As Punjab heads towards assembly polls on the 20th, the electoral scenario is a maze of many multi-cornered fights in the offing. Amid this fluid scenario rises Parkash Singh Badal, 94 year old patriarch of India’s oldest regional force the Shiromani Akali Dal, acting as a morale booster to his partymen and cadres by contesting from his stronghold of Lambi.

While many seem carried away by the cacophony generated by the Aam Aadmi Party that has emerged as the third strong pole in Punjab, or the Congress making a statement across states by promoting a Dalit chief minister in Charanjit Singh Channi, the fact remains that the Akalis cannot be written off and they remain a formidable force.

Some believe the Akalis may be a surprise package in these multi-cornered polls where the votes will be split and there is every chance that no one gains a clear mandate. In such a scenario, the Akalis playing a key role in the next coalition to form the government cannot be ruled out, if they have a decent showing.

What are the strengths of the Akali–Bahujan Samaj Party combine? These forces have come together as allies again after 25 years. In the 1996 parliamentary polls, their alliance had won 11 of the total 13 seats in Punjab. After their split the Akalis went on to form three state governments with the Bharatiya Janata Party as their ally, while the fortunes of the BSP dwindled.

Experts observe that even at its lowest ebb in 2017, the Akali vote share stood at around 25%. With its cadre vote intact, the party has entered into an alliance with the BSP keeping in mind the over 32% share of Schedule Castes among Punjabis, the highest population share in any Indian state.

“Even when there were resolutions passed in some villages not to vote for Akalis in 2017 and there being no party booth at places, the party could secure a few hundred votes. This signifies that its core was intact,” said an observer.

While the BSP’s vote share was below 2% in last state polls, it is also a fact that the BSP had spoiled the Akali party in over 15 seats, where the winning margin was very low and there was a substantial BSP vote.

Meanwhile the Congress might be going to town promoting Channi as its Dalit face, but the fact is that the “Dalit vote” has never been a monolith in Punjab, where these castes and subcastes have long voted for different parties.

It is also a fact that the SAD-BSP was the first to announce their alliance and candidates. The whole narrative of having a Dalit at the top echelon was set in motion by SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, when he said that there would be a Dalit deputy chief minister if the combine came to power.

Meanwhile Badal senior who has been chief minister five times throwing his hat into the ring at the age of 94, and that too having just recovered from covid is acting as a morale booster for party cadres.

“Badal Sahib is setting an example for our youth. I have worked with him for six decades along with other party stalwarts like Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Fateh Singh and Master Tara Singh. People might forget him as a chief minister a century down the line but they will always remember him as a political leader along with his works,” said one of the seniormost Akali leaders Charanjit Singh Atwal.

“Our biggest strength is our history. Akali Dal has been a party of sacrifices and Morchas in the interest of Punjab and Punjabis. It is because of this that people respect it,” he told this reporter.

The senior Badal is back to relying on his strengths as he reportedly raises the federal pitch along with Panthic issues in his few but significant appearances. He has raised the issue of release of the 1993 bomb blast convict Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar “in the larger interest of consolidating peace and communal harmony in Punjab”.

He recently approached Delhi chief minister and AAP national convenor Arvind Kejriwal saying, “I really don’t know why the Delhi Chief Minister is not allowing justice to be delivered to Sardar Bhullar even after the latter has already suffered long years of incarceration and served more time in jail than the full tenure of sentence. There is no legal, judicial or moral ground for keeping the long incarcerated Sardar Bhullar behind bars now.”

Punjab had also recently witnessed former Congress chief minister Beant Singh’s assassin Balwant Singh Rajoana appealing to the people to vote for SAD and punish the Congress for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Rajoana was out on parole to attend the bhog of his father.

With this, Panthic issues along with the pending release of Sikh prisoners who continue to languish in jails despite completing their terms continue to emerge in Punjab’s political narrative.

Ironically it is the Congress that is feeling the heat this time on the issue of sacrilege of holy texts. This was an emotive issue that had played an important role in ousting the Akali-BJP combine 2017. With such incidents still being reported and the previous cases not reaching their logical conclusion - as with the innocent protestors killed by police against whom no action has been seen as promised by former chief minister Amarinder Singh ahead of the last polls - the Akalis have got breathing space on the issue.

Meanwhile, the release of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim on furlough by the Manohar Lal Khattar led BJP government in Haryana at this point of time has added a new dimension to the polls. Convicted for rapes and murders with more cases pending against him, Ram Rahim has been known to back parties and candidates. The Dera has a strong presence in the Malwa region of Punjab, particularly among Dalits. It has also been in the news for the alleged involvement of its functionaries in incidents of sacrilege.

And in yet another development, the Akalis received a booster shot with the Gurmat Sidhant Pracharak Sant Samaj announcing support for the SAD-BSP alliance. The Sant Samaj represents a large number of Deras in Punjab. Its decision to support the alliance was taken at a meeting of around 300 Sikh preachers held in Jalandhar on Wednesday and presided over by Sant Harnam Singh Khalsa, chief of the Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal. It was attended by Sikh preachers from different sects including the Udasin, Nirmale, Kar Sewa Wale and Nihang Singhs.

While the media glare has been concentrated in the Malwa region which sends 69 of the 117 legislators to the state assembly and is witnessing a pitched battle between the key players of AAP, Congress and Akalis, it is the Majha region with its overtones of Panthic politics and Doaba with its strong Dalit presence that may define the poll outcome.

It needs emphasising that AAP does not figure anywhere close to Akalis or Congress when it comes to Panthic politics.

Observers say that the Akalis are the best when it comes to booth management, and among all the chief ministerial faces Sukhbir is the strongest in terms of experience and regional flavour.

Experts also feel that as the parties go around aiming to consolidate Dalit voters, a reverse Jatt vote consolidation given the feudal outlook and oppressor caste aspirations cannot be ruled out.

Shiromani Akali Dal Says It Will Go Alone For Polls In Haryana