Perception management will be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) biggest challenge in Punjab and other agrarian states after the Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) decision to end their 24-year-old alliance on the controversial farm sector reforms.
The BJP wouldn’t be that badly off without the SAD if it manages to set up a negotiating table with the agitating farmers to limit the bushfires. That’ll set the stage for it to exercise the alliance options it has and the Akalis do not in the sensitive border province.
Given the history of the Khalistan Movement of the 1980s, the Centre’s initiative to find a middle ground should come sooner than later. Punjab is the key as much to the country’s food security as to its national security imperatives. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance can achieve the twin objective by reaching out to the restive peasantry without standing on prestige.
For its part, the SAD, derided as a fief of the Badal family, has apparently broken free of the NDA in search of its lost glory as a party of struggle and agitation. It had earned the spurs in the post-Independence Punjabi Suba movement and the way it fought Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Its 1975-77 court arrest campaign ran for 19 months when its top leadership was in jail.
That was also the phase when the SAD boasted of such tall leaders as Master Tara Singh, Sant Fateh Singh and Giani Kartar Singh (in the vanguard of the Punjabi Suba stir), Gurcharan Singh Tohra, JS Talwandi, HS Langowal and a much younger Parkash Singh Badal.
The parallel Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew a few years ago between Badal and Nelson Mandela was a tribute in fact to his SAD moorings, the years its leadership spent in jails for the causes to which they were committed.
All that is part now of the folklore the SAD inherited but failed to preserve. In its traditional support base of Jat Sikhs, the Dal has today a challenger in SS Dhindsa’s SAD (Democratic). The other breakaway faction that went by the name of the Taksali group has since faded out with many among its prominent faces teaming up with Dhindsa.
Having served as a minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee, Dhindsa gained proximity to the BJP at the cost of his mother party. The Padma Bhushan the Modi dispensation conferred on him in 2019 had taken the Badals by surprise.
Little wonder then that Dhindsa is widely seen as a substitute for the Badals in the NDA’s scheme in Punjab. A political observer who said it in as many words is former Rajya Sabha MP Tarlochan Singh, who had set up a meeting between Vajpayee and Badal to bring the SAD and the BJP together in 1996.
The Akalis then had spurned the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader HS Surjeet’s efforts to get them to back HD Deve Gowda. The latter became PM when Vajpayee couldn’t show the numbers he needed in Parliament after being in office for 13 days.
The other reason why the BJP could be confident of ploughing the furrow without the Badals is the inroads the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has made in Punjab through its frontal organisation with the same acronym, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Its activities have riled the Sikh clergy but on the ground, it’s believed to be making headway.
From its standpoint, the SAD has come to see the BJP’s crisis of perception over the farm laws as an opportunity for the image makeover it direly needs. In the last assembly polls, the Dal lost the principal Opposition slot to the Aam Aadmi Party. That was after the 2014 parliamentary polls that saw it winning as many seats (two seats each) as the BJP.
The ground, therefore, is slipping from under the SAD’s feet. While it fights to recover its lost appeal, the Dal’s historical proclivity to show itself as the sole defender of the Sikh cause could divide on communal lines what’s essentially a farmers’ movement for economic rights.
The possibility of such an eventuality in the state bordering Pakistan lends extra urgency to a dialogue between the Centre and the organisations leading the farmers’ stir.
A helpful template from the past could be the civil society interface that came about in the aftermath of the events of 1984. The group comprised such men of gravitas as Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, Lt Gen JS Aurora, Ambassador Gurbachan Singh and Inder Gujral.
A panel with matching eminence grise could be the bridge even now between the Centre and the leaders of the farm community. That could help prepare ground for direct talks — and a mutually agreeable accord.