis bank on their traditional voter base

Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal and BSP supremo Mayawati wave during an election rally for upcoming Punjab Assembly polls, in Nawanshahr.

Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal and BSP supremo Mayawati wave during an election rally for upcoming Punjab Assembly polls, in Nawanshahr. | Photo Credit: PTI

This is the first Assembly election that the Shiromani Akali Dal is contesting after its bitter divorce from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Together since 1997, the Akalis left the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2020 over the controversial farm laws.

This is also the first Assembly election where the Akalis do not have the cushion of urban votes that the BJP managed to secure for them. Back with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) after a gap of 26 years, the Akalis are hoping to wipe away memories of the eminently forgettable 2017 results as Punjab goes to vote in six days.

And their hopes are pinned on the committed voters who have stood by them election after election. Since 1997, the party has never got below 30 per cent votes. The chorus for the Akalis is not as loud as that for the AAP. It is more of a low hum in favour of “ takhari” (weighing scales), the election symbol of the Akali Dal.

In 2017, with corruption charges and sacrilege controversy, the Shiromani Akali Dal had hit its lowest-ever tally, securing just 18 seats and pushed down to the third rung behind a relatively new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party. But even at their worst, the Akalis managed to corner 30 per cent of votes which was seven percentage points ahead of the runner-up AAP.

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We are at a bus stop of Sekho village which falls under the Barnala Assembly constituency. The morning rush has receded and no one is in any particular hurry to go anywhere. We walk into a discussion between a group of men, majority of them Jat Sikhs, arguing over the merits and demerits of the three main parties — the Congress, Akalis and the AAP. Which way is the political wind blowing? The first response invariably will be in favour of the AAP. “ Jhadu di hawa” [There is a wave for the AAP] is a stock statement that is often repeated even by non-AAP supporters offering their two-minute political analysis. But there are many in the group who are silent — like 45-year-old Bhola Singh. He is visibly irritated as the younger men talk about bringing change replacing the two traditional parties.

Jhadu walon da rola paya hua hai (AAP supporters are only making noise),” Bhola Singh says dismissively. He argues that while AAP candidates may come and go, the Akali’s network is here to stay. A few others chip in. They talk nostalgically about Malkit Singh Kittu, two-time MLA from here and the father of the Akali candidate, Kulwant Singh Keetu. “The question is, in the time of crisis will we find the AAP leaders or workers?” another person in the group, Gurcharan Singh, asks. The group nods quietly; even the AAP supporters agree. This is one of the biggest pitfalls of the AAP — despite their presence in Punjab since 2014, the party has been unable to construct a credible cadre.

About 25 kilometres away at Pharwahi village, again in Barnala constituency, this pattern of conversation repeats. Here, in front of the village anganwadi, stands a statue of Baba Saheb Ambedkar and in front of it a group of daily wage labourers, most of them Ramdasia Sikhs, are resting. They too parrot the line that the AAP is doing well. It takes them a few minutes to get candid. “I have always voted for the BSP. And this time because the BSP is with Akalis, I shall vote for them,” Garmail Singh, an agriculture labourer, said. He is a Ramdasia Sikh as the Congress Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi. But the caste factor does not sway him. “How is Channi poor? Didn’t they recover ₹10 crore from his nephew’s home? The AAP is also only indulging in propaganda,” he adds.

Right next door is Bhadaur, where Mr. Channi is contesting from. At Channa Gulab Singh village here, Nyab Singh says: “Akalis have always been good for the landowning community. Why should we vote for anyone else?” He waves of the questions on corruption allegations against the Akalis and the sacrilege controversy. Neither is he equipped with a long list of reasons to support them.

Around 75 km away at Talwandi Sabo, Sher Singh, a Jat Sikh is the ultimate symbol of doggedness of the Akali voter. “I am 80 years old. I have been voting for the last 60 years and every time, I have voted for takhari and takhari alone.”

But will the loyalty of the mostly rural voters be enough for the Akalis to get a respectable total is the big question. “The absence of the BJP will certainly hurt the Akalis in urban and semi-urban constituencies. But they will be partially compensated by the BSP. The BSP has consistently got 1.5 per cent votes and has played spoiler. In 2017 too, they affected the Akalis on 15-17 seats,” political analyst Pramod Kumar said. Whether the scales balance in favour of the Akalis or not is a question that the voters alone can answer on February 20.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2022 5:30:36 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/punjab-assembly/punjab-assembly-elections-akalis-bank-on-their-traditional-voter-base/article65046264.ece