The battle for succession within the Shiromani Akali Dal has just begun even though deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal may have won the first round by getting his cousin, Manpreet Badal out of his way for the moment. Manpreet, once the favourite of his uncle and chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is unlikely to give up the fight easily and his unceremonious exit could spell trouble for the ruling coalition of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Akali Dal came to power in 2007 after failing to cross the half way mark in the 117-member Punjab assembly on its own for the first time. Had it not been for the 19 seats won by the BJP, the coalition partners would have been sitting on the opposition benches. The BJP, despite its pivotal role in the formation of the government, did not insist on getting the deputy CM’s position but allowed Sukhbir to become his father’s number two largely because of the Badals’ excellent relations with L.K. Advani.
It is obvious that Sukhbir wanted to settle the succession issue during the lifetime of his ageing father who has been the unquestioned leader of the Akali Dal for several decades. However, many within the Akali Dal rated Manpreet Badal and even Adesh Pratap Kairon who is also related to the family as better bets. But leaving nothing to chance, Sukhbir has managed to get Manpreet out of the way.
But the ramifications of the decision to get Manpreet out of the Cabinet and the party will be felt when the next round of elections take place in 2012. A divided Akali Dal may not be able to pose a stiff challenge to the Congress which is hoping to make a comeback largely because of a strong anti-incumbency factor working against the ruling coalition. But the key factor in the Congress comeback mission would be who leads their 2012 campaign in the state. Even staunch Akali supporters admit that if the Congress uses Captain Amarinder Singh, former CM, as its spearhead, its chances will certainly brighten. Amarinder Singh, who belongs to the Patiala royal family, has the requisite charisma and guts to take on the Akalis.
It is in this context, that many in Punjab are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the new Punjab Congress chief. A section within the Congress, with the blessings of some central leaders, is also toying with the idea of toppling the present Punjab government if circumstances work towards a split within the Akali Dal in view of the latest developments. If that happens, it will be major folly and the Congress may end up with egg on its face.
Sukhbir Badal is also not going to sit idle and could probably get himself elevated as the CM with his father’s blessings. His elevation is merely a matter of time as the Akalis know that they too will have to project someone younger as their supreme leader during the next round of polls. The Akalis are also conscious that without the support of the BJP, it may not be possible to get the crucial Hindu support in the state. Therefore, if Sukhbir is made the CM some time in the future, the BJP may be accommodated in the number two slot.
Manpreet will be a major hurdle when the battle is fought in the Badal’s home constituency since the succession will not be complete for Sukhbir till he puts his stamp of authority in their traditional stronghold. Politics in Punjab is likely to see many more developments in the months ahead and if there is a challenge within the Akali Dal, it will show up nearer to the polls. For the Congress, it will be very crucial to project a mass leader like Amarinder Singh for the final battle. It would be folly to depend on the power politics within the Akali Dal to come back to power. But a Sukhbir vs Amarinder fight would certainly be highly billed and decide which way the state will ultimately go. Between us.