It has always been a foregone conclusion that in the family-controlled politics of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), its president Sukhbir Singh Badal is the front-runner in the war of succession after his father Parkash Singh Badal finally ceases to be the Chief Minister of Punjab. Therefore, it came as no surprise to anyone when the Akali Dal put forward a proposal to make Sukhbir the Deputy Chief Minister. This will ensure that the transition is smooth and is conducted under the watchful eyes of the veteran state leader who is one of the senior-most and respected chief ministers in the country.
However, the perpetration of family rule in Punjab (at least half-a-dozen ministers in the state are relatives of the Badals) has the state unit of the BJP in tatters. But there is a little it can do about this development. The Badals have got the proposal cleared by the BJP’s central leadership that cannot afford to annoy any of its allies in the run-up to the polls. It is also precisely because of the BJP’s insecurity at the national level that the Badals decided to push Sukhbir’s inclusion into the Cabinet before the Parliamentary polls.
The logic is very clear. In the event of the Akali Dal-BJP combine doing poorly in the polls (as many expect), this transition would not have been possible. The Akali Dal government in Punjab is dependent on the support of the saffron party’s 19 MLAs for survival. Even the central leadership of the BJP would not have allowed the Badals to go ahead with this proposal and matters would have been worse had Sukhbir himself fared badly in the Lok Sabha polls in view of the strong anti-incumbency factor prevalent in the state.
The decision, which may be implemented shortly, will legitimise Sukhbir’s position as number two. All Punjab-watchers know that Sukhbir enjoyed this status even without being in government. Virtually all major decisions were taken after consulting him. But within the Badal clan, there were some reservations over the timing of this formal elevation of Sukhbir. The younger Badal and his brother-in-law Bikramjit Singh Majithia, a minister in the government, were the two most powerful persons in the state after Badal senior. They were seen to be not only calling the shots but had overriding influence on party matters. In the process, they had overshadowed others like Manpreet Badal and Adesh Pratap Kairon, both relatives as well as the other two senior leaders—Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Captain Kamaljeet Singh.
Now Bikramjit has offered to vacate his position in the Cabinet and also in the Assembly to accommodate Sukhbir who is also not keen to contest any longer from the Faridkot Parliamentary constituency he now represents in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. He is likely to contest from Majitha in Amritsar district. This is seen as a safe seat over Noor Mahal in Jallandhar, the seat vacated following the demise of an Akali MLA.
The Badals decided to expedite the appointment of Sukhbir during a family get-together at Ranthambore recently. According to Akali insiders, the proposal was initially resisted by some family members. But the matter was ironed out smoothly. Omar Abdullah’s appointment in J&K also helped in getting the matter resolved. It subsequently got the approval of the core committee and is expected to be implemented shortly.
The BJP, which always attacked the Congress on the dynastic succession issue will have no face to carry on this propaganda in the Parliamentary polls. It knows the development could go against the party’s interests in the state. But state leaders appear to be helpless given the support the Badals have from L.K.Advani and Rajnath Singh.
The Congress is obviously overjoyed with this development. It no longer needs to fend off charges on family-controlled politics. The party that had got only two out the 13 seats in the state now hopes to reverse the trend.
The development is likely to sharpen differences within the Akalis though no one will speak out against the decision till after the Parliamentary polls. And that too only if the Akali-BJP combine is routed. The situation as it exists on the ground is that Sukhbir and his followers are happy that the succession issue has been settled once and for all. The Congress is happy that this could help it wrest back the state. And all this means that the BJP may come out the loser. Between us.