With less than a year left for the Punjab Assembly elections, the chiefs of the two ruling alliance partners — Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party — met to discuss their alliance this week. Although continuation or break-up was not really on the agenda, Amit Shah and Sukhbir Badal met in the backdrop of certain BJP leaders demanding that their party should go it alone this time. However, it is highly unlikely that the two parties will actually choose to split.
It is true that the two parties don’t enjoy cordial relations in Punjab. The alliance has ruled Punjab for two successive terms now, but the state BJP leaders have been feeling sidelined right from the initial days of the first term. Off and on, they would express their resentment too. But their complaints got louder once the BJP romped home in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Then came the Haryana Assembly elections where the BJP went to polls alone after dumping its old partner, the Indian National Lok Dal. Even the Badals campaigned for Chautalas, but the BJP registered a thumping victory. The historic win emboldened the BJP leaders in the neighbouring state of Punjab who felt that it was time to do a Haryana there as well.
Since then, many BJP leaders have been very vocal in their unhappiness over the treatment by the Badals. Some leaders such as the Navjot Sidhu couple have gone on record asking the party to choose “between Akalis and us.”
However, it is not just the BJP leaders who feel slighted by their alliance partner. Even the Akalis feel the same. Their resentment is with the BJP leaders in Delhi who, they believe, cold-shoulder them. Akali leaders complain that even getting appointment for a meeting with Union ministers in Delhi is a tough task. Some of their demands of financial packages have been disdainfully dismissed by the Centre.
Even opposition leaders tease them by reminding the Badals how they used to shout during election campaigning that “trucks full of cash will flow to Punjab if Arun Jaitley becomes the finance minister.” Some Akali leaders say that the Manmohan regime was much more magnanimous.
Despite these grudges that they harbour towards each other, the two parties don’t seem to have much option than to fight the polls together. In fact, when it comes to election arithmetic, the two parties complement each other very well. The BJP has an urban base, while the strength of the Akalis lie in rural areas, which is the BJP’s “weak zone”.
Some BJP leaders say that this time there is a lot of anti-incumbency. “But that’s all against the Akalis,” argues one of them. “Why must we sink with them when it’s been only they who have enjoyed the fruits of power and are the cause of resentment?”
But in the same breath they also admit that it’s only with Akalis that they have any chance to take on a rejuvenated Amarinder Singh and a rapidly-rising Aam Aadmi Party.