Will Badals walk out on Modi and NDA?
Akali-BJP ties run beyond diversity, regionalism.
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Speculations have swirled around since a gurdwara leader loyal to the Badals mounted an unprecedented attack on the Narendra Modi government.
Less than two weeks ago, Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) chief Manjit Singh GK accused the BJP administration at the Centre of anti-Sikh bias.
Posturing for public consumption
His outbursts stemmed from what's been widely perceived - but officially denied — New Delhi's could-shouldering of visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
At a news conference, GK, who also heads the local unit of the Shiromani Akali Dal, recalled Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unscheduled tour of Pakistan and his sitting on a swing with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a riverfront park in Ahmedabad.
"Why these two sets of rules (treatments)?" asked the Badal aide. He was upset about the Lonely Planet style-photos of the Canadian PM, none showing his host Modi halfway through the state guest's week-long trip.
Conjectures rose in a chorus that GK's rhetoric embodied "growing disaffection" between the SAD and the BJP.
After TDP president N Chandrababu Naidu threatened to snap ties with the NDA on Wednesday, March 8, a hypothesis is now being drawn in Sikh circles that if he could, so can the Badals.
They won't in all likelihood.
Delhi's 'unconditional' allies
In order to grasp the SAD-BJP ties fully, let's understand that their relationship moves over and beyond the regular region versus national politics.
Let's go back in time. In 1996, the then Akali president, Parkash Singh Badal, pledged "unconditional support" to the saffron party under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Since then, this vow has been repeated in almost every major election not only in Punjab but also outside wherever the Sikhs have a sizeable presence.
Months before the BJP announced Modi as its candidate for the prime minister, the Akalis led by Sukhbir Singh Badal echoed the same "unconditionality" loudly.
"We do not want to put forward our views. We are a small party. So, being a small party, we are very clear. Whoever the BJP decides, we will support them unconditionally," Badal Jr told reporters in January 2013 when asked about the then Gujarat CM's projection for the top job.
Badal is India's Mandela: Modi
And a year after he assumed power at the Centre, Prime Minister Modi himself hailed Akali veteran Parkash Singh Badal as India's own Nelson Mandela.
"Badal Sahab is sitting here," the PM remarked at an event commemorating socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan's birth anniversary in 2015. "He is the Nelson Mandela of India. The only crime of people like Badal Sahab was that they had political views different from those in power," the prime minister said.
Modi an agent of pristine glory: Badal Sr
Badal Sr's response was no less generous. "The nation," he insisted, "has brought a big change by bringing a government at the Centre under Modi's leadership. This government is working tirelessly to restore the pristine glory of the country." That's how Badal, at 88 in 2015, encapsulated his devotion to the BJP.
That expression should not be seen in isolation. It came from the mouth of a man who had spent 17 years of his life as a political prisoner, a man who fought the Emergency, a man who tore copies of the Indian Constitution in 1984 and a man who took oath as Punjab's chief minister five times under the same constitution.
Despite his feisty political career, Parkash Singh Badal has guaranteed his party's unequivocal backing to the BJP.
It's hard to imagine his heir Sukhbir Singh Badal can revoke that undertaking. Badal Jr has no strong record of taking Indian state or the Centre head on as his father did in the 1970s. The present Akali head is an inheritor - not a builder - of a legacy. Sukhbir Singh Badal is a product of dynastic politics.
Also, Punjab's polity after the events of 1984 has largely been co-opted by central powers in New Delhi. Be it Congress or the Akalis, they have since ruled the state more as undeclared ambassadors of the Union government of the day than as regional players catering to local aspirations.
Harcharan Bains, adviser to the then Punjab chief minister, summarised this alliance in Akali-BJP perspective.
"I am fully aware of what great risks the Akali stalwart (Badal Sr) took at that time by offering unconditional support to Vajpayee at a time when the BJP most needed it in Delhi," Bains wrote in 2014.
"This was by no means a favour, nor a political gambit, as the survival of the minority-BJP government led by a visionary poet - Vajpayee - was known to be a matter of time. But Badal knew how important peace and communal harmony were for his people and how important the symbolism of Akali-BJP alliance was to ensure that peace and communal harmony."
Bains' viewpoint on the SAD-BJP ties, in fact, delivers a broader outlook on Delhi-Punjab relationship post 1984.
The Akalis under the Badals have virtually remained undisputed - yet elected - controllers of Sikh religious power vested in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
The SGPC, casually referred to as mini Sikh Parliament, appoints the head, or the jathedar, of the Akal Takht, the faith's highest temporal authority.
Despite serious accusations of fraud and wrongdoing against the top SAD leadership, no other group has still been able to emerge as a formidable political force in Punjab's Sikh religious sphere.
That way, the Badals - junior or senior - can boast of a unique standing. Whether or not they rule the state, their stranglehold on religious institutions serves a bigger purpose that suits the interests of the Indian establishment.
Had that not been the case, the UPA could easily have demolished them during its 10-year rule. After all, governments in New Delhi are immensely powerful.
But what happened between 2004 and 2014 wrote a new history in Punjab, with the Akalis winning an unprecedented second term in a row to govern the state along with their monopoly on the SGPC.
Why captain, Modi sound similar
It's not without reason present chief minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, too sounds like Modi at times.
Months before the BJP government did what it did or didn't during Trudeau's visit, the Punjab CM had laid the groundwork for the snub by not meeting Canada's Sikh defence minister during his tour of the state.
That probably explains the distinctive contours of the Centre's kinship with Punjab - irrespective of who's in power and where.
In larger statecraft involving the state, regional and religious aspirations don't really count. Alliances, covert or overt, do.
There's no merit, therefore, in theories a nationalistic government at the Centre would let go of an unquestioning partner or vice versa. It's wishful thinking at the most.