The BJP's newly appointed Punjab affairs in-charge, Ram Shankar Katheria, left little to speculation on Wednesday as he talked of the party contesting the assembly polls due in 2017 on its own, breaking up with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
"The BJP has no problem in running the government in alliance with SAD; but in case the workers and party leaders wish to fight alone, and a favourable scenario develops in the state, we may have to think like that," Katheria replied to a query here on Wednesday, before ending his two-day visit.
An Akali spokesman responded curtly, telling HT that the BJP could "walk away anytime", though chief minister and SAD patron Parkash Singh Badal said in Bathinda that the alliance should remain intact "for communal harmony".
Katheria's remarks too seemed contradictory to Sunday's statement by BJP's top leader and Union minister Arun Jaitley that the alliance would continue for many years. But, in the context of a below-par show in Punjab in the Lok Sabha polls and then the SAD's alliance with BJP's chief opponent Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana, Katheria was non-committal on retaining the alliance with the SAD. "We will stick to coalition dharma; but if a Haryana-like situation develops the BJP can contest Punjab assembly polls alone," he stated. Having won simple majority in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP recently broke up alliances in Haryana and Maharashtra - winning the former alone for the first time, and emerging as the single largest party in the latter to form the government.
Katheria's call for strengthening the party down to the village level also added weight to the possibility of BJP going it alone. "Now the state leadership has to be strong and enrol more and more members," he said. The BJP has recently started a membership drive.
Katheria also told party workers to take up all issues with the government in case the BJP was not satisfied. His suggestion came after party leaders told him the SAD as majority partner was not giving attention to issues raised by the BJP. At Tuesday's BJP core committee meet Katheria was also told that recommendations of a panel led by BJP's Balramji Dass Tandon to the state government for course correction after LS polls were not given attention.
When contacted for reaction to the BJP in-charge's statements, SAD general secretary and spokesman Maheshinder Singh Grewal told HT that the BJP could walk away anytime: "SAD is the mother party of Punjab, and doesn't need crutches for survival."
Reiterating that the SAD would not take the initiative to break up, he added, "The SAD supported BJP in national interest… But in case the BJP decides to go it alone, the SAD has no problem. We are equipped to fight alone, as one of the oldest parties in the country."
He acknowledged that CM Badal wanted to continue the relations with BJP: "But we can't compromise beyond a point." He stressed that the SAD had "maintained its identity" in the most difficult of times, and would continue to do that.
'Don't want deputy CM post'
Agra MP Katheria, who replaced Shanta Kumar as Punjab BJP in-charge, also ruled out the possibility of the BJP seeking the post of deputy CM. "We don't want that post (deputy CM)," he clarified. Sources said he told the partymen not to make any such demand at this stage as it could spoil the BJP's image. He also termed "untimely" the BJP's reported demand of the excise department in the Punjab regime.
To another query about the procurement of paddy having stopped in the state due to shortage of central funds, his first reaction was: "Nobody told me." But he added immediately that there would be no shortage of funds for procurement.
To a query about the possibility of making former MP Navjot Singh Sidhu the head of the Punjab BJP, the party's new state in-charge said only this: "He (Sidhu) is a party worker and would be called to the state as and when the party feels appropriate."
Former Amritsar MP Sidhu has been a vocal critic of the SAD - the Badals, in particular - over ignoring his constituency. He was replaced by Arun Jaitley as BJP candidate from the holy city reportedly at the SAD's suggestion. Jaitley lost the election, evidently deepening the BJP-SAD fissures. In the latest, during the Haryana poll campaign Sidhu was vocal, and brutal, in his criticism of the SAD for having allied with the INLD.