Whither BJP in Punjab?

Whither BJP in Punjab?

The impressive performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in four out of five states that went for Assembly elections has somehow obscured the bleak performance of the party in Punjab. Here, the BJP, as a long-standing junior ally of the Akali Dal, contested from 23 constituencies allotted to it under the coalitional arrangement in place since 1997.

The BJP managed to get barely three seats and its vote percentage went down. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections also the BJP state unit had failed to capitalise fully on the ‘Narendra Modi wave’ that swept the neighbouring states. A debutant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed to win four seats.

What may also be worrying for the Modi-Amit Shah (BJP president)-led party leadership looking for ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ is the scale of the Congress victory in the state to which the BJP lacklustre performance contributed a bit. The unprecedented Congress win could not have come at a more opportune time for the beleaguered party facing a string of electoral setbacks.

The importance of Congress’ Punjab win cannot be undermined merely because of lesser number of parliamentary seats in the state. As a borderland Sikh majority post-conflict state embroiled in inter-state river water/territorial issues, Punjab remains critical to national interest and security. It is equally important politically too.

It is highly unlikely that the party’s endemic decline in such a crucial state would escape the attention of the sharp eyes of BJP top brass, especially as their agenda include saffronising the whole of India. The party leadership riding piggyback on the Akalis had been in power for three terms in the last two decades.

However, even while in power, the state BJP leadership had been widely perceived as being unable to deliver on the party’s promises to its traditional urban social constituency of trading and business groups in place since the Jan Sangh days.

Worse, feuding state leaders in power were viewed as being hands in glove with the unscrupulous Akali regime led by the Badals (Parkash Singh and his son Sukhbir).

Also, the BJP unit under coalitional compulsion has been forced to underplay its ideological thrust, potentially further alienating its core supporters.

Though defeated this time badly, the Akali Dal has largely been successful to retain its panthic support base as its voting percentage (25.2%) shows.

Conscious of a possible future break-up of this alliance, and given Akali Dal’s natural desire to emerge as a single majority party in the state, there have been consistent efforts of Akali leadership to expand its support base in urban Punjab, especially since Sukhbir Badal’s ascendency as the president of the party.

In its efforts, the Akali Dal leadership in the recent elections not only gave tickets to urban Hindu candidates but also adopted an all-inclusive agenda, targeting urban Punjab and the middle classes living there, to the detriment of BJP cause.

Opportunistic alliance
The longevity of Akali Dal-BJP coalition has in fact always remained a puzzle for an outsider, given the diametrically opposed ideologies and political/ cultural agenda of the two parties. So far, the alliance has survived as an opportunistic/ pragmatic one bringing electoral and perceptional gains for the allies.

These two anti-Congress parties complemented each other in terms of their respective social and spatial support bases in the two-community state. Neither the Akali Dal nor the BJP having narrow social support on their own have so far felt confident to take on the Congress.

The Congress has always had decent support base across the urban as well rural Punjab and among both Hindus and Sikhs including the sizeable Dalits having different religious allegiance in the state. On a positive note, alliance in post-conflict Punjab has been helpful in maintaining communal peace and bringing to fore the secular agenda of development and governance after the two decades of insurgency when ethnic issues dominated.

However, there is a question mark about the survival of the Akali-BJP alliance in future. Such a prognosis gets credence from the fact that the BJP has so far always successfully used its tactical alliances with the regional parties like Shiv Sena, BJD, INLD, TMC, AIADMK, JD (S), JD (U) to either mark its electoral presence or expand its support base to emerge as the winning party in its own right before the eventual break-up.

Notably, it is only in Punjab that the party has failed to expand its support base and become a winnable party in its own right.

Rather, it has suffered a decline as the just-concluded elections have shown. Arguably then, the status quo is most likely to change in the coming months. The present electoral debacle may well be the triggering factor.

(The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh)