After welcoming it in Parliament, Sukhbir Badal claims he opposed CAA, Article 370

Narendra Modi and Sukhbir Singh Badal at a conference in New Delhi in 2009. In an interview on 29 September, Badal often contradicted his previous statements, and revealed his reluctance to take an open stand against the BJP’s majoritarianism. Shekhar Yadav/The India Today Group/Getty Images
01 October, 2020

In the wake of the central government’s decision to enact into law three controversial ordinances regarding the procurement and sale of agricultural produce, the Shiromani Akali Dal quit the National Democratic Alliance led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The SAD president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, announced the decision on 26 September, and tweeted that the splitting of ties was also a result of the BJP’s “continued insensitivity to Punjabi and #Sikh issues.” Badal has since criticised the functioning of the NDA and the sidelining of regional partners. I interviewed Badal on 29 September about the party’s exit from the NDA and its relationship with the BJP. He was unable to answer why the alliance remained intact despite the BJP’s numerous controversial, ill-considered and anti-minority policies. As he struggled for explanations, Badal often contradicted his previous statements, and revealed his reluctance to take an open stand against the BJP’s majoritarianism.

For instance, on the topic of the BJP’s abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and the amendments to Article 370 of the Constitution, Badal denied supporting the decision. The denial was absurd, given that the video of Badal’s endorsement of the decision in the Lok Sabha was broadcast live on 6 August. “I stand in support of the bill presented by Honourable Home Minister scrapping Article 370 and 35A,” Badal began. Pertinently, the SAD has passed at least four different resolutions in the past supporting greater autonomy for the states. But in the Lok Sabha, the SAD president echoed the BJP’s rhetoric about conversions by the Mughals, the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Badal went on to claim that the reading down of Article 370 would empower minority communities. He remarked at the end of his speech, “I congratulate the prime minister and the home minister for such a bold decision.” Yet, during our telephonic interview, Badal claimed, “We never welcomed the decision in the Parliament, we participated in the debate.”

In early September, after the union cabinet approved a bill to make Hindi and Dogra the official languages of the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Badal opposed the exclusion of Punjabi. He wrote a letter to Manoj Sinha, Jammu and Kashmir’s lieutenant governor, about the issue. “The exclusion of Punjabi as an official language in Jammu and Kashmir is bound to be seen as an anti-minority and is certain to be seen as an anti-Sikh step of the J-K administration,” Badal wrote. But the pro-Sikh party did not deem it reason enough to quit the alliance.

In fact, when I directly asked whether he believed that the BJP was anti-minority or anti-Sikhs, Badal said, “I think it is not the right time to answer that question.” In his tweet announcing the split from the NDA, Badal had emphasised the BJP’s religious insensitivity to Sikh issues. In our interview, he said that the BJP should realise the importance of their allies, adding that “they don’t know how to keep their allies together.”

But Badal’s concerns for the protection of minorities did not appear to stretch far. On the topic of the highly divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which was passed by Parliament last year and led to mass demonstrations across the country condemning it for threatening the citizenship of Muslims, Badal was evasive. The SAD had supported the legislation and helped pave the path for its enactment. During our interview, Badal argued that the Akali Dal had always fought for the citizenship of the Sikhs from Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Seventy-eight thousand people are there,” Badal said. “But at the same time, I mentioned in the Parliament that the Muslims should be included.” Yet, Badal’s support for the bill was not conditional on the inclusion of Muslims.

By all indications, the SAD’s departure from its alliance with the BJP was less to do with the ruling party’s majoritarian ideology, and more to do with political considerations. In his interview with me as well as in his other statements to the media, Badal appears to have openly criticised the BJP only on two issues—its failure to accommodate the regional partners of the NDA and the enactment of the farm bills. Even when I specifically pressed on the SAD’s failure to oppose the BJP on Article 370, the CAA, and even demonetisation, Badal responded with his prepared talking point. “That’s what I am saying,” he said. “The allies were never consulted for 370, no alliance was ever consulted for CAA.”

Even on the issue of the farm legislations, the SAD’s position is not as clear cut as it currently projects. In June, when the BJP-led centre first promulgated these bills as ordinances, Badal had hedged its position without taking a clear stance against or in favour. Harsimrat Kaur Badal, an SAD member who was part of the union government had resigned from her position in mid September in opposition to the bills. Kaur is Badal’s wife, and had also supported the ordinances when they were first introduced. But the SAD president insisted that he and his wife had always opposed it. “We opposed it in the cabinet,” Badal said. “Harsimrat gave an official note also to the prime minister while opposing it. For the past four months, we were trying to bridge the gap between the farmers and the government.”

According to Badal, the central government had assured the SAD that it would incorporate the party’s demands about the bill. He said that the failure to fulfil these promises was the final straw that led the party to break away from the alliance. Badal claimed that the party had been internally discussing the idea of quitting the NDA for a long time before the farm bills. “This is the bread and butter of Punjab,” he said, referring to agriculture and the effect the bills would have in the state.

I asked Badal if he felt that it was a mistake for the SAD to enter into the alliance with the BJP back in 1996. “When the alliance was forged, at that time the Congress was ruining the country,” he said. “We all got together to fight the Congress.” Badal added that the alliance with the BJP was “the necessity of the hour because Punjab had gone through a tough phase, and the combination of the SAD and the BJP was a symbol of peace and communal harmony.”

I pointed to the infamous actions of Harbans Lal Khanna, a BJP district president and former member of legislative assembly, who had committed sacrilegious acts against Ram Das, the fourth of the ten gurus of Sikhism, and raised provocative slogans against the faith in 1984. Khanna was subsequently shot dead in April that year. But Badal claimed ignorance. “In 1984, I was too small. I am not aware of exactly what happened at that time. So, I don’t go back that far.”

Referring to the period when the two parties came together, Badal continued, “If we look at that time, the BJP had just two MPs in the country and now they have become the main part of the NDA.” At present, it is the SAD that has only two members of parliament in the Lok Sabha. “Practically the NDA does not exist,” Badal said, referring to the BJP’s disregard for its allies. “You know, the allies, how they should be treated, what should be the relationship with allies—that never happened.” He continued, “There is never a meeting—nothing. Its only for name, the NDA.”

The SAD chief told me that now that the party has nothing to do in the centre, it would completely focus on Punjab. In the Punjab assembly elections in 2017, the SAD had contested 94 seats and won only 15. But Badal did not discuss any definitive plan for the party’s future. When asked if the SAD would be forging any new alliances, particularly keeping in mind the Dalit voters who comprise over thirty percent of Punjab’s electorate, Badal responded, “It is too early, we just had the break up, so give us some time.”

I asked Badal whether he believed that there had been a gradual shift in the perception of the SAD as an anti-Punjab and anti-Sikh party due to its association with the BJP, but he insisted that the SAD has always been a Sikh party and that it still enjoyed the support of the community. “Even if you consider the last election results,” he said, “Shiromani Akali Dal had 31 percent votes, and Congress had 37 percent—there was a six percent difference—and Aam Aadmi Party was 21 percent. So don’t go by the seats, go by the total population, what people voted.”

These numbers do not, however, reflect as favourably for the SAD. In the 2017 assembly elections, while the party received 31 percent of the votes as Badal mentioned, the Congress won 38.5 percent and the AAP won 25 percent. In the 2019 general elections, the Congress won 41 percent of the votes from Punjab and the SAD won only 28 percent.