Election watch

Months before Punjab elections, is the BJP-Akali Dal alliance on the rocks?

Are reports of strains a trick to wrangle more seats for the BJP? Or is the saffron party looking for a way out?

A tide of anti-incumbency against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab is pushing its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to weigh its option before the assembly polls, including reportedly a parting of ways.

On Saturday, the state BJP leadership met party president Amit Shah at the residence of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi to discuss the coalition and their prospects in the elections due next year. Most state leaders at the meet voiced anxiety over the ire boiling against the Akali Dal and its possible repercussions on the polls. Some, however, favoured maintaining the alliance.

“We have given our feedback and now the central leadership will take a call,” said Punjab BJP president Kamal Sharma.

A senior party leader, who requested anonymity, said that although several leaders expressed resentment against the Akalis, it’s unlikely that the alliance will break up. The partnership, he said, has benefited both of them for too long. Besides, he maintained, the meeting in Delhi was an “academic exercise” and critical decisions like alliances are made separately by the party high command.

The two parties have, indeed, benefited immensely from each other. Each has its strengths that don’t overlap, their cadre votes transfer successfully, and while the Akali Dal has a good hold over the rural voters with its panthic agenda, the BJP is strong in urban areas.

Given this context, the reassertion of the state BJP leadership is being perceived more as a tug-of-war for more seats before the next elections. The BJP has long demanded a bigger share in the alliance’s seat-sharing formula. Under the last arrangement, the BJP contested from 23 of the 117 constituencies, while the Akali Dal put up candidates in the remaining places.

Or it could as well be a manifestation of the internal struggle within the state BJP unit for supremacy.

Signs of strains

The partnership between the Akali Dal and the BJP – including in their previous avatars – goes back a long way. Though there have been occasional signs of strains in the past, never was the relation as uneasy as it has been since the 2014 general election. In most parts of the country the BJP comfortably ran home to victory, but in Punjab the alliance partners fared below par. Worse, in Amritsar, a stronghold of the Akalis, BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley lost to Capt Amarinder Singh of the Congress.

The ties deteriorated as, shortly after the installation of the National Democratic Alliance government in Delhi, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ramped up its activities in Punjab and launched a drive to set up shakhas across the state. The state unit of the BJP too started a membership drive, enrolling over 25 lakh members.

Differences between the coalition partners have simmered since, with occasional statements of acrimony from their leaders.

A few months ago, cabinet minister Madan Mohan Mittal declared that BJP workers were increasingly resentful that the Akali Dal was giving the saffron party “minimal representation” in governance. Mittal, who holds the portfolio of Industry and Commerce, said that if the alliance wanted to stage a comeback in the next elections, “its performance needs to be better and it needs to be a collective responsibility of the alliance partners”.

There have also been differences over allocation of portfolios and representation to the BJP in the ministry, including the post of deputy chief minister.

It is believed that Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of the Akali Dal is a firm supporter of the alliance and enjoys a good rapport with BJP’s central leadership. His son, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, on the other hand, is more cautious. It was Sukhbir Badal who initiated steps to make sure that the Akali Dal could survive in the assembly even without BJP support. In the 2012 assembly elections, the Akali Dal won 56 seats, while the BJP took 12 seats, the Congress 46, and Independents three. Sukhbir Badal reportedly engineered defections, making three Congress legislators resign and re-contest as Akali Dal candidates. All three won again, bringing up the Akali Dal tally to 59 (sufficient for an absolute majority).

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