There is a battle going on in the Shiromani Akali Dal, in its 100th year. The battle is for party chief Sukhbir Singh Badal to stay politically relevant and seek legitimacy for his group as a real dissident of the party. His father Prakash Singh Badal’s friend, and the party’s number 2 for more than two decades, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa was declared ‘elected’ president of SAD in the first week of July. This rebel faction expelled Sukhbir Badal.
In the last three years, since the SAD-BJP alliance lost power, many of the top leadership in the party have resigned or were thrown out. In February, Dhindsa and his son Parminder Singh Dhindsa were expelled from the party for anti-party activities. Dhindsa is getting close with the BJP’s top leadership in Delhi. Both Akali Dal factions know the BJP has a stronger hold on urban voters and can swing 10 per cent votes for them, pocketing the same number of votes for their own candidates. Just before the 1996 general elections, Prakash Singh Badal with Dhindsa’s help formed the present faction of Akali Dal by bringing together several splinter groups of Akali Dal and those who practised the panthic (Sikh religion) politics. In the previous decade, the state saw the president’s rule or the emergence of his rival faction Akali Dal (Amritsar) led by Simranjit Singh Mann. Later, Akali Dal (Amritsar) was split as leaders like JS Talwandi, Surjit Singh Barnala joined Badal. Mann’s brother-in-law Captain Amarinder Singh merged his faction in the Congress. After 1996, Badal got more acceptance after his alliance with the BJP. However, the BJP is waiting for Dhindsa to make tangible gains before taking him into the fold.
Dhindsa is trying to repeat what Prakash Singh Badal had done, by bringing together the Akali Dal splinters (except for extreme ideologue Simranjit Singh Mann’s faction). Dhindsa will approach the Election Commission with claims on the election symbol. Badal, however, downplayed these developments. His former minister Diljeet Cheema has announced that the election of Dhindsa is illegal. Dhindsa made his claim in the presence of most of Prakash Singh Badal’s erstwhile lieutenants, such as former MP Paramjit Kaur Gulshan, daughter of the former president of SAD Jagdev Singh Talwandi, and former minister Jagdish Singh Garcha. Dhindsa hopes two senior leaders, former MP Prem Singh Chandumajra and former minister Tota Singh, will switch over. These leaders haven’t made any public statements. Badal made a dent into Dhindsa’s plans by winning back former MP Ratan Singh Ajnala and his son Amarpal Singh Bony. With the absence of another Akali Dal rebel Ranjit Singh Brahmpura at the declaration of Dhindsa also exposed further cracks. Their challenge is the SGPC elections next year before Punjab goes for the assembly polls.