The BJP is on song these days. Almost anything the party touches turns to gold, thanks largely to the presence of a modern Midas in its ranks. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have built an impressive political edifice virtually on the ruins of a party that not too long ago wore the look of eternity in Indian politics. What is most significant here is that the agenda on which India’s new political icon steered his party to the national cameos is a well-crafted ensemble of modern political ideas. Its colours were drawn not from saffron factories – harsh and abrasive – but from the rainbow – natural, soft and inclusive. It was based politically on liberal and open democracy, socially on the ideal of a tolerant and secular state and economically on a futuristic development model driven by the idea of transparent and responsive corporates with compassion and conscience. The entire Modi campaign saw a marked departure from the trademark BJP rabble.
Herein lies what is at once an opportunity and a challenge, both for him personally and for the country.
And nowhere will this opportunity and challenge emerge sharper than in Punjab. And the anvil on which this challenge and opportunity will be tested and moulded will undoubtedly be the relations between two of the principal political players in the state: the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
At stake are not political ascendency, individual egos or spoils of power for either of the two parties.
At stake is peace and communal harmony not only in the sensitive border state of Punjab but to an extent in the entire country. And at test will be the ability of leaders of the two parties to look beyond the immediate and work for future goals for the country. In a country which, despite its increasing unitarism, remains federal in spirit and character, the dynamics of relations between a strong national majority party, and one of the strongest regional political organisations in India have to be seen in a context much larger than partisan politics.
Punjab is the only major state, other than Kashmir, where the national majority is a provincial minority. Further, the Sikhs are a national minority but a provincial majority in Punjab. No other state in the country carries this creative yet explosive paradox. So far, the BJP and the Akali Dal have together managed this paradox with a finesse seldom associated with India’s political class. Like it or not, the BJP is identified with India’s majority. And yet, its most dependable and longest standing ally in the past nearly 70 years is a party that proudly represents India’s most vocal and stridently patriotic minority community, the Sikhs. Each party has so far disallowed strident and discordant radicalisation of conflicting identities by elements either within their own ranks or those sniping at them from the tramlines. In the process, they have salvaged the cosmopolitan spirit of Punjab and delivered what looked almost impossible at one time: first created and then occupied a proud secular common ground.
Not many people are aware how the Akali-BJP relations have always been the best barometer of the mood of the state in ways more than just political. The graph of health of Punjab’s social harmony runs concurrent with the graph of Akali-BJP relations. Since the reorganisation of the state in 1966, the SAD and the BJP have parted ways only once – from the early ’80s to the mid-’90s. And that was the only time when Punjab saw bitter, fratricidal violence at an unprecedented scale. At one time during this phase, the destiny of the nation seemed to hang by a dangerously slender thread – all because social and religious fabric in Punjab had got badly fractured. It needed the present chief minister Parkash Singh Badal on the one hand and one of the country’s best loved leaders from the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on the other to show political daring to re-start what proved to be not only a political alliance but a veritable social cohesion for Punjab and the country. A Hindustan Times front-page picture of these two leaders hugging and laughing together in 1996 reset the mood of the state and of the country where communal relations were concerned.
PEACE AND HARMONY
Never has peace and communal harmony looked in any danger as long as these two outfits have stayed together. As one who has worked closely with Badal for over 35 years now, I am fully aware of what great risks the Akali stalwart took at that time by offering unconditional support to Vajpayee at a time when the BJP most needed it in Delhi. 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 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. I strongly believe that apart from the Khalsa Heritage Monument at Anandpur Sahib, history will rate Akali-BJP ties as Badal’s greatest gift to peace, communal harmony and stability in the country.
Almost two decades later, Badal and Prime Minister Modi re-worked that chemistry when the Akali leader virtually named NaMo as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate – even ahead of his own party. And the Prime Minister showed singular grace when, at Ahmedabad last year, he described Badal as “the country’s most seasoned and respected statesman and a father figure.”
It hurts me these days when I see some people showing less than the requisite seriousness while talking about AkaliBJP relations. I know there are boys in both the parties, and that boys will be boys. But Punjab and the country require their boys to be men now, and heed the example of Badal, Vajpayee and Modi, and not chip away at the strong and precious edifice of peace and communal harmony symbolised by the Akali-BJP relations so far. At stake once again are interests that Punjab and the country can never afford to trifle with.
(The writer is adviser to the Punjab chief minister and a political commentator. The views expressed are personal)