Political parties in Punjab adopt contrasting strategies amid India-Canada conflict 

With a 7.7 lakh-strong Sikh diaspora in Canada, the conflict about a pro-Khalistan leader has political implications in Punjab; parties appeal to different vote banks in Punjab, other States, and the diaspora

September 23, 2023 07:05 pm | Updated September 26, 2023 05:11 pm IST - CHANDIGARH

A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, foreground right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, on Sept. 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June.

A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, foreground right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, on Sept. 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. | Photo Credit: AP

As diplomatic relations between India and Canada take a nosedive, political parties in Punjab are treading cautiously. Mindful of the need to cultivate their vote banks ahead of the parliamentary election due in 2024, major parties are adopting starkly different strategies in the State, which has strong connections to a substantial diaspora population in Canada.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, earlier this week, that there were credible allegations linking Indian government agents to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a pro-Khalistan leader in Canada, it triggered a face-off between the two nations. In Punjab, parties are attempting to garner different vote banks — in the State itself, in other parts of the country, and among the diaspora.

Also read: Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Sikh activist whose killing has divided Canada and India?

BJP: appealing to Hindus

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to hit out at Canada, dismissing Mr. Trudeau’s allegation and instead accusing his administration of giving a free hand to anti-India forces in his country. The BJP’s stance is expected to appeal to the minority population of Hindus in Punjab, and also evoke sentiments of nationalism in the rest of the country, against the backdrop of national security.

Senior BJP leader and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh accused Mr. Trudeau of walking into a trap owing to his own vote bank politics, and putting Canada’s diplomatic relationship with India at risk. He pointed out that in 2018 itself, he had brought to Mr. Trudeau’s notice details of how Canadian land was being used against India; however, the Canadian government failed to take any remedial measures, as a result of which there has been an increase in anti-India activities in that country, Mr. Singh said.

Congress: playing both sides

The Congress party has also taken an anti-Khalistan position as a part of its larger national agenda, but at the same time, it is also playing it safe to keep its focus on regional electoral politics as well. Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring said that while the State unit of the party strongly opposed the idea of Khalistan, and has actively fought battles against anti-national forces, it also strongly opposes the labelling of anyone who speaks for Punjab as “anti-national”. He asserted that Punjabis do not need to give any proof about their “nationalism”.

A large number of people from Punjab, especially youth, travel abroad with the hope of a better life, and Canada is one of the most sought-after destinations. As the Sikh diaspora in Canada continues to grow — according to the 2021 census, there are around 7.71 lakh Sikhs in Canada, making up about 2.1% of its population — its influence, and financial clout, in Punjab electoral politics has also grown.

SAD: consolidating Sikh vote

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the century-old regional party that claims to be the representative of the Sikh community, does not have stakes in other States. It has refrained from commenting directly on the conflict between India and Canada; instead, the party is attempting to connect to people in Punjab and within the Sikh diaspora by raising the problems that people in both countries have started to face following the stand-off. The SAD, which has suffered a drubbing in the last two Assembly elections, and has seen an erosion in its Sikh support base, appears to be making attempts to consolidate its position among the community.

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, who recently met Union Home Minister Amit Shah, asserted that Punjabis were in a state of panic due to the deteriorating relations between the two countries, and appealed that India and Canada should find a solution to this crisis soon.

AAP: keeping mum

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is in power in Punjab, has gone mum on the issue, likely due to its expansionist ambitions in other States. However, the AAP’s silence on such a contentious issue may not go down well with its voter base in Punjab, as it is likely to be resented by the Sikh diaspora, many of whom have been electorally supporting the AAP.

Given the complexities of Punjab politics, which has witnessed a long history of religious activism and movements centered around Sikh issues, the different stances of political parties amid the India-Cananda conflict could give a newfangled shape to the political landscape ahead of the country’s general election.

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