Why the BJP juggernaut is not riding high in Punjab

The state is immune to Modi’s charm and Sangh’s tactics; among the main reasons are its strong regional identity and its lack of interest in municipal politics

Today, driven by their economic interests, the people of Punjab would rather have cordial relations with Pakistan and peace on their border than agonize over partition. (File photos)

Much has been written in the past two weeks about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s dramatic victory in recently concluded Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, where the party defied all the odds and returned to power for another term.

However, little has been heard or said about the BJP’s inability to put down roots in Punjab. Unlike other states, the people of this northern state were immune to the charm offensive of the Saffron Party and the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP could only win two seats in the 2022 elections.

This is not the first time that the BJP and Modi have failed to win in Punjab. In the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, when the entire northern belt of India was in the grip of Modi mania, Punjab turned out to be the odd one out, with the BJP only winning two seats in Lok Sabha . A similar trend also continued for the party in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.

Electoral foray without SAD

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To be fair, the BJP did not expect to form a government in Punjab this time. But, he was hoping to improve on his earlier performances and expand his footprint after his longtime ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) cut ties with him.

Read also : Will the victory of the AAP in Punjab strengthen India’s alternative political front?

As the junior coalition partner of the SAD, the BJP’s share of seats was limited to 23, which prevented it from expanding its social base in Punjab beyond the urban Hindu voter. No longer constrained by a prominent ally, the BJP believed this election season gave it an opportunity to test the waters as a major political force. He contested 65 of the 117 seats in the State Assembly and was clearly the main partner in the alliance he sewed with Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s SAD (Sanyukt) .

Yet the BJP’s march forward did not extend to Punjab. Disillusioned with traditional political parties, voters here chose to trust the new Aam Aadmi party but were unwilling to give the BJP a chance despite the party establishing itself as the country’s central political hub over the past eight years.

This is despite the BJP’s best efforts to woo the Punjabi voters, especially the Sikh voter. The prime minister personally announced his government’s decision to repeal controversial farm laws on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti, hoping to appease the angry Sikh community that was at the forefront of protests in farmers that had been going on for a year. The Modi government opened the Kartarpur corridor shortly before the elections so that Sikh pilgrims could travel to Pakistan to offer prayers at the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib. The Center also worked overtime to ensure safe passage for Sikh families stranded in Afghanistan as Modi toured several gurdwaras on different holy occasions.

In the run up to the Assembly elections, there has also been special outreach by the BJP to the Sikh community, especially professionals and intellectuals, to push for greater acceptability among urban Sikhs. The party made concurrent efforts to woo the Sikh peasantry by sending batches of party workers to villages in Punjab to dispel the popular perception that the Modi government was anti-farmer.

Why a stunning victory in Punjab is both an opportunity and a challenge for the AAP

Read also : But none of this yielded the election results that the BJP had obviously been praying for.

Poor acceptability

“The BJP and the Jan Sangh have never been accepted in Punjab. There are historical reasons for this and deep cultural, spiritual and political differences between the Sikh community and Hindu groups,” said Harminder Kaur, author and expert on Sikh affairs.

She said that although the Jan Sangh/BJP and the SAD had worked together since the reorganization of the state in 1966, first as post-election allies and then as pre-election partners, this alliance was a political constraint because the social bases of the two parties complemented each other. However, the ideological divide between them was a constant irritant in their relationship.

Differences over the establishment of a separate Punjabi-speaking state and the declaration of Punjabi as an official language were once a major source of tension between Hindu fundamentalist groups and the Sikh community. Moreover, there has been a serious trust deficit between the BJP, especially its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Sikhs who feel that the organization is trying to deny them their separate religious identity and erase their distinct culture by propagating that Sikhs are essentially a part of the larger Hindu family.

Kaur says that in the post-partition period when the demography of Punjab underwent a change, Hindu groups led by Arya Samaj argued that since the Sikh Khalsa was created to protect Hindus against Muslims, Sikhs should accept a ghar wapsi that Muslims were no longer a factor.

RSS has not given up

Of course, despite repeated setbacks, the RSS did not let go of the Punjab. In fact, the Sangh intensified its activities in the state after the BJP came to power in 2014. The number of RSS-run shakhas (chapters) steadily increased while Sangh pracharaks (ideologues) regularly toured the state to convince people of their ideology.

The RSS operates through its Sikh branch, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, for this purpose. Lack of trust and increased activity by the RSS has been a constant source of tension between the Akalis and the BJP, leading to clashes between their workers and the assassination of several RSS workers. The Akalis were particularly disturbed because the BJP was using the RSS to expand its footprint in rural areas in violation of their unspoken pact that the two sides would not trample territory.

Encouraged by its recent election victories elsewhere and unaware of its poor showing in Punjab, the BJP will not give up its efforts to spread its wings in the northern state. Its first objective will henceforth be to sideline the other political actors, in particular the Congress, and to appear as the main opposition to the AAP in power.

Strong regional identity

However, Prof. Surinder S Jodhka, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, does not think the BJP will find much success. “Punjab has a strong regional identity and because of that, it is possible that the Akali Dal may revive in the future,” he said.

The BJP, argued Jodhka, will struggle because it will be difficult for them to play the communal card in Punjab, a state with a very small Muslim population. The BJP tried to do this by reviving the memories of the partition by declaring August 14 the Day of Remembrance of the Horrors of the Partition, but the people of Punjab would rather forget it as a sad and unhappy experience. Today, driven by their economic interests, they prefer to have cordial relations with Pakistan and peace on their border. “But they fear that this peace will be disrupted if the BJP is in power,” he said.

Harminder Kaur pointed out that unlike the BJP-RSS, whose ideology is based on spreading the Hindu cause and demonizing Muslims, Sikhs do not hate Muslims as it goes to the root of their beliefs and teachings of their gurus. “The Sikh faith believes in universalism…that you are the child of the same god,” she added.

(The author is a senior political journalist based in Delhi)

(The Fed seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. Any information, ideas or opinions contained in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of the Fed.)

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