Why the Akali Dal–Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Punjab is an act of opportunism

On 12 June, the SAD’s chief, Sukhbir Singh Badal, and the BSP’s general secretary, Satish Mishra, announced that they would fight the 2022 Punjab assembly elections together. The alliance does not appear to be motivated by shared values, but by political opportunism. Keshav Singh / Hindustan Times
20 June, 2021

After more than 25 years, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is widely perceived to be a party that represents the interests of Sikhs and wealthy Jats, is joining hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party, known to represent the Dalit community. On 12 June, the SAD chief, Sukhbir Singh Badal, and the BSP’s general secretary, Satish Mishra, announced that they would fight the 2022 Punjab assembly elections together. Out of 117 assembly seats in Punjab, the SAD will contest 97 seats and the BSP will fight the remaining 20 seats. Of these 20 seats, eight are from the Dalit-dominated Doaba region, seven from the Malwa region and five from the Majha region. The alliance does not appear to be motivated by shared values, but by political opportunism.

Just months earlier, the SAD broke its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. “This alliance is not limited to the 2022 assembly elections but will continue in future also,” Sukhbir said in his 12 June announcement. “When the Akali Dal holds someone’s hand, it does not leave it soon; it sticks till the end. The Akali Dal and BSP share one ideology—both will continue to work for the betterment of farmers, Dalits and farm labourers.”  Mishra said, “This is a big day in the history of Punjab, when BSP has tied up with an old regional party of India.” The BSP supremo, Mayawati, tweeted that the alliance with Akali Dal was a “new political and social initiative” that will usher a new era of “progress and prosperity” in Punjab. Some SAD leaders and journalists that lean towards the party projected this move as one of Sikh–Dalit unity that will save the federal structure of the country.

But a look at the history of both parties in Punjab and their previous alliances shows that these statements are hollow—the parties have joined hands to stay electorally relevant in the state. Over the past three decades, the BSP’s electoral performance has mostly been dismal in Punjab. Mayawati has been accused of not paying much attention to the state. The SAD, too, suffered a historic defeat in the last assembly elections and is still reeling from the backlash for initially supporting the contentious 2020 farm laws. “After breaking ties with the BJP, the SAD wants to make up for its losses with Dalit votes,” Bawa Singh, a professor and sociologist, told me. Pyare Lal Garg, a political commentator in the state, said, “With both the parties now on the margins, it would be wrong to call this an alliance fighting for Sikh-Dalit unity and federal interests.”

In 1995, the BSP had supported the SAD in the by-election to the Gidderbaha assembly constituency. The SAD’s candidate was Manpreet Singh Badal, Sukhbir’s cousin and the current state finance minister. It was Manpreet’s first election, and a tough contest, but he managed to win. The two parties again forged an alliance in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections and won 11 of the total 13 seats in Punjab—the SAD won eight seats and the BSP won three. Congress won only two seats. Kanshi Ram, the BSP’s founder who was born in Punjab’s Ropar district, won the Hoshiarpur seat.

But just a few months after this victory, without informing the BSP, the SAD allied with the BJP and broke its ties with the BSP. The SAD unconditionally supported the BJP at the centre. Ram was disappointed with this. Describing their alliance as a symbol of Sikh–Hindu unity, the SAD and the BJP contested the 1997 assembly elections together and the alliance came to power with a whopping 93 seats—75 for SAD and 18 for BJP. The Congress, again, faced a crushing defeat with just 14 seats.

The BSP, which came into existence in 1984, has almost never been independently successful in Punjab. It won the Phillaur Lok Sabha seat with the help of Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann) in the 1989 elections. In the 1992 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP won one seat. The party’s best performance in the state has been in the assembly elections held that year—it won nine seats. The SAD had boycotted these elections. But in the 1997 assembly polls, the BSP again just won one seat.

During this period, many other Dalit groups and parties were formed after breaking away from the BSP. One of them was the Bahujan Samaj Morcha formed by Satnam Singh Kainth. The SAD did not contest the Phillaur seat in the Lok Sabha polls on 1998 and 1999, leaving it for the Bahujan Samaj Morcha. While Kainth won the 1998 elections, he lost the 1999 polls. In the 2002 assembly elections also, the SAD had left two seats to the Bahujan Samaj Morcha but it lost both. Later, Kainth merged the Bahujan Samaj Morcha with the Congress.

Between 2002 and 2017, the BSP did not win a single seat in the state elections. The party’s vote share was also dismal in each assembly poll—it secured 5.69 percent votes in 2002 elections, 4.13 percent in 2007, 4.29 percent in 2012 and 1.52 percent in 2017. In the 2017 assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party dented the votes of several parties, and the BSP was no exception. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP fought in an alliance of several parties, called the “Punjab Democratic Alliance,” and improved its performance a little—its vote percentage reached 3.5 percent. The party received 1.46 lakh votes in the Anandpur, over 1.28 lakh votes in Hoshiarpur and more than two lakh votes from Jalandhar.

Dalits constitute a huge percentage of Punjab’s demographic and have never collectively voted for one party. They comprise about 33 percent of the population and in rural areas, this figure goes up to 37 percent. In many areas of Doaba, where the BSP will contest eight seats, this figure is 45 to 50 percent. But this does not necessarily mean that BSP will succeed electorally. In Punjab, Mayawati is frequently accused of paying more attention to Uttar Pradesh. Political commentators often see her as some who plays friendly matches with big parties while doing only lip service in Punjab.

In Punjab, Dalits have never voted en bloc to one party due to several reasons. For one, the state’s Dalit community is further divided into 39 castes, whose interests also clash with each other. The main sub-castes are Ramdasiyas, Mazhabis and Balmikis. Jatav and Mazhabi Sikhs are present in large numbers in Malwa, a huge area in ​​Punjab. The Majha region mostly has Mazhabi Sikhs and Christian Dalits. The Jatavs and Balmikis have huge numbers in Doaba. It is generally believed that the votes of Jatavs mostly go to Congress, and the votes of Balmiki and Mazhabi communities are divided among Akali Dal, BSP and other parties.

Although the common perception is that the condition of Dalits in Punjab is better than many other states because of the absence of casteism in Sikhism, there are some bitter truths of the past and the present that cannot be overlooked. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Dalits were discriminated against in Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple—separate visiting times were fixed for them and they had separate places for bathing. The priestly class of that time did not take kadah prasad—a prasad served in Gurdwaras—from the hands of the Dalits and did not offer ardas, or prayers, for them.

On 25 June 2020, the Punjabi Tribune newspaper published an article on the Adi Dharma movement by Balbir Madhopuri, a Punjabi writer from the Dalit community. In the early 1920s, the Dalit population in Punjab sought to form an independent identity called Adi Dharma to escape the caste discrimination of other religions. Madhopuri wrote in his piece that before the 1931 census, when “Adi Dharma” was registered as a new religion in Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs oppressed the communities they considered untouchables in an organised manner. Hindus and Sikhs thought it was insulting that those who had been slaves for centuries were becoming equal to them, he wrote. According to Madhopuri, in protest, they arranged blockades and several attacks happened against these communities in different places, including the killing of Dalits who had opted for “Adi Dharma” in the census.

Madhopuri has written a notable autobiography, Chhangiya Rukh—Against the Night—depicting the discrimination that Dalits face in Punjab. “In Punjab, castes that are considered to be lower may have recovered financially a bit after Independence, but the fight against social inequality is still pending,” he told me. “From a young age, I have myself seen and experienced acts of oppression like untouchability, denial of entry of Dalits to Gurudwaras, physical abuse of sisters and daughters of Dalits. Reports still emerge that Dalits are being denied entry in many Gurdwaras, that is why separate Gurdwaras and deras were formed for them.” Deras are socio-religious groups across Punjab, many of which offer the promise of inclusivity. “Still, crematoriums of Dalits are separate, there are announcements of their social boycott from Gurudwaras,” Madhopuri wrote. “Even the Dalits are divided in various hierarchies.” In the paddy season, several reports emerge that rich farmers themselves fix the rates for sowing paddy and if the Dalit farm labourers oppose the rate, they face social boycotts. Local leaders of major parties are also involved in such boycotts, such reports mention.

Despite many issues impacting the Dalit community, no party appears to raise its issues. Only Left organisations appear to fight for the economic demands of the community. One such demand is to provide Dalits their right to one-third share of panchayat land in each village—members of Scheduled Castes have a statutory right over one-third of the cultivable village-panchayat land, according to the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act of 1961. Dalits still do not often get this right. Left organisations have fought a long battle for this right in the Malwa region. One such organisation is the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, a coalition that works for landless labourers. Mukesh Malaudh, the president of the ZPSC, told me, “The Akalis and Congressmen opposed our struggle anyway, but even many Dalit organisations did not stand with us. The role of Bahujan Samaj Party was also very negative.”  

Tarsem Peter, a leftist Dalit activist who leads the Penddu Mazdoor Union, another left union, told me about the issues in different regions of Punjab. Peter works in the Doaba and Majha regions. “Like the issue of lands of Dalit is important in Malwa, the issue of residential plots is a big issue in Doaba—this was promised by the previous Akali government but has not been fulfilled till now,” he told me. “The plots have to be given after the panchayats pass a resolution. Our organisation did a lot of work for this, but there were social boycotts of Dalits in many places regarding this issue. The state government had promised to waive cooperative loans of Dalits for a long time, but it has not been fulfilled yet.”

Peter further explained that the assertion of Dalit identity is also prominent in Doaba. “Dalits of Doaba have gone abroad in large numbers,” he said. “You will find many temples and Gurdwaras showing Dalit identity. At times, Dalit deras have also had direct conflicts with radical Sikh groups, which resulted in the martyrdom of Sant Ram Anand from the Ballan Dera in Jalandhar. The problems of Dalits in the Majha region are similar. Due to a large number of Christian Dalits there, a major demand is that of a graveyard.”

Few such issues get recognition from mainstream parties. One issue concerning Dalits in Punjab that has received political and media attention in recent times is that of pending scholarship due to students of the community. Opposition parties have been attacking the ruling dispensation for this and have also accused Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, a cabinet minister, of corruption in this matter.

But issues were also prevalent in the scheme when the SAD was in power. “All political parties look at Dalits as a vote bank,” Ronki Ram, a well-known political scholar of Punjab, told me. “Akalis also ran schemes like the Atta-Dal Scheme, Shagun Scheme to attract Dalit votes when they were ruling.” The Atta-Dal aimed to distribute ration to the poor and the Shagun scheme promised poor members of Scheduled Caste communities—among a few other groups—money for their daughters’ wedding. “But later, it turned out these schemes also had flaws. Workers of the same Akali Dal that talks about the rights of Dalits today, were socially boycotting Dalits during the Dera dispute that happened in 2007.” In 2007, Gurmeet Singh, the leader of Dera Sacha Sauda, was accused of rape and murder.

Several issues that happened in Punjab under the ten-year SAD rule between 2007 and 2017 finished the party’s support base. These include drug smuggling, illegal mining, rise in the number of gangs, hooliganism of local SAD leaders, the Badal family’s hold over transportation, the sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib in Bargari village and the death of two youth after the police opened fire on a demonstration in Behbal Kalan village to protest Bargari incident. The decline of SAD’s popularity became most evident in the 2017 elections when it won just 15 seats.

Many Punjabis accuse the Badal family of throwing away all its principles by allying with the BJP and enjoying power in the Narendra Modi government. In its time with the BJP, the SAD never spoke up about atrocities against Muslims and Dalits. When all of Punjab was raising its voice for Kashmiris when Article 370 was abrogated, the SAD stood with the Modi government. The SAD, which claimed to fight against the Emergency, remained silent about the authoritarian attitude of the Modi government.

The movement against the 2020 farm laws has exposed the SAD. “The SAD has fallen from the hearts of the people and abandoned its old principles, such as standing up for the minorities, protecting the federal structure, etcetera,” Bawa Singh, the sociologist, told me. “The current peasant struggle has laid bare the true face of all traditional parties of Punjab. That is why these parties are forming opportunistic alliances.”

Now, the question is, what will the two parties gain from this alliance? Experts have proffered varied opinions. Hamir Singh, a senior journalist in Punjab, said, “With this alliance, the Akali Dal, may still be able to increase a small number of seats or vote percentage, but the BSP will not benefit much. Of the twenty seats that have come to the BSP, 13 are general seats. Many such seats which were difficult for the Akali Dal to win have been given to the BSP such as those in Mohali, Bhoa and Pathankot. The BSP was not given those seats on which its position is strong, such as those in Phillaur and Garhshankar.” On the other hand, Garg, the political commentator, said, “Out of the 20 seats the Akali Dal has left for the BSP, 18 seats are with the Congress at present. One seat is with the Aam Aadmi Party and one with the BJP. It is clear that Congress will suffer some loss.”

“Both parties may not get huge benefits from this alliance, but they will definitely gain something,” Garg said. “The Akali Dal and BSP alliance in 1996 seemed natural—when Punjab was emerging from the era of terrorism. But now this alliance is based on opportunism.”