India’s oldest regional party and Punjab’s traditional political power house the Shiromani Akali Dal has come out badly battered in the state assembly polls, the results to which were declared Thursday. Nobody would have imagined the party reduced to a paltry three seats, sliding from 15 in the last polls.

What makes the loss bitter is how its top leadership got trounced by little known faces. Whether it was party patriarch and four time chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who had thrown his hat into the ring at the ripe age of 94, or his son and former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal who is also party president, Bikramjit Singh Majithia who is touted as ‘Majhe da Jarnail’ (the General of Majha), all of them were humiliated. The Badals lost from their traditional bastions of Lambi and Jalalabad while Majithia lost from Amritsar (East).

The question now doing the rounds is what happens to the SAD and particularly the Badals, as Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal is also a Lok Sabha member from Bathinda and former minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Punjabis have seen the transformation of Shiromani Akali Dal into the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) where the family holds a tight grip over the party.

Hence there are two lines of thought being expressed about what can be expected. A set of observers feel that the SAD will witness a churning very soon, while another think that with the party and family so intertwined the two will remain in a dark abyss. Apprehensions are also being expressed about the party meeting the fate of Indian National Lok Dal in neighbouring Haryana, which has been pushed out of power the last four terms despite having had a patriarch like former deputy prime minister Devi Lal.

As for the party’s response to the results, Sukhbir Badal has called a core committee meeting on March 14 to be attended by all the candidates who were in the fray. He tweeted to say, “We whole-heartedly & with total humility accept the mandate given by Punjabis. I am grateful to lakhs of Punjabis who placed their trust in us & to SAD-BSP workers for their selfless toil. We will continue to serve them with humility in the role they have assigned to us.” There has been no other response from the party.

The Akali Dal was born on December 14, 1920 and has a glorious past. It claims that the “development and transformation that Punjab has witnessed is the result of the undiluted and relentless efforts of Shiromani Akali Dal. This is one assemblage of like-minded leaders that has always put the rights of the people of Punjab on top and also fought for their rights. Since the inception of Shiromani Akali Dal, its entire history has been a magnificent testimony of patriotism, human welfare, devotion and dedication towards Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat. Innumerable struggles and agitations over several years of service that led to victories and achievements stand as an evidence of what all it has accomplished for Punjab and its people. By rooting their every endeavour in the soil of secularism and democracy, they have uplifted the weaker sections of the society.”

Vijay Bombeli, a keen observer of political developments and a chronicler of the state’s political history, feels that the party is set to witness an implosion pretty soon. “It will be the senior lot that will raise the issues and challenge the Badal control over the party that is being run like a family enterprise with Sukhbir as the CEO. There are also chances of Majithia being propped up by the BJP or Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon rising at an individual level to challenge the Badal control over the party.”

There was a rebellion in 2018 by leaders like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Rattan Singh Ajnala and Sewa Singh Sekhwan who accused Sukhbir and Majithia of destroying the party and damaging the reputation of institutions like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Akal Takht. They went on to form the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali) but Brahmpura presently returned to his parent party.

In 2020 another senior party leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his son Parminder Singh Dhindsa too had walked out and resurrected the Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic). The two groups were later merged into Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) and contested the present polls in alliance with Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and the BJP.

Bombeli said that those who returned to the SAD (Badal) were simply power hungry. “There has been a greed for power among many senior party leaders. Had this not been the case, they would have sided with Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra and got rid of Badal long ago. The glorious past one often hears about is that of Shiromani Akali Dal and not of SAD (Badal),” he said, asserting that the Akalis need to understand that the times have changed.

“They cannot keep harping on the issues like the panth being in danger. They also need to realize that the old model of garnering support in the name of panth no longer works. People do not have blind faith and carry no false notions,” Bombeli underlined.

However, Jagrup Singh Sekhon who is a renowned political scientist and expert on Sikh political history feels, “There will not be any churning in the SAD (Badal) despite the fact that the vote share of the party has come down drastically in these elections. The moot question is who is there to replace them?”

Pointing towards the tight hold of the party and family over institutions like the SGPC he said, “There are the radical elements as an alternative that are not acceptable to the people.”

Sekhon thinks the political future of the party as well as the Badal family is dark, and that the party will soon witness an exodus, with no new faces interested in joining the party. “The old issues will not work in a scenario where you have a strong diaspora, an inspirational youth, a peasantry in crisis and other concerns. The Badals have used religion for petty political and economic interests.”

Amidst all this is the challenge before the SAD (Badal) to control the SGPC, often referred to as the Parliament of the Sikhs.

Sekhon pointed out that the party’s downfall began the day Sukhbir was made deputy chief minister and everything got centralized with the Badal family. The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party on Punjab’s landscape during the 2014 general election, where the rookie force won four of the 13 seats, hastened the process.

Sekhon further said that after repeating the government in 2012 polls, the SAD (Badal) became larger than life with 26 members of the Badal clan controlling the party, the SGPC, the transport business, sand mining and other interests. “They used politics to enlarge and consolidate their business interests,” he explained.

The Badals have contested all the allegations against them and have often given explanations but none of this has helped revive the SAD (Badal) after it was decimated in the 2017 assembly polls.

The Badals have been on the receiving end on several issues ranging from desecration of holy texts to firing on non-violent protestors while they were in government.

They had also drawn fire for letting the SGPC pardon the Dera Saccha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, only to withdraw the pardon after massive public protests in 2015. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh who is in jail for rape and murder was accused of blasphemy in 2007 for allegedly wearing attire similar to the Sikh guru Gobind Singh and getting his pictue circulated.

There is a view that a party like SAD which has a cadre base and rich history cannot be written off despite a dismal poll performance. But a need is being felt to free it from family control.

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