OPINION
OPINION

Can BJP Take On Punjab Farmers?

First, it was the Shiv Sena which severed its links with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Now it is the Shiromani Akali Dal which is contemplating breaking away from its senior alliance partner. And in Haryana, another ally, the Jannayak Janata Party is under pressure to snap its ties with the saffron party.

Clearly not all is well in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

The latest round of rumblings in the ruling alliance has been triggered by the growing protests of farmers in Punjab and Haryana against the Modi government’s decision to push ahead with three contentious farm bills aimed at deregulating the agriculture sector.

Unable to ignore the anger among the farmers in her home state, Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal gave up her ministerial post in the Narendra Modi government to register her party’s opposition to the farm bills. Since the farming community is the core support base of the Akalis in Punjab, Harsimrat Kaur had no choice but to leave the Modi government as she could not afford to ignore the voices from the ground. By walking out of the Modi government in protest against the controversial farm bills, the Shiromani Akali Dal has got an opportunity to regain lost ground. The party has been in doldrums since its drubbing in the 2017 assembly polls. It has been struggling to recover from the public anger it faced for the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib when it was in power.

Harsimrat Kaur‘s resignation will have a far reaching impact on the bond between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP. Having quit the NDA government, the Akalis are now weighing the option of going solo in the next Punjab assembly elections. In fact, the farm bills proved to be the proverbial last straw as tensions between the Akalis and the BJP had been brewing for some time now. Akali leaders had been complaining privately for over a year now about how the BJP was riding roughshod over its allies and not taking them into confidence on key issues.

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If the Akalis do decide to divorce the BJP, it will mark the end of a long and happy marriage. Together since 1997, the two parties worked harmoniously through all these years. The relationship was a win-win for both sides. While the BJP brought in the Hindu urban vote, the support of the Akalis comprising the Sikh peasantry fetched the alliance the rural vote. This proved to be a winning combination and worked well as it was an accepted fact that the Shiromani Akali Dal was the senior partner in Punjab and the BJP was happy to defer to it.

Besides the electoral benefits of this alliance, Akali veteran Parkash Singh Badal was also convinced that the partnership also helped keep the peace between the Hindus and the Sikhs. Actually it was Badal senior’s political wisdom and sagacity which held the alliance together over the decades.

But the terms of this relationship have undergone a change in recent years for several reasons. For one, it is Sukhbir Singh Badal who is now running the show as his father has handed over the reins of the party to him. Badal junior is impetuous and lacks his father’s accommodating nature. Not only has his party’s relations with its oldest ally come under strain on his watch, he has also alienated a large section in his own party.

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On the other side, the BJP is not the same party when the benign Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The saffron party has now emerged as the central pole in the country’s polity. With a brute majority in Parliament and an all-powerful leader in Narendra Modi, the BJP has ambitious plans to expand its footprint beyond its traditional strongholds even if it involves poaching on its partner’s turf.

Punjab is among the states on its radar where it would like to shed its dependence on its alliance partner. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, has intensified its activities in the state over the past several years to prepare the ground for the BJP to contest the 2022 assembly polls on its own. This has obviously sent alarm bells ringing in the Shiromani Akali Dal which has always been a senior partner in this alliance. The Akalis are also upset with the BJP as it is convinced that it is the saffron party which is encouraging disgruntled elements in its ranks to launch a parallel Akali Dal.

But in the process of settling scores with each other, there is a strong possibility that both the parties could lose out. The Akalis will find it difficult to come to power by depending only on the Sikh vote while the BJP too could face an uphill task as it will not be possible for it to win a majority in the 117-member Punjab assembly on the basis of the Hindu vote alone.

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