The long, steep road ahead for the Akali Dal

The party will have to return to its famed democratic roots if it wants to regain electoral relevance in Punjab.

July 14, 2022 11:57 am | Updated 09:13 pm IST

Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal during a road show at Sujanpur in Pathankot district of Punjab. File photo

Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal during a road show at Sujanpur in Pathankot district of Punjab. File photo | Photo Credit: PTI

The dismal performance of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in the recent by-poll for the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat in Punjab is yet another grim reminder of the crisis facing the party. The SAD came last in the four-cornered contest, polling fewer votes than the debutant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). What is especially ominous for the party is the unexpected victory of the rival Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann, the first success for his party in any election since 1999. Given that the constituency falls in Malwa region, a stronghold of the SAD, the verdict is a re-affirmation of the shift of the party’s core social constituency of rural Sikhs to other parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and even to the rival Akali Dal in this case. 

This comes after the SAD’s dismal results in the Punjab Assembly elections earlier this year, winning only three seats (in a House of 117) and securing 18.38% of the votes polled — compared to 15 seats and 25.24% of votes in the 2017 elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections too, the SAD did poorly, managing only two seats among the 13 constituencies in the State.

What explains the decline of a party, which until recently had shown great tenacity in retaining its organisational presence and core social constituency and remaining electorally relevant over its 100-plus years of existence in a State which is marked for electoral volatility, shifting party loyalties and many short-lived parties, not to mention the troubles of the 1980s and early 1990s when politics moved to an extra-constitutional space? The following factors may be considered in this regard.

Also read: PM Modi bats for a strong Opposition that is free of dynastic politics

Shift of the panthic vote

First, there has been a discernible shift of the panthic vote from the party, which since its inception in 1920 has claimed to be the ‘sole representative’ and upholder of the interests of the Sikh community in Punjab and elsewhere. However, the cardinal sin of the party leadership (read the Badal family) in the eyes of devout Sikhs has been the decimation of the autonomy of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and Akal Takht, the other two institutions which have historically shared authority and power along with the party. It has weakened the party’s traditional hold over the Sikh masses.

Second, the SAD has also been viewed as deviating from its panthic agenda of ‘raj karega khalsa’. Traditionally a Sikh party, it was looking to broaden its support base and had inducted Hindus and given tickets to them in recent elections. More significantly, it had even sought electoral support from the controversial deras. The party, when in power, also came in for criticism for its handling of the desecration of the Sikh Holy Scripture and the subsequent police firing against protestors in Faridkot in 2015.

Third, the SAD leadership’s initial support for the contentious farm bills while being part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre caused a dent in its image of being the party of ‘farmers’ (read landholding Jat Sikhs). Reeling under the threat of further losing its core social constituency, in September 2020 the party belatedly parted ways with the BJP and extended its support to the agitating farmers. But the damage was already done. Moreover, the breakup has meant the loss of crucial urban Hindu votes for the party and has exposed its ‘corrupt’ leaders to the investigation agencies. 

Fourth, the party has not done enough to broaden the social base of its leadership even within the Sikh community. In a State where nearly a third of the population belongs to Scheduled Castes, including a sizeable number of Sikhs, almost the entire top leadership of the party comes from the landowning and numerically strong Jat Sikh community, a testament to the asymmetrical power structure that defines the State’s polity. Even upper-caste Khatri and Arora Sikhs are grossly underrepresented in the leadership role. This has meant that the party has had a very narrow stable support base among the Jat Sikh landed peasantry, which is also shifting towards the AAP. The Congress always had decent support among them.

Also read: Analysis | Sharp divisions, landlessness, indifference lead to paucity of strong Scheduled Caste leadership in Punjab

Fifth, the party may have been contesting in the last six Assembly elections on the issue of governance and development, but it has a pretty dismal record on both fronts. It is widely perceived to be responsible for leading the State to huge indebtedness, thanks to its reckless economic populism. The much-touted ‘second green revolution’, establishment of agro-based industries and creation of industrial hubs all remained on paper. The agrarian crisis deepened, and farmers’ suicides repeatedly took place on the SAD’s watch. It is not that the Congress in power did much, but given its traditional rural support base, the SAD has lost much credibility. The party leadership was also accused of promoting institutionalised corruption and gangster/mafia raj. Most damaging for the party’s image has been the accusation that its leaders have been complicit in the drug menace, which has affected an entire generation and in the recent elections has been a major issue against both the Akali Dal and the Congress. The AAP, which never has been in power till now, emerged as a huge beneficiary by default.

Last, the once cadre-based party has turned into a ‘dynastic party’, as has happened to many State-level parties, including the older ones like the DMK and the National Conference. The ‘inheritor’, Sukhbir Singh Badal, who’s at the helm of party and governmental affairs, has not been able to establish himself as a leader and still retains the popular image of being a businessman in politics.

A new social profile needed

Does all this mean that it’s the end of the road for the SAD? It cannot be so summarily written off — over its 100 years of existence, it has witnessed many crises and threats of near oblivion, but has shown the tenacity and resilience to overcome them. However, it is apparent that the party will have to adopt a new social profile and outlook and return to its once famed democratic roots to stem this steep decline.

(Ashutosh Kumar is professor at the Department of Political Science, Panjab University. Views expressed are personal)

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