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Ship Without Anchor: Why BJP’s Road Ahead in Punjab is Likely to Get Tougher

Omkar Poojari |
With the Akalis turning their back on the BJP and the state brewing with discontent over the Farm Laws, the saffron party may not find the going so easy any longer.
BJP Punjab

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) tried and tested formula of Hindutva, caste consolidation and poaching leaders from rival camps has helped it grow across the country. It has emerged as the principal opposition party in West Bengal and even captured states in the North-East. In recent times the BJP’s election winning prowess has been blown out of proportion but the saffron party has undoubtedly made gains in almost every state. While it has grown at a snail’s pace in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the only exception to this trend – the rise and rise of the BJP in the north – has been Punjab.

Despite using all the standard tricks in its playbook, the BJP has failed to make inroads into Punjab. While the BJP’s graph has exponentially risen in several states across the country in the Modi-Shah era, the party’s graph in Punjab has steadily declined. Punjab was untouched by the saffron wave that swept the nation in 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the party’s vote-share actually dipped as compared to 2009.

In the 2019 elections the BJP again put up a dismal performance in the state and could win only Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur – two seats which had a considerable proportion of urban, upper-caste Hindu voters. In fact the BJP lost a section of its traditional Hindu votes to the Congress. Interestingly, two high profile BJP candidates, Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Puri, failed to win in both 2014 and 2019. In the 2017 assembly polls the BJP could only win three seats, its worst-ever performance in the state. With the Akalis calling it quits on their 23-year-old alliance with the BJP and Punjab emerging as the epicentre of protests against the new Farm Laws, the BJP’s woes in Punjab are likely to go from bad to worse.

A Marriage of Convenience Gone Wrong

There was nothing in common that bound the Akalis with the BJP ideologically, except a common enemy, the Congress. The Akalis had aligned with the BJP only because the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was locked in stiff competition with the Congress in the state. In simple terms, the strategic alliance was a marriage of convenience. The BJP brought in the upper-caste Hindu (Khatri) votes from urban pockets in the state while the SAD added votes from the rural (Panthic) Sikh community.

However, with the BJP losing out on a chunk of its traditional Hindu votes in the recent elections and given the protests against the three Farm Laws gripping the state, the Akalis had to dump the saffron outfit. Prof. Chaman Lal, a retired professor from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and honorary advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi, concurs: “When the farm bills were promulgated as ordinances, Akali leader and Union Minister, Harsimrat Badal, the wife of SAD president Sukhbir Badal neither protested nor resigned. When Parliament passed these bills in a dubious manner and they became laws the Akali Dal did not go with the Opposition. Only when the boycott and farmers movement turned out to be very strong did it leave the NDA and Harsimrat Badal resigned.”

Calling the Akalis’ decision of breaking ties with the BJP ‘an opportunistic move’, he said, “When the farmers’ agitation intensified and the Akalis realised that their traditional rural base was also likely to desert them, the SAD made up its mind to break ties with the BJP. It was a completely opportunistic move and the farmers realise this,” he added.

Cracks had begun to emerge in the Akali-BJP alliance much before the farmers’ protests swept the state. The SAD’s stinging criticism of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in early 2020, the BJP and the Akalis failing to reach a seat-sharing agreement for Delhi assembly elections, Harsimrat Kaur Badal being allocated the food processing ministry – a rather low-profile one – the Akal Takht calling for a ban on the RSS in late 2019, the BJP hobnobbing with the Akali Dal (Taksal) faction, much to the chagrin of the Badals and the Akalis seeing red over the Devendra Fadnavis government's attempts to meddle in the affairs of Hazur Sahib in Nanded – the Akali-BJP alliance was plagued by numerous pinpricks in recent times. But the final nail in the coffin for the alliance was the Akalis realising that the BJP had become a political liability in Punjab and that the alliance was becoming increasingly untenable as the SAD feared that if it did not quit the NDA, it could further alienate the party’s core voter base – the rural Panthic Sikh peasantry which had started deserting the Akalis.

“The Akalis were left with no option as they were being boycotted in rural areas, their traditional strongholds in the state, as the farm protests swept Punjab. The AAP emerging as the principal opposition party and denting the vote bank of the Akalis in the 2017 elections had already given jitters to the Akalis,” Prof. Lal opined.

For the Akalis, who had suffered a series of electoral reverses in recent years and even conceded the space of the principal opposition party to the AAP in 2017, the farmer protests are a blessing in disguise as they present an opportunity to the hundred year old party to regain the lost support of its core voters. One of the biggest reasons behind the humiliating electoral performances of the SAD in recent years had been the conservative Panthic (Sikh) voters deserting the party after the Guru Granth Sahib desecration and the Faridkot police firing in which two protesters were killed. The Bargari firing in 2015 precipitated the downfall of the SAD government and was yet another reminder of a fundamental axiom of competitive electoral politics: No political party or leader can enjoy electoral success if it fails to hold on to its core support base.

A Lokniti CSDS post-poll survey held after the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections proved that the SAD was losing its grip among the conservative Panthic voters in the state. About 43% of the Sikhs surveyed agreed with the view that the SAD had completely disregarded the Sikh faith while 24% of the Sikhs surveyed partially agreed that the party had disregarded the Sikh faith. Jat Sikhs, who traditionally voted for the SAD, shifted to the Congress and AAP. Close to two out of five (37%) Jat Sikhs in 2019 voted for the Congress, which was 14% higher than in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Interestingly, the Guru Granth Sahib desecration in 2015 was considered to be an important issue for the 2019 elections by 70% of the respondents surveyed, making it the second biggest issue of the election after the rising drug abuse in the state. 

In September 2020, after a series of marathon meetings of the SAD’s core committee – the apex decision-making body of the party – Sukhbir Singh Badal, in a tweet, blamed the ‘Centre’s stubborn refusal to give statutory legislative guarantees to MSP’ and “its continued insensitivity to Punjabi and Sikh issues” for pulling out of the NDA. The choice of words by the SAD president made it clear that contrary to popular perception, the SAD’s decision to quit the NDA was not solely linked to the contentious Farm Laws. It is worth noting that Badal’s tweet mentioned not just the laws but also the “insensitivity to Punjabi and Sikh issues”.

The Akalis, in an attempt to revive their popularity among the conservative Panthic voters, were compelled to end the ‘nau-maas da rishta’. Quitting the NDA and a Modi government that was increasingly becoming unpopular in Punjab had become an electoral compulsion for the SAD, which was desperate to win back its traditional Sikh voter. The Akalis, who were already facing flak for discarding Sikh issues could not afford to be seen siding with the BJP as the farmers agitation swept the state with the Sikh peasantry forming the backbone of the party’s electoral base spearheading the protests. Akali supremo Sukhbir Singh Badal summed up the party’s stance by saying: “Every Akali is a farmer, and every farmer is an Akali.”

The Akalis have not just severed ties with the BJP, they also upped the ante on their former allies in recent times. Five time Punjab CM and the grand old man of the Akali Dal, Parkash Singh Badal, returned his Padma Vibhushan in December. Launching a scathing attack on the BJP, Sukhbhir Singh Badal went to the extent of calling the party the “real tukde-tukde gang” and the “most divisive force.” He even accused the saffron party of driving a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs.

“The Akali Dali was so isolated in Punjab because of its alliance with the BJP that it has to attack the BJP in very strong words to cover its losses. Sukhbir Badal called the BJP govt. Tukde Tukde Gang as they have been calling farmers separatists, Khalistanis etc,” Prof. Lal said.

Punjab, Never a Happy Hunting Ground for Authoritarian Leaders or Dominant Political Forces

A recurrent trend often been seen in Punjab’s politics has been the state’s deep distrust of authoritarian leaders and stiff resistance to totalitarian regimes. Punjab has never really warmed up to authoritarian leaders – be it Alexander or Sikander, Aurangazeb, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, in recent times. It has consistently resisted them. Narendra Modi seems to be at the receiving end of this very trend of Punjab’s politics. Even at peak of his powers in 2014, when the BJP swept the Hindi heartland and the western states and even made marginal gains outside its traditional strongholds in states like Kerala, Assam and Andhra Pradesh, Punjab was the only major state where the BJP failed to register gains and instead saw its vote percentage fall from 10.1% in 2009 to 8.7% percent in 2014.

The party’s dismal showing in the state continued in the 2017 state polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. While the BJP’s failures in the state are often linked to the state being a Sikh majority state which renders the BJP’s Hindutva card useless, the electoral reverses of the party can also be linked to the failure of two other prominent factors from the BJP’s arsenal to bring in votes: the failure of the national security pitch and the Modi factor. Modi’s “popularity”, which got votes for the party across the nation, has worked against the party in Punjab.  According to Lokniti-CSDS’ pre-poll survey, Modi had a negative satisfaction rating in Punjab – the number of people dissatisfied with him in the state was more than those who were satisfied with him. Modi’s net satisfaction rating in Punjab was at 29%, higher only than Tamil Nadu and Kerala at 39%. In a Lokniti-CSDS’ post-poll survey for the LS elections, only three of every 10 respondents in the state wanted another term for Modi as Prime Minister. There were also not many takers for the BJP’s much-hyped narrative of national security. The Balakot Air Strikes, which brought in votes for the saffron outfit in other northern states, barely had any impact on the voting preferences of the Punjabi voters.

As Punjab continues to simmer with discontent, the Modi government’s high-handedness and haughty refusal to engage with farmers is bound to add to their woes in the state. In December, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) sent nearly two crore emails with a 47-page document titled “PM Modi and his government's special relationship with Sikh.” The booklet lists various measures taken by the ruling dispensation “to support the Sikh community” like the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, “tax exemption on langar”, “FCRA registration for Harmandir Sahib” and “justice for 1984 riot victims”.

The timing of the government’s ‘Sikh outreach’ – at a time when Sikhs and farmers from Punjab are at the forefront of the protests against the new farm laws – speaks volumes about the BJP’s misunderstanding and mishandling of the state’s issues. Firstly, the farmer’s protest is not a Sikh protest. While farmers from Punjab have been spearheading the movement, farmers from other states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra have also joined them.

According to Prof. Lal, “Calling it (the protests) Sikh resistance, though most farmers are Sikhs in Punjab, will be erroneous. There are farmers from Haryana and other states as well, equally determined to get the laws repealed. The Ghadar Party, formed in the US in 1913, had Sikhs in greater numbers – perhaps above 90% – but it was a secular and progressive party; so are the present farmers organisations from Punjab. Giving it a Sikh twist is undermining the farmers resistance. The kind of bonhomie with Haryana’s farmers and the hospitality of the people of Haryana has made it a uniquely progressive farmers movement, not related or dominated by any particular religion or sect or state. Resistance against Mughal rulers or Indira-Rajiv etc had religious overtones, but not the farmers movement, even though some farmers might be taking inspiration from Sikh history or resistance as well,” he added.

Political Symbolism Seldom Works in Punjab

Punjab has always gone against the tide. As rebels from the state’s history like Sardar Udham Singh, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sabara and Baghel Singh are being remembered and invoked by the protesters, the Modi-Shah BJP finds itself on a sticky wicket. Under the duo, the lotus has bloomed in the unlikeliest of places, but Punjab has been the outlier. The BJP is yet to realise that mere political symbolism seldom works in Punjab. The Congress learned it the hard way by losing two assembly elections in 2007 and 2012 – at a time it had put in place India its first Sikh Prime Minister. There was no animosity for Dr. Manmohan Singh but tokenism or symbolism just does not reap rewards in the state. The IRCTC booklet or PM Modi’s recent visit to Gurdwara Rakabganj are short-sighted fire-fighting measures unlikely to be of any consequence.

Sangh’s Myopic Worldview of Sikhism and Their Troubled Relationship

The myopic worldview of the BJP’s ideological anchor, the RSS, about the Sikhs being Keshdhari Hindus or Sikhs being another Panth within Hinduism is also to be blamed for the BJP’s (as well as its predecessor Jan Sangh’s) troubled relationship with Sikhs and its underwhelming electoral returns in the state. The Akal Takht – the highest temporal body of the Sikhs – and the Sangh Parivar have shared a troubled past. The Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh affiliate of the RSS, was called “anti-Panthic” by the Akal Takht in 2004. The Akal Takht had even urged the Sikhs to stay away from the Sangat. In 2017, the Akal Takht Jathedar had said: “No one can be allowed to distort Sikh history and this kind of act cannot be tolerated. Sikhs are a separate qaum (ethnic group) and they have distinct identity and unique history. They don’t interfere in rituals, beliefs and code of ethics of any other religion. How can they tolerate interference from others in their own faith and its ethos.” 

In 2019, the acting chief of the Akal Takht, Giani Harpreet Singh, had called for a ban on the RSS saying that its vision of a Hindu Rashtra was against the interests of the nation. The Sangh Parivar’s obstinate stand of denying the Sikhs a separate identity and appropriation of Sikh Gurus as Hindu deities has been stiffly resisted by Sikhs. In February 2020, the Akal Takht Jathedar had also extended support to the anti-CAA and NRC protests.

With Akalis turning their back on the BJP and the state brewing with discontent over the Farm Laws, the BJP’s road ahead in Punjab looks really tough. An extremely optimistic section of the party’s state unit wanted the party to go solo in the state. It felt that the Akalis were stunting the party’s growth in the state. Now, with the Akalis and the BJP finally parting ways, the saffron party finds itself in troubled waters in the state as even its traditional upper caste Hindu vote bank has been dented by the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress.

The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. His interests vary from politics, psephology, and journalism to regional Indian cinema. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit

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