Punjab politics including the so called Panthic turf is witnessing a storm. There are ‘leaders’ like Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, who are viewed as ‘radicals’ who won the recent Lok Sabha polls as independents, and then there is the Shiromani Akali Dal-Badal, which has always claimed to represent the Panth, but won just one of the 13 Lok Sabha seats.

Not only this, the party candidates lost their deposits on 10 seats. And now this party is witnessing an implosion with several top leaders questioning the leadership of Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Observers say that this implosion was long due in the party whose leadership could not ensure any electoral gains since it was relegated to the third space in the state in 2017 elections.

This party has simply failed to revive and is now fighting a battle for survival. It has also been known to shift goalposts for almost two and a half decades and is now reaping the results.

As of now there are voices rising against the current leadership and more and more questions are being raised by those wanting a change. On the other hand the leadership under Sukhbir Singh Badal is countering the allegations and moves coming to the fore on a daily basis.

The present set of events began from Jalandhar last week where some senior leaders skipped a meeting called by Sukhbir and held separate parleys. Leaders including Professor Prem Singh Chandumajra, Bibi Jagir Kaur, Sikandar Singh Maluka, Parminder Singh Dhindsa and Sarwan Singh Phillaur reportedly went on to announce a ‘SAD Bachao’ movement from July.

Many observers feel that the biggest drawback of the Akali Dal over the last more than two decades has been the party turning into a ‘family enterprise’ of five time former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. This process accelerated after the passing away of former Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chairman and Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra in 2004.

The rebel leaders accused Sukhbir of not listening to them and airing concerns about the future of the party that has the distinction of being the oldest regional force in the country that has excelled in the past in taking forward the concept of federalism in Indian polity.

In the series of videos being posted by independent journalists Chandumajra has been questioning, “We need to understand why has the Akali Dal become so weak? We have fallen from the sky to the ground. Do we want to fall deeper? A change is necessary.”

These Akali leaders on Monday appeared before the Akal Takht Jathedar and sought forgiveness for the ‘mistakes’ during the Akali regime. They handed over an apology letter to Giani Raghbir Singh at the Akal Takht secretariat in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. Akal Takht is the supreme temporal seat of the Sikhs.

They have reportedly mentioned four big mistakes in their letter made during one decade of Akali regime under Parkash Singh Badal from 2007 to 2017. Sukhbir was the deputy chief minister during this time.

The mistakes mentioned include the failure to punish those responsible for the incidents related to the sacrilege of holy texts in 2015. The other mention is of the pardoning of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Ram Rahim in a case of blasphemy. This pardon had later been withdrawn after a public uproar.

These Akali leaders have offered to undergo punishment as per the tenets of Sikhism. They have been saying that because of the mistakes made during the decade the party lost face not only on the religious front but on the political front as well.

The above mentioned two mistakes continue to rankle in the public psyche till date as was witnessed by this reporter during the visit to the Punjab hinterland ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The people have been pointing towards the denial of justice on the issue of sacrilege of holy texts.

It needs to be recalled that Ram Rahim had courted controversy after advertisements had appeared in the media wherein he was dressed in attire resembling that of the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh.

In 2015 the Akal Takht accepted his apology which was later withdrawn after a public outcry. It needs to be underlined that the Sikh institutions like the SGPC and the Akal Takht have been dominated by the Akali Dal.

It was in 2015 only that the instances of sacrilege were reported from various places with the first instances coming to light in parts of Faridkot district. The situation worsened with the Police firing on peaceful protestors at Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura that resulted in the killing of two persons. Sukhbir was the deputy chief minister holding the home portfolio at that time.

These factors along with the failure of the successive regimes in the state to control the menace of drugs and the deteriorating law and order scenario contributed largely to the victory of Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa in the recent polls.

Observers also feel that the Akali Dal having a truck with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for two and a half years has also led to a trust deficit among the people with regards to the party. The Akalis had eventually walked out of the alliance during the peak of the farmers’ movement against the three controversial farm laws promulgated by the Narendra Modi led central government in 2020.

The walking out of the alliance was however preceded by the Akali leadership defending the very same laws. The people felt that the party had walked out of the arrangement with the BJP under compulsion.

This trust deficit still continues with the people unsure about the Akalis once again joining hands with the saffron party. In the process the Sikh peasantry in particular stands miffed with the Akali Dal.

Even before the recent Lok Sabha polls there were reports about the possibility of a re-alliance of the two parties but it didn’t happen. One of the reasons behind it is believed to be that the Akalis could no longer afford to annoy the peasantry that is still agitating in support of its demand.

The second reason was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was no longer ready to be a junior partner in the arrangement after the dismal performance of the Akalis in subsequent elections.

Incidentally both the erstwhile partners paid a price but the Akalis have suffered more as the party’s vote share decreased in the recent Lok Sabha polls from 27.45 % in 2019 to 13.42% this time. In the case of the BJP the share doubled from 9.63% in 2019 to 18.56% this time despite not winning a single seat.

It needs to be mentioned here that the Akali Dal had formed a committee under Iqbal Singh Jhundan to recommend course correction following the party’s humiliating defeat in the 2022 assembly polls. Now it is the recommendations of the same Jhudan Committee that are being cited in the present imbroglio within the party.

The rebel leader Gurpartap Wadala has reportedly claimed that the panel had recommended a change in leadership but this was conveniently swept under the carpet.

Meanwhile, the party leadership is trying to salvage the situation by asking the ‘disgruntled’ leaders to put their views on the party platform instead of speaking outside in public.

On Thursday the party’s senior vice president Dr Daljit Singh Cheema said here today that those trying to weaken the Khalsa. Panth as well as the party ‘have already rejected the Jhundan committee report in letter and spirit and have never abided even by the one-family one-ticket norm’.

“It may be recalled that Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa first accepted the leadership of Sukhbir Singh Badal as President but revolted just because the party could not give the Lok Sabha ticket to his son Parminder Singh Dhindsa,” he said.

Dr. Cheema said these leaders always say one thing in the meeting and do quite the opposite outside. He appealed to these leaders not to let their personal failures turn so desperate as to harm the sacred organisation to which they owe their very political existence.

“I humbly appeal to them on behalf of the President Sukhbir Singh Badal to come and express whatever views they have within the party platform” he said. He underlined that Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal was the first to offer to surrender her ticket while honouring the Jhundan Committee’s recommendation for one family one ticket, in case the party fielded Sukhbir in the Lok Sabha elections.

Claiming that no party allows as much intra party democratic freedom as does Shiromani Akali Dal, he went on, “There are times when we personally hold strong views different from the opinion of the majority in the party but once a decision is taken, I personally come and defend and promote the party’s majority decision. There is no other way to run an organisation.”

He also appealed to the media not to use expressions like ‘rebel group’ with the Shiromani Akali Dal. “The SAD is a party and you have seen with your eyes how ninety nine percent of our cadres, working committee, district presidents and halka incharges have backed the decisions taken on the party platforms.

“But yes, if a group of handful of leaders go and start their own ‘Dhai Paa Khichdi’, they may be termed as a group. Shiromani Akali Dal is a party, not a group,” he reiterated.

In a related interesting development, the Akali Dal has decided not to back Surjit Kaur for the Jalandhar (West) Assembly poll scheduled for July 10. She is contesting on the party’s symbol.

On Thursday Akali legislator from Banga, Dr. Sukhwinder Sukhi, who was a member of the four-member panel announced by party for Jalandhar (West) by-election, disclosed that party had duly informed the candidate Surjit Kaur about its decision of not contesting the bye election and she had agreed to withdraw her nomination form but had later taken a u-turn.

The party leaders have also questioned the detractors of the reason for fielding Surjit Kaur and then creating a mess in Jalandhar itself. They pointed out that it was a planned move to ensure her defeat and then put the blame on the party president.

Just a day before the party had cautioned the people of Punjab against ‘a deep rooted conspiracy’ to set the state aflame again by disturbing the hard earned atmosphere of peace and communal harmony and to blame it on Sikhs to defame Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular.

“A dangerous and devious conspiracy is already at work for communal polarisation in Punjab for petty political gains. The old game is being played again to inject communal hatred and violence in the state and to put the blame for it on Sikhs so as to vilify our youth as was done in the eighties,” said a resolution passed at a meeting of the working committee of the party.

“We have made sacrifices for this sacred cause and we will not flinch from our responsibility in this regard,” the working committee stated. In a separate and unanimous resolution, the committee placed its full faith and appreciation in the ‘determined and committed leadership of the party president Sukhbir Singh Badal’.

It also authorised the president to reconstitute and restructure the party as per the party’s constitution. The committee members also condemned attempts to tarnish the image of the president.

A party spokesperson said, “Although there was a strong demand from members for disciplinary action against some leaders who have been playing into the hands of the enemies of Panth and Punjab, the party president Sukhbir Singh Badal counselled patience, forbearance and a large hearted approach based on humility taught to us by the great Guru Sahiban towards all”.

The committee passed another resolution stating, “We are a fully democratic party with historic traditions for internal discussion. There is room for everyone’s views, even critical, on the party platform. So there is no justification for violating decorum and discipline to harm the party.”

Many observers feel that Panthic values and politics have lost their relevance in Punjab. The reasons cited are that the youth in particular stands inclined more towards moving abroad.

“Secondly, Panthic values are all about selfless sacrifice. Does anyone adhere to such values at present,” Vijay Bombeli told this reporter. Bombeli is a chronicler of the political history of Punjab.

The question right now is where are the things heading towards in Punjab. As Bombeli sees it, “The Akali Dal is in for a bad time. There are fissures visible.

“The lot that is active only on social media and has otherwise nothing in terms of ground connection will stick with Sukhbir and his associates. Among the rebels are also different streams.

“There are elements like the Dhindsas who are inclined towards the BJP. Then there are those who are inclined towards the ideology of Tohra. In addition to these are those who will give a short term fillip to the radical stream.

“The question right now before the Akalis is ‘what are you doing to gain the people’s confidence?’. Simply saying that you are a 100 year old party is not enough. The new leadership is not aware of the rich past of this party and how it has its roots in the Gurdwara reforms movement that got intertwined with the freedom struggle,” he added.

He also talked about the BJP playing games in Punjab. “They wanted to reduce the stature of the Akali Dal to number two and they have achieved it.

“Who has propped up Amritpal Singh, ensured that he wins and who stands to gain from it? Some of the people working for Amritpal Singh have their roots in the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat which is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Amritpal Singh will eventually fall in their lap,” he added while observing that the developments will eventually strengthen the Congress in the state.

A common opinion recorded by this reporter while interacting with the people ahead of the Lok Sabha polls was that with the continuous weakening of the Akali Dal, the panthic turf lies open which the right wing elements will try to usurp.

A concern among the Akali supporters was that the likes of Amritpal Singh would fill this space. Incidentally the Akali candidate in Khadoor Sahib Virsa Singh Valtoha was the one attacking Amritpal Singh the most on other as well as panthic issues.

Ironically, having opposed Amritpal Singh all the while and calling him a pseudo panth sympathiser, it was Sukhbir who strongly opposed the extension in the National Security Act (NSA) imposed against Amritpal Singh by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the state under Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. Sukhbir lashed out at Bhagwant Mann holding him squarely responsible for ‘dancing to Delhi’s tunes on Sikh and Punjab issues’.

He said the Punjab government records clearly show that the decision to extend NSA in this case was Bhagwant Mann’s and his anti-Punjab and anti-Sikh face stood exposed.

Stating that his party is fully committed to the atmosphere of peace and communal harmony in the state and will continue to lead the efforts to preserve it’ he added, “There can be no progress and prosperity without peace and communal harmony and our party will not flinch from its responsibility in this regard.

“At the same time, we are equally firmly opposed to repressive black laws like the NSA and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Black Laws are unacceptable.”

He said that going beyond and above his party’s political and ideological differences with Amritpal Singh, the decision to extend NSA in this case was a ‘clear violation of the Constitution and of the basic human rights and civil liberties’.

Observers feel and even the senior politicians from other parties have expressed that Punjab needs a strong regional force. They are of the opinion that a weak Akali Dal is not in the interest of the state or the country.