Political experts say the BJP’s current expansion in Punjab makes it clear that it wants to take Sikhs along and show that the party is not against them. However its lack of Muslim representation remains a sore factor.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will soon not have a single Muslim representative in parliament and assemblies, the saffron party in Punjab is on an expansion spree by appointing members of the Sikh community.
The Punjab Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has appointed five Punjab Congress leaders, a sitting Congress mayor and two leaders of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), most of them belonging to the Sikh community, this month.
A day after he joined the saffron party, Kewal Dhillion, a two-time Congress MLA from Barnala, was declared BJP’s candidate for the Sangrur parliament bypoll on June 23. Dhillon belongs to the Jat Sikh community.The Sangrur seat fell vacant after Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Bhagwant Mann became the chief minister.
Four former Congress cabinet ministers who have joined the BJP are Gurpreet Kanger, Raj Kumar Verka, Balbir Singh Sidhu and Shyam Sunder Arora.
Mohali city mayor Amarjit Singh, who had hopped over to the BJP on June 4, is likely to retain his seat as he had claimed that all the 31 Congress councillors had extended full support to him.
Political analyst Pramod Kumar told The Wire that the BJP’s current expansion in Punjab makes it clear that it wants to take Sikhs along and show that the party is not against them – a feeling that engulfed the community as a result of the year-long farmers’ protest, due to BJP’s lack of prompt action.
Several political experts also see the latest appointments as an extension of the BJP’s outreach programmes for Sikhs that began last year before the Punjab assembly elections. Manjinder Singh Sirsa, former president of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, was among first prominent leaders from the Sikh community to join the BJP.
In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a group of Sikh intellectuals at his official residence, where he spoke about his association with Sikhs over the years and the work his government has done for them.
The Union home ministry had also announced that December 26 will be observed as ‘Veer Baal Diwas’ as a tribute to the 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh’s four sons who were executed by the Mughals. On 21 April, the prime minister addressed the nation from the Red Fort on the 400th Parkash Purab of Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur.
Some political experts say that the BJP is trying woo Sikhs to repair the historical mistrust due to the ‘Hindu nation’ assertion by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – BJP’s ideological branch. They say that the Sikh community sees themselves as an independent religion and with a unique identity, and therefore, fears that the RSS wants them to assimilate into Hinduism.
However, a former Congress leader, now in the BJP, disagrees.
Political analyst Pramod Kumar also said: “The BJP giving political space to Sikhs dispels this very misconception.”
BJP state president, Ashwani Sharma, called it an ‘old narrative’. He told The Wire that ‘Sabka Sath and Sabka Vishwas‘ have been the core ideology of the party under Prime Minister Modi. “In fact, if there is any party which has addressed issues related to ‘faith’ of Punjabis, it is Modiji’s government.” He said this while referring to the opening of Kartarpur Sahib corridor which allowed Sikh pilgrims to visit the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara where Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, spent his last days.
A political necessity
BJP’s expansion in Punjab is a political necessity too. The post-poll analysis of the Punjab assembly elections by Lokniti revealed that the BJP got just 3% of Sikh votes, despite the fact that 58% of the total state population is Sikh.
The BJP also failed to receive a substantial number of votes from the Hindu community, which once was its core voter base. Overall, the voters appeared to be fed up with the traditional parties and wanted change.
In the 117-member assembly, AAP created history by winning 92 seats – the highest tally for any party in four decades; the BJP won two seats, SAD three and the Congress 18.
During its 25-year alliance with SAD, the BJP did not contest more than 23 seats out of a total 117 assembly segments. There was a time when it had an 80% strike rate, for instance, winning 19 out of 23 seats in the 2007 elections.
After its alliance broke off with SAD over farm laws, it fought the 2022 Punjab elections in alliance with disgruntled former Congress chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, and splinter Akali group. However, it won only two seats against the 73 contested seats.
Political analyst Pramod Kumar said that apart from placating Sikhs through its expansion spree, the BJP is trying to outcast AAP as well. After its victory in Punjab, AAP has become a political challenger equally for the BJP as it is for the Congress.
In poll-bound Gujarat, where BJP has been ruling for the last 27 years, AAP is more vocal than the Congress.
However, according to Kumar, “challenging AAP just by poaching leaders will not be enough, since AAP thrives unconventionally by building perception”.
“The way to beat AAP is to beat it in its own way of politics,” he added.
Addressing a press conference, AAP chief spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang said BJP’s politics is “flawed” and “anti-people”, and the BJP has taken the “trash” of Congress.
He added that those who have joined the BJP to save their skin in the wake of the AAP government’s crackdown on corruption are under the misconception that they are untouched.
The Mann-led AAP government on June 7 arrested former Congress minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot for alleged corruption during his term as forest minister.
BJP Punjab chief Ashwani Sharma told The Wire that the people of Punjab are already disappointed with the AAP government in the state. It has not only faltered on law and order, but the state government is being remotely controlled from New Delhi, he said.
“It is therefore important for us to keep strengthening the organisation and bring in all like-minded people since it is only the BJP that can fill this political vacuum in Punjab in time to come,” he added.