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Exit of Dhindsas from Shiromani Akali Dal is a blessing in disguise, says Sukhbir Singh Badal

In an interview to HT, the Akali Dal chief says including Muslims on list of communities eligible under CAA will only earn goodwill. Terms ties with ally BJP perfect as the partners have nothing to do with politics of give or take, which is why there’s no crisis like the one with Shiv Sena

Exit of Dhindsas from Shiromani Akali Dal is a blessing in disguise, says Sukhbir Singh Badal
Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal during an interview in Chandigarh. His strategy hinges on bolstering the party’s Panthic base and taking rivals head on.(Sanjeev Sharma/HT)

Unlike the other allies of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Shiromani Akali Dal remains unruffled by the ferment over the controversial Citizenship ( Amendment) Act. But, at the helm of the country’s oldest regional party, now in its centenary year, Sukhbir Singh Badal, 58, has to look over his shoulders for other reasons: An internal revolt led by Akali stalwart and Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa who, recently joined by his son and MLA Parminder Singh, has emerged as a rallying figure for anti-Badal Akalis and disparate Sikh factions , all fancying themselves as a third force in Punjab politics.

The unfolding upheaval, now potentially at a tipping point, poses the most serious challenge that Sukhbir has faced since his elevation as the party president in 2008. Which explains why he has lately been in an overdrive to keep his flock together and burnish his Panthic credentials. Combative against rivals and cautious on the
citizenship law, Sukhbir spoke to Hindustan Times at his sparsely-furnished MLA flat in Chandigarh on
Wednesday. Edited excerpts:

You are an ally of the ruling National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. Is there is a case for reconsidering the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act ( CAA) in view of opposition parties’ concerns and street protests across the country?

I am not for a re-think. My party’s view is that CAA should mention ‘minorities’ instead of naming religious communities. Nobody in the country should feel that they have been omitted or left out.

But, other NDA allies, chiefly Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik who had supported the bill in the Parliament, have refused to implement CAA?

I cannot comment on other allies or on their agenda and why are they changing their decision now because every state has its own perspective. Akali Dal has been sticking to its position right from the beginning. In Punjab, there may not be a case of Pakistani Muslim seeking Indian citizenship due to persecution, but we are for considering that on case-to-case basis. Even if we put the Muslims on the list of communities eligible under the CAA, it does not make any difference, but will earn you the goodwill.

But, you only expressed an opinion and never took a stand on inclusion of Muslims.

We are suggesting that even now. We fought for the Sikhs of Pakistan and Afghanistan who stand to gain
citizenship. We cannot jeopardise their rights now.

The Amarinder Singh government has taken a clear stand against CAA-NRC and NPR, saying it will not implement in Punjab?

Captain sa’ab ( chief minister Amarinder Singh) cannot take any stand. He is governed by the direction of the Gandhi family.

His government is likely to bring a resolution against the CAA in the assembly session. What will be Akalis’ stand?

That is just a PR exercise. We will stick to the position that we took in Parliament. That is, we should include Muslims in the CAA beneficiaries.

What do you make of unrelenting protests across the country?

Lot of politics has started coming into it. Now, it is one-upmanship. It is difficult to judge the real sentiments of the people because everybody has jumped onto the CAA bandwagon. Everybody is looking at his own interest now.

Should the Modi government reach out to dissenters? As an ally, what will be your advice?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a seasoned politician. May be they are trying (to reach out). How can I advise? They themselves have a lot of advisers. Why should I get into it?

There is a perception that the CAA represents an aggressive Hindutva which has accentuated a sense of anxiety among minorities, especially Muslims.

Look, this country belongs to everybody. Sikhs are the most liberal of them. Our Guru made a sacrifice for other religions. Going by the philosophy, a Muslim is as Indian as a Hindu or a Sikh. That is the idea of India. No government should make anybody feel insecure. I gave example of my father Parkash Singh Badal in the Parliament. Every community felt that he is their leader. He developed religious places of all communities. These are the ways which give people confidence. It is duty to the government to make every community feel that it is part of India.

The opposition says the CAA goes against the secular grain of the Constitution.

A lot of political games have started at this moment. Every political party has jumped in to take advantage of the situation from all sides. In such a ‘khichdi’, the common man’s views are not coming out. Let there be a stop to all this. If the politics (over CAA) continues, it will create more problems for the nation.

How satisfied is the Akali Dal with the current consultative mechanism in the NDA?

Consultation should be more than what it is now. Because lot of issues crop up in a nation as complex as India. Even I have requested the BJP president that the NDA constituents should meet regularly. If not all of them together, they can be called individually or region-wise, because each partner has its own issues. That way, a lot of feedback can come up.

Perception is that the BJP is taking Akalis for granted?

Nobody can take us for granted. The Akali Dal has its own history and commitments. Our relationship with the BJP is perfect. We have no problem. It has nothing to do with politics of give or take. That is why our relationship has not got into crisis like the one the BJP had with the Shiv Sena. We respect their turf and they respect ours.

SAD is facing a fresh bout of rebellion led by its veteran face Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and his son Parminder. How do you look at their challenge to your authority?

Their action is a blessing in disguise for the party. They were long discarded by the people. Churning takes place in every party. But, we have gone from strength to strength. Both Dhindsa and Ranjit Singh Brahampura had credited me for winning the assembly elections in 2007 and 2012. They are the ones who had proposed and seconded my name as the party president. My father never said no to them for anything. Nor did I. Sangrur and Tarn Taran were the traditional Akali bastions. But, in last 30 years, they became the most unsafe constituencies for Akalis. That was because of non-performance and autocratic conduct of Dhindsa and Brahampura.

But, they accuse you of running party undemocratically like a dictator.

If all senior leaders are in the core committee and Mr Dhindsa himself was in it, how can he say it is undemocratic? What is the parameter for a politician’s credibility? If he wins elections, it means people like him. If he doesn’t, they don’t like him. Dhindsa sa’ab, who now calls himself a tall leader, has been a serial loser for last thirty years. He had lost even in 1997 when the party had swept the assembly polls. But, every time he lost, Badal sa’ab still put him in the position of power — whether it was chairmanship of power board or planning board.

Last time, we had promised a Rajya Sabha seat to Daljit Singh Cheema because he was denied the ticket. But, when Dhindsa lost, he demanded the Rajya Sabha nomination which my father agreed to, denying Cheema his due. Was the party undemocratic then? Likewise, when Parminder lost the Lok Sabha elections last year from his family’s home turf, I made him the leader of legislature party. Was I dictator then? The dictatorship of Dhindsa sa’ab can be judged from the fact he didn’t allow his son to take a decision on his political future and told him that ‘either you leave the Badals or I will disown you’.

Your detractors say the Akali Dal under you abandoned the Panthic ideology and agenda.

Did they say all this when they were enjoying power as Akalis? They have stabbed Panth in the back and are now projecting themselves as more Panthic than us. Dhindsa sa’ab is now aligning with Paramjit Singh Sarna who is a Congress member. He is saying all this under frustration. The Brand Dhindsa was built by the party. He wants me to resign for the party’s defeat in 2017. Did he resign as secretary general when he lost six elections? Did Parminder resign when he lost the Lok Sabha polls by two lakh votes and came third in is bastion Sangrur. I and my wife won the Lok Sabha polls. So, who is Panthic? Those elected by the Panth or ones rejected?

Is the SAD staring at another split?

Not at all. When Manpreet Badal left us, everyone said the party will split. Individuals can’t destroy a party. The Shiromani Akali Dal is bigger than thousand individuals. If I leave the party, Sukhbir Singh Badal will be finished but SAD will be there. If someone wants to be a human bomb and destroy the party, we will give our life but never allow that.

But, the Dhindsas and Taksalis want to free SAD from the Badals and revive its old glory.

My father has served the party for seven decades and became chief minister five times because of his credibility with the people and the Panth. I have been chosen the party president for the third time by delegates elected by 47 lakh members. Why do they need to free Akali Dal from an elected president? Why don’t they start their own party ? Let’s see how many people go with them. They are not Akali Dal Taksali. They are Akali Dal ‘nakli’(fake).

Do you see the breakaway Akalis forging a third front ahead of the 2022 assembly polls?

Today people go on credibility. If you look at the list of Taksali leaders, they never won elections in 30 years. People had a very bad experience with the third front in 2017. People want future of Punjab. Can you name one thing that Amarinder Singh has done for the state in last three years? When in power, we never said ‘khazana khaali’ (empty coffers). This is the defence of incompetent rulers.

The probe into the sacrilege cases is still hanging over your head.

We are not scared because we have not done anything wrong. Lies will always be lies.

Captain has hinted that he is here to stay and may again lead the party in the 2022 assembly polls.

I am very happy for him. People of Punjab will decide whether they want him to stay or not. And the way he is performing, they have surely made up their mind to retire him.

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