The national executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once again showed that the ruling party at the Centre does not want to revive the alliance with its oldest partner Shiromani Akali Dal.
The party in its deliberations lashed out at dynastic parties led by the Congress and in the list of the parties to be named, the Akali Dal was not there initially. But higher-level intervention meant that the Akali Dal run by patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal was included along with bete noires of the BJP like Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal of Bihar and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
The Punjab scene
BJP's Punjab unit president Ashwani Kumar Sharma gave the blueprint of how the party would contest all the 117 seats in the state assembly for the first time. Sharma said the party was given a maximum of 30 to 35 seats as the junior partner of Akali Dal, and its victory record ranged from 3 seats to 18. But now he has used the past year to assess the mood even in Sikh-dominated rural areas, and feels the party cannot win less than the maximum it had achieved in collaboration with the Akali Dal.
Sharma's prognosis compared to the BJP's track record in neighbouring Haryana where for long it would go into alliances with the Indian National Lok Dal, and would sacrifice its votes among the dominant Jat community to the INLD. But once the BJP decided to go it alone in 2014, the party could build a social coalition of 34 castes other than Jats, and trump the INLD as well as the Congress. Sharma felt that the electorate would be similarly charged up in Punjab where the BJP had won Sikh majority Lok Sabha seats by fielding Hindu candidates. However, the Lok Sabha elections were fought in alliance with the Akali Dal.
Options for alliance
Sharma and other state leaders also argued that even if there is a settlement with the protesting farmers over the three farm laws, the BJP should not go back to the Badals. But if the party wanted an alliance, it could go with the breakaway Akali Dal faction led by former Union minister Sukhdev Dhindsa, who was very close to the national leadership of the BJP. The BJP leaders were lukewarm to the idea of an alliance with the Punjab Lok Congress being set up by former chief minister Amarinder Singh, as they felt the anti-incumbency against Singh should not affect their party. The infighting in Congress between the factions of Navjyot Singh Sidhu and then CM Amarinder until the latter quit the party recently would add to the anti-incumbency of new CM Charanjit Singh Channi.
BJP's shortcomings, likely trump card
But Sharma knows that finally it will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, who have been in touch with Amarinder Singh, would take the call on the party's electoral strategy for the sensitive border state. The BJP high command is also aware of the weaknesses in the state as the party's rural outreach is very small, and that the Sikh farmers are angry about the Modi Government's insistence on the new farm laws.
The BJP also does not have a popular chief ministerial face, though there are suggestions that superstar Sunny Deol, who is the party MP from Gurdaspur, should be projected as the chief campaigner, along with other Bollywood celebrities hailing from Punjab who are associated with the BJP. But Deol has not been an energetic politician in the last two-and-a-half years as MP and his mischievous opponents even put up missing posters in Gurdaspur. But if Deol agrees to campaign extensively, then it would introduce another new element into the electoral mix.
Electoral choices galore
Already the state has its first Dalit Sikh chief minister trying to get an electoral mandate; a cricketing and television superstar Sidhu trying to get the popular vote for himself by working at cross purpose with his own party chief minister; the Akali Dal fighting for its political survival through an untested alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party; octogenarian Amarinder Singh trying his luck with a new party more aimed at defeating Congress; and the Aam Aadmi Party trying its luck as the main opposition party in the current Punjab Assembly by promising a Sikh chief minister.
Among drinkers in Punjab, the Patiala Peg is considered the ultimate proof of masculine pride as it is a double measure of whiskey than the normal large measure. With so many parties and leaders, the electoral glass seems to be overflowing for the voter in Punjab, especially as Amarinder Singh and Sidhu hail from Patiala city.