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Posted at: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM; last updated: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM (IST)

Rebellion that rocked the party

The crisis within the Shiromani Akali Dal, after the report on sacrilege incidents came out, is all too evident

Ruchika M Khanna in Chandigarh

Recent developments in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) would have prompted many to write political epitaphs of the party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal and his son and party president Sukhbir Singh Badal. Known to have weathered many a storm in his six-decade-long political career, the senior Badal, forced out of semi-retirement, is not just steering clear of going into political oblivion in the twilight of his life, but also once again manoeuvring the career of his son and political heir.

Whether his efforts and deftness in handling the crisis that threaten to fritter away a party that he has headed for 13 years as president and another 10 years as patron, would help Parkash Singh Badal tide over the crisis, is something only time will tell. 

Among the oldest and the most astute politicians in the country, the rebellion in the party, and that too by his closest aides, against Sukhbir Singh Badal, is something that even Badal senior did not foresee. The first to speak against the Akali Dal president’s strategy in dealing with the crisis after the report on sacrilege incidents was made public, were senior taksali leader Tota Singh, former minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan and MP Prem Singh Chandumajra. Right after the Assembly session, which the Akali BJP MLAs boycotted, the duo had questioned this decision taken by Sukhbir Singh Badal, in the core committee meeting of the party. This was followed by many voices of dissent rising in the party rank and file, including that of former SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar. 

While close Badal aide and MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa resigned from the party posts last week, claiming he was doing so because of his ill-health, he has so far “avoided” meeting the Badals. The latest to raise their voices were MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Rattan Singh Ajnala, who stopped short of blaming Badals but raised voice against weakening of Sikh institutions — a clear attack on the supposedly Sukhbir Badal orchestrated pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2015. This pardon had been almost univocally condemned by the Sikhs, the core vote bank of the Akali Dal. And the results have been for all to see. Not only did this lead to the party’s worst-ever defeat in the 2017 Assembly elections, but the Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report on sacrilege incidents, that blamed Dera followers for incidents, has now threatened to split the party itself. 

This, however, was not the first time that the party saw rebellion after it was reduced to a humiliating no 3 position in the 2017 elections (an attempt made by Majha leaders was thwarted a few months back), the timing has made the party vulnerable, not just from within but also from outside. The radical Sikh leaders are trying to take over the (Akalis) political space, and other mainstream parties appear to be helping them. This has forced the party to change its strategy, from defensive to offensive, by organising its Jabar Virodhi (anti-oppression) rallies, and mobilising maximum footfalls in its rallies. 

To fight the dissent within, three important things have been done during this week:

1.Badal senior has once again taken over decision-making. This makes it more comfortable for veteran leaders who found it difficult to deal with a younger and brash Sukhbir Badal. 

2.Since the new emerging Akali Dal is largely a party of kakajis (sons of older generation of Akalis), Sukhbir Badal is dealing directly with the sons to quell the dissent by their fathers.

3.Taking a cue from his father’s playbook, Sukhbir Badal is on an appeasement spree. Just like Badal senior, he has, on his own, started engaging with the rebels, is visiting their houses, breaking bread with them and keeping them in good humour. 

These strategies appear to be having the desired effect but it remains to be seen whether the effect is short term, or helps the party tide over the crisis till the next election. On their part, the Badals need to realise that they are no longer in power, and thus centralisation of power within the party would not work. Unless and until the father-son duo is able to share power with others within the party organisational structure, the threat to the party will remain.


How the events unfolded

September 2015

The five Sikh high priests grant pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, without the latter appearing at Akali Takht and seeking pardon personally. The dera head was accused of committing blasphemy by imitating Guru Gobind Singh. This led to widespread protests among the Sikhs; the SAD leadership was blamed for orchestrating this pardon.

October 2015

First sacrilege incidents reported in Faridkot, when torn pages of bir of Guru Granth Sahib were found in Bargari village. This led to a sit-in by Sikhs at Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan. The police use force to disperse protesters. Two persons were killed in police firing at Behbal Kalan, which led to statewide protests. 

October-November 2015

Several incidents of sacrilege of holy books were reported across Punjab. The Punjab Police was unable to solve these incidents.

November 2015

Sarbat Khalsa gathering called by fringe groups; it got a reasonably good response. 

March 2017

The results of Punjab Vidhan Sabha election declared. With just 18 MLAs, the Akali-BJP alliance was reduced to No 3 position in the state. The poor show was attributed to the sacrilege incidents, which are said to have turned the Sikhs against the SAD. 

October 2017

First protest by Majha leaders after the party’s humiliating defeat at the hustling foiled by SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal. 

August 2018

Justice Ranjit Singh Commission report tabled in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha. Akali-BJP MLAs walk out of the House. The decision was questioned by senior party leaders, who said a panthic party could not run away from an important panthic issue like sacrilege where the Akalis were being framed. 

September 2018

Many taksali leaders raise their voices. MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa resigns from party posts, three others led by MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, too, raise banner of revolt.

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