While they are all set to lose Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party have a long history of alliance. SAD has been a part of NDA ever since its creation in 1998. Even before that SAD has been a part of Janata Party and the National Front, both of which included the BJP/BJS. SAD’s political ideology is shaped by Sikh politics, while the Bhartiya Janata Party, for most of its history has been identified as a pro-Hindu party. In Punjab, where the Sikhs form nearly 3/5ths of the population and the Hindus make up the rest, SAD-BJP alliance seems like a winner. In addition to this, both Bhartiya Janata Party and Shiromani Akali Dal are shaped by strong animosity towards the Congress. The Akalis have been battling the Congress ever since independence, first for a separate Punjabi Suba and later during the militancy era.
The BJP on the other hand has emerged as the non-Congress axis in national politics. In short, BJP and SAD make natural allies.
Unlike the troublesome Shiv Sena or TMC and AIADMK in the past, relations between the BJP and SAD have been amiable for most part, until very recently that is. Ever since it’s emphatic win in 2014 elections, it has been flexing its muscle, as it seeks to replace regional players as the natural party of governance. This was visible in Maharashtra, where the Saffron Party broke of its long alliance with the Shiv Sena, in Haryana, where it did not make any efforts to ally with the Chautala’s INLD and Bishnoi’s HVP and Jharkhand, where BJP did not make any attempts to ally with the JMM or JVM before the elections. Punjab, however, differs from the states mentioned earlier in the sense that BJP has only a peripheral presence in the state.
Generally speaking, power in Punjab has alternated between the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine. In both 2007 and 2012 elections, when Punjab voted against the trend and voted the SAD-BJP combine back to power, the Bhartiya Janata Party held less than 20 seats. In fact, in 2012, BJP ended up losing 7 seats and its tally fell to 12 seats in the 117 member assembly. Its vote share was less than 8% in 2012 elections. Even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP’s vote share fell by 1.7% and it could win only 2 out of the 13 seats. These numbers indicate the pathetic condition the BJP finds itself in Punjab. That having been said, Punjab is yearning to break free of Badal’s misrule.
In many respects, SAD in Punjab is no different from SP in UP or JDS in Karnataka. SAD’s rule is synonymous with corruption, nepotism, communal politics and mis-governance. In addition to this, SAD has frequently taken positions that are against national interests, for instance appealing against the hanging of Beant Singh assassin Rajoana. The new Bhartiya Janata Party that has risen under Modi has cautiously tried to assert nationalist credentials and stay away from parochial politics. Even with the PDP in J&K, BJP’s alliance can be termed as experimental at the best. BJP’s continued alliance with the SAD in Punjab, therefore anachronistic and contrary to the image that BJP would like to project. Given that Badals are mired in corruption cases and are frequently accused of drug dealings and protecting criminals and separatists, it seems that sooner the BJP breaks off its alliance with SAD, the better.
However, with the emergence of AAP in Punjab (it won 4 of the 13 LS seats in Punjab), it might be foolish for Bhartiya Janata Party and SAD to part ways. AAP’s foray into Punjab and the aggressiveness with which Kejriwal is campaigning in Punjab, makes it important for BJP to stick with SAD, however distasteful the alliance may be. Although most pollsters are already claiming that AAP will win by a humongous margin, it is too early to predict results accurately right now. The Congress under Amarinder Singh and supported by Prashant Kishore is leaving no stone unturned in ensuring that Congress retains at least one major state before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. If the BJP and SAD were to part ways right now, they would stand no chance before the onslaught of Kejriwal and Amarinder Singh.
Additionally, Bhartiya Janata Party on its own stands no chance of major success in Punjab, hence, if for no other reason, BJP should continue to play the role of a junior partner in the SAD-BJP alliance and let SAD take all the blame for poor governance. However, victory in elections is also dependent on careful strategizing. BJP and SAD could also work out an arrangement whereby they could contest elections separately to split the opposition’s votes. While such a scenario is likely to benefit Kejriwal, it can also result in a situation where AAP and Congress are forced to form an alliance to form the government. Such a scenario would greatly benefit the BJP as it would be able to expose AAP as Congress’s B team and would also prevent a Congress victory in a major state. However, break up of SAD-BJP alliance would also need to consider the fact that the two parties should not end up eating each other’s votes since that would benefit AAP and Congress.
In conclusion, Bhartiya Janata Party must look beyond the 2016 polls in Punjab. Just as it did in Assam, BJP must try to build up a voter base for itself in Punjab. As of now, the party is too small and inconsequential to impact the outcome of polls. Punjab has suffered under Congress rule for years and the last 10 years under Badals have resulted in Punjab sinking in a quicksand of corruption and nepotism. AAP’s credentials have been spoiled beyond repair by its conduct in Delhi. These are excellent conditions for the BJP to emerge as a viable alternative in Punjab. It must endeavour to build acceptance of its policies among Sikhs and establish itself as a major player in Punjab, free of SAD’s baleful influence by the 2021 polls.