The Shiromani Akali Dal’s decision not to contest the Delhi assembly elections over differences with the BJP on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has added a fresh strain to perceptively uneasy ties between the long-standing political allies.
The development has not only laid bare fault lines over the CAA within the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, but is also likely to impact the SAD-BJP alliance in Punjab where the Akalis are the dominant partner.
The latest flashpoint stemmed from the SAD’s unequivocal stand in favour of the inclusion of Muslims in the CAA, which evidently raised the BJP’s hackles. The stand was articulated by SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal in an interview with Hindustan Times last week.
“I am not for a rethink on CAA but Muslims should be included. This will earn a lot of goodwill,” he had said – a line that apparently didn’t go down well with the BJP.
The issue flared up in the run-up to the assembly polls in the national capital in which the Akalis were staking claim on alliance tickets from four Sikh-dominated constituencies as part of their tie-up with the BJP. The BJP is said to have asked the Akalis to take a clear pro-CAA stance before finalising the seat-sharing deal. The Akalis baulked at the BJP’s demand and instead opted out of the contest in protest.
The BJP has apparently made up its mind to go it alone as it has fielded its own candidates on the seats that the Akalis had planned to contest. Short of snapping their alliance, both parties have called off their electoral alliance in the national capital – a development that, according to political observers, may play to the advantage of the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in half a dozen constituencies with substantial Sikh voters.
It is not clear yet how their face-off over the contentious CAA will play out within the NDA, but it is sure to impact their ties in Punjab where they contested all elections together since 1996. Despite the “all-is-well” posturing, the rough edges in the SAD-BJP ties have been showing up since the BJP’s second coming at the Centre with a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha election last year.
That was evident in the Haryana assembly polls in October when the BJP refused to accept the Akalis’ demand for a bigger share of seats. Instead, it poached Akali candidates, much to the chagrin of the SAD, which had to go it alone and drew a blank.
The Delhi break-up comes at a time when the SAD is facing rebellion by a section of its veteran leaders led by Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, who has made common cause with the anti-Badal Sikh factions.
“The internal turmoil in the SAD has emboldened the BJP to read the riot act to its partner on the CAA issue,” a senior Akali leader said, requesting anonymity.
The BJP’s tough stance fits the pattern in which its Punjab leaders have been publicly arguing in favour of renegotiating its seat-sharing agreement in the state where the Akalis have long been dominant partners with the saffron party playing second fiddle.
But senior Akali leaders are playing down the impact of the Delhi rupture.
“Punjab and Delhi are entirely different, and the BJP’s leadership knows that,” SAD spokesperson Daljeet Singh Cheema said.
“But we fail to understand why the BJP is so touchy about our demand for including Muslims in the CAA. We voted for the Bill in Parliament. They can’t forget that we have stood with them through thick and thin,” he added.