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BJP's Punjab toolkit post agitation: Co-opt Sikh elites - left, right and centre | View

India Today logo India Today 22-01-2022 Harmeet Shah Singh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib in New Delhi in December 2020. (Photo: PTI file) Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib in New Delhi in December 2020. (Photo: PTI file)

When the BJP released its first list of 34 candidates for the Punjab election on Friday, the line that stood out from Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat's tweet was, "It's representative of all."

CONNECTING THE DOTS

That this first list alone had 13 Sikhs and a dozen farmers was prominently highlighted in Punjabi newspapers.

In alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal from 1997 to 2020, the BJP played second fiddle to the Badals, contesting only 23 of the 117 seats in Punjab. The two parties ruled the state together for three full terms, two of them in a row from 2007 to 2017.

In the evolving arrangement with its new allies - Captain Amarinder Singh's Lok Congress Party and Akali veteran Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa's group, the BJP is expected to have the lion's share of the total seats.

A week ago, Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri told India Today's Rahul Kanwal in an interview that the Bharatiya Janata Party can emerge as a party that espouses Sikh interests.

"The Shiromani Akali Dal is not the only Sikh party in Punjab. Why can't the BJP be a Sikh party?" he wondered. "I genuinely believe the BJP under Mr Modi, whose actions speak for themselves, can become a party representing not only Sikh aspirations but Sikh interests."

When asked how a party that advocates Hindutva can get along with the Sikhs, Puri spoke about cutting "the lunacy" out on both sides.

"There's no incompatibility there. You can have a mainstream Bharatiya Janata Party, with all that it stands for, also representing hardcore Sikh aspirations and interests in Punjab," he said.

FROM CONFRONTING TO CO-OPTING

Just a little more than a year ago, the police in the BJP-governed Haryana erected barricades, fired water cannons and used force to stop protesting farmers, mostly Sikhs, from marching into New Delhi.

Synchronously, propagandists and trolls loyal to the ruling party took out their trademark playbook against anti-government demonstrations and labelled the farmers with turbans and flowing beards 'terrorists', 'foreign-funded Khalistanis', 'Naxals' and so on.

If that wasn't enough, the protest sites along the Delhi borders were turned into what resembled heavily militarized international border fences.

Iron nails were embedded on the highways and boulders wrapped with barbed wire were put up to block the farmers at Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur borders in the wake of the events at Red Fort on January 26, 2021.

In August, a viral video showed an IAS officer issuing "break-their-heads" orders against protesting farmers in Karnal.

And in yet another dramatic escalation, in October 2021, an SUV connected to the son of a central minister ploughed into demonstrators in the Sikh belt of Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh.

The yearlong farmers' protest, which originated in Punjab, was the most vocal and sustained expression of dissent against the powerful Modi government.

That said, the way the BJP has now moved to reach out to the Sikhs hasn't been any less dramatic.

In the run-up to the election on February 20, it is the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal that are catching eyeballs during the rally-less campaign. Even the farmers' Sanyukt Samaj Morcha has been seen more in newspapers and videos than on the ground.

The BJP has no major stake in Punjab. It fared poorly in the state even during the peak of the Modi wave.

Even if rallies are allowed, it is still likely to be difficult for the saffron party to campaign confidently in the hinterlands of Punjab, where the peasantry remains badly bruised by the events of the past year-and-a-half

Yet, the BJP appears set on its mission for a longer-term objective.

And for that, it now seems to be exercising the option of political co-opting over confronting.

This mission appears to be focused on the elite and not on the general population.

BEYOND ELECTIONS: ABSORBING SIKH ELITES

On Tuesday, Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh, a former army chief and India's first Sikh to hold the post, joined the BJP in Punjab. He left the Badals' party in 2018.

Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi, a sitting MLA originally from the Congress, now features in the BJP's first list of candidates in the state.

Former Punjab Director General of Police Sarbdeep Singh Virk, former chairman of Punjab Cooperative Bank Avtar Singh Zira, industrialist Harcharan Singh Ranauta and former Akali leader Sarabjit Singh Makkar proudly posed for a photo when they joined the BJP last month.

This co-opting exercise of the Sikh elite spans the full spectrum.

In December-end, a former leader of Simranjit Singh Mann's party, Rajdev Singh Khalsa, was formally inducted into the BJP along with former Congress MLA Fateh Singh Bajwa and others.

Rajdev Singh Khalsa was an MP from Sangrur in 1989 as a representative of Mann's Sikh rightist party.

Earlier this month, a delegation of Sikhs led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, the BJP's ally, met Union home minister Amit Shah to request the release of Sikh prisoners facing trials or serving indefinite jail terms in connection with TADA/POTA cases.

That the top BJP leadership in the government agreed to hear this request in person in itself marks a material shift.

This was a departure from the harsh stand the Modi government took diplomatically during Justin Trudeau's visit to India in 2018, when a convicted Sikh extremist was found to be part of the Canadian prime minister's entourage.

In statecraft, policy concessions to dissenting populations aren't uncommon, which is what happened when the central government repealed the three farm laws in November.

But at the same time, the powers that be also tend to move to build strategic relationships with elites from the same dissenting populations in order to avoid similar mobilisation in the future.

"BATTLE FOR SIKH PSYCHE IS ON"

At this stage, the ordinary Sikhs of Punjab couldn't care less about the BJP absorbing their political elites.

But for a party nursing grander ambitions than its stupendous victory in the Lok Sabha election of 2019, the Sikh co-opting project should not be underestimated.

Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri couldn't have summed it up better when he said, "The battle for the Sikh hearts and mind, the Sikh psyche, I think that thing is on."

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