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.