Will the Akali Dal- BSP alliance sweep the Punjab elections?
BSP seems to have lost its ability to bring the Dalit vote together even as the Akalis are at risk of facing abandonment from its traditional support base of Sikhs.
With the 2022 Assembly Elections less than six months away, politics in the state of Punjab is already in turmoil. The Indian National Congress (INC) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have retained their space as the two main contenders in the state. Other parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are looking to play an ancillary role. The INC, which came to power in 2017 after nearly 10 years has witnessed a spate of controversies in the past few months. The party, which unseated the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance is now at the cusp of losing its credibility owing to the infighting. On the other hand, the SAD-BJP’s decades-long partnership, dented by the poor show in 2017 and 2019 has also fallen apart both at the center and in the state.
To expand support beyond their traditional vote base, all major parties are working on stitching alliances before the elections next year. SAD, in a bid to fill the void left by leaving the NDA, has allied with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Announced in June 2021, the alliance will see the BSP contest on 20 seats, 12 of which were with the BJP during its alliance with the SAD. SAD has retained 97 seats in the 117 seat assembly, 3 more than its tally of 94 when it was with the BJP.
As the Assembly Elections 2022 come closer, the political dynamics of the state are marked most profoundly by the change in the electoral alliances. The existing caste and religious chasms of the state make it difficult for any one party to reach the golden mark of majority in the Assembly on their own. We will take a look at the electoral prospects of the SAD, the main opposition party, after its break away from the BJP, and if the SAD-BSP alliance can change the fortunes of the panthic party for the upcoming 2022 elections.
Why did the SAD and BJP part ways?
The SAD’s alliance with the BJP began in 1967 with BJP’s predecessor, Jan Sangh. The two parties entered into a pre-poll alliance for the 1997 Punjab Assembly elections. The alliance, which lasted for more than 24 years until the 2019 parliamentary polls, was based on a well-settled seat-sharing formula. Of Punjab’s 117 assembly seats, the BJP fought on 23 while the Akalis contested the rest. Most seats the BJP contested consisted of the urban and semi-urban sectors where it has its trusted vote bank, whereas the Akalis fought on the rest as a dominant partner. However, the passage of the three farm bills in 2020 and subsequent farmers’ protests across northern India put the alliance in a tight spot.
Akali Dal’s core support base lies with the Jat-Sikh peasantry of Punjab. Its initial reluctance to outrightly oppose the farm bills passed by the BJP-led Union government has put a question mark on its ability to retain this crucial vote base. The decades-old alliance has come to an end with the resignation of Union Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament from Punjab Harsimrat Kaur Badal. According to analysts, SAD can not afford to lose its traditional vote bank of the rural Sikh peasantry and risk another election. However, breaking away from the BJP has also meant that the party might lose out on the crucial urban and semi-urban trade communities, traditional supporters of the BJP. SAD’s attempt to encroach on this section’s support is cited as one of the reasons why the alliance lost in 2017. Instead of shifting to the SAD, the voters retaliated by supporting Capt. Amarinder Singh-led Congress. Moreover, the party’s support base in the Sikh dominant state was already under fire from the 2015 Bargari sacrilege incidents and subsequent police firing.
Even before the two parties parted ways in 2021, in the recent past the relationship has failed to yield the kind of results it was known to achieve previously. In 2012, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance was the first government to beat anti-incumbency and win a second consecutive term; however, the parties failed to retain their support base in 2017. Anti-incumbency led by farmers’ suicides, continuing indebtedness, problems in procurement of foodgrains, all irrevocably dented the pro-farmer image of the Akalis who were seen as catering to the urban sector. The BJP, already having limited presence in the state, is said to have suffered due to the anti-incumbency associated with its partner. This coupled with the entry of AAP and the Congress’ ability to bank on the crises, led to a staggering defeat for the alliance in 2017.
Akali Dal’s vote share dropped sharply from 34.7% in 2012 to 25.2% in 2017. The BJP also saw a shrink in its vote base from 7.2% to 5.4% in the same period. As per the data from the Center for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the Congress banked on this by achieving maximum support from the upper castes as well as Dalits. In 2019 as well, the SAD-BJP alliance was able to secure only 4 of 13 seats while the Congress improved its tally from 3 in 2014 to 8 in 2019. Four years after the 2017 elections, the SAD has entered into an alliance with the BSP in a bid to recover the lost space by seeking to gain the state’s one-third Dalit vote.
Can an alliance with BSP help SAD regain the Dalit vote?
The alliance between the SAD and the BSP marks a return to 1996 when the two parties fought the Lok Sabha elections together. The election results reflected the alliance’s ability to transfer votes to each other, as it managed to win 11 out of 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state. However, the alliance was short-lived, as the Akalis preferred to go with the BJP after winning the elections. This time, the alliance is rooted in the BSP’s image as a party representative of the lower castes, mainly Dalits. In a state which has nearly 32% Dalit population spread across districts, en bloc support from this crucial community can be a make or break in winning most seats. However, an understanding of the community’s voting pattern and BSP’s past performance makes one question if the party can benefit the SAD.
Mayawati-led BSP’s performance in the state shows it may not have the standing to help the Akalis beat the incumbent Congress. The party has not won a single seat in the state in the past two decades and its vote share has dwindled since the 1990s. Kanshi Ram, the party’s founder, was one of the four BSP MPs to win a Lok Sabha seat from Punjab in 1996. In his time, he made several attempts to build a coalition of Dalit communities in the state. However, it came to a halt soon after his death owing largely to the lack of a grassroots leader, as the now party supremo Mayawati’s hopes shifted to Uttar Pradesh. Since then, the party has failed to create a niche for itself in the state, which has the largest percentage share of Scheduled Caste population in the country.
The Dalit-centric party’s inability to create roots in Punjab can be attributed to many factors. Dalits in Punjab are subdivided into numerous castes and scattered across varied religions, deras, and sects. Among Dalits, Ramdasias, Mazhabis, Rai Sikhs, and Sansis follow the Sikh religion. Balmikis are primarily Hindus. Ravidassias and Ad-Dharmis have recently founded a separate Dalit religion — Ravidassia Dharm. Owing to these subdivisions, the lower castes in the state have never voted en bloc unlike the voting patterns of Dalits in most other states. The Chamars and Balmikis within the SC lean more towards the Congress party, whereas the Mazhabis, Ramdasias, Rai Sikhs, and Sansis support the Akali Dal.
Furthermore, the BSP in Punjab has failed to strengthen its organizational roots. After the death of Kanshi Ram, the party has not been able to present a unified leader as the face of the Dalit community. Dictatorial control by the high command has further eroded the chances of any organic leadership to emerge in the state.
What lies ahead for the Akali Dal?
In the 2012 Assembly elections, SAD made a conscious effort to change the electorates’ perception of the party from a ‘panthic’ party of Jat-Sikhs to a party for ‘Punjab, Punjabis, and Punjabiat’. It succeeded in reaping the electoral dividend through this social engineering. In the next elections, both the Jat-Sikh and the Dalit vote bank abandoned it due to impending anti-incumbency and brought the Congress to power. On many seats, the party lost by a small margin.
With Punjab’s nearly one-third Dalit population, SAD views the alliance with the BSP as a key to winning the Dalit vote back in 2022. However, analysts say that the BSP does not have the power to secure a Dalit turnaround for the Badals. Moreover, Akali Dal is still at risk of facing abandonment from its traditional support base of Sikhs. The opposition parties continue to use the 2015 Bargari sacrilege and subsequent police firing incident as a weapon against the Akali Dal’s Sikh identity. In one way the two parties cut across each other’s core voters. Akalis supporting Jats (the farming community) is unlikely to go well with BSP’s Dalit candidates and voters and vice versa.
After the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Akali Dal played the anti-reservation rhetoric, blaming the BJP for alienating Dalit voters. According to experts, it was one of the factors that led to the dismal performance of the alliance. How far the BJP can be blamed alone for the loss of Dalit support is not clear. However, whether or not the Akali Dal can gain this crucial support base with the help of the BSP will be noteworthy for the panthic party’s political standing in the state after 2022.
Damini Mehta /New Delhi
Contributing reports and suggestions from Kashish Babbar, Intern at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.