The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) rule in Punjab has hit an all-time low. Farmers and Sikhs are the two traditional core vote banks of the SAD and both have been severely hit in quick succession. Combined with severe anti-incumbency of eight years of rule in Punjab and with its core constituencies eroded, the next 12 months will be crucial for the party to even remain in the race for the 2017 assembly polls.
Things have been going wrong for the SAD for months now, with some even fixing May 2015 as the turning point for the party when a woman and her daughter were pushed off a running bus belonging to the company co-owned by deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. While the teenage daughter died on the spot, the injured mother became the rallying point for the opposition which showed rare solidarity and joined hands to launch a week-long protest in the state. The success of the protest, more than anything else, proved the Akalis were not invincible, at least not any more. Since then the party has been hurtling, virtually from one crisis to another, gradually losing control over almost every situation.
The state saw a spate of farmer suicides in the past two months, and sugarcane growers, cotton cultivators and basmati growers were left in the lurch due to various reasons. Basmati prices crashed internationally and farmers got one third the price they expected from the crop; cotton crop was damaged by whitefly, and the party had to face major embarrassment when it emerged that even the pesticide provided to the farmers was spurious.
Since the Aam Aadmi Party and Congress were fighting their own internal battles, the left-leaning BKU made the most of the growing sentiment among farmers against the government, emerging as farmer leaders in their own right. Following a six-day rail roko agitation, they brought the government on its knees. Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had to step in to ask the protesters to end the agitation.
On the religion front, the SAD, which has always claimed to stand for the cause of the Sikh Panth, took some seemingly thoughtless decisions leading to an atmosphere of unrest among Sikhs. Hardliners have been working actively in the state for the past two years towards the cause of getting Sikh prisoners released from various jails in the country. Even as the ongoing “fast” by Surat Singh Khalsa had the issue simmering, the Akal Takth chose to pardon Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh last month ruffling already unsettled Sikh feathers. Radical Sikh bodies were up in arms against the move seen as the SAD initiative. Widespread protests forced the Akal Takht to set up a committee to review its own decision, something unheard of.
In this backdrop, all that SAD needed was the Bargari incident where over 100 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, which was stolen in June, were found torn and strewn on Monday in a Kotkapura village. The theft of the ‘bir’ had been largely ignored by the police, who instead were busy cracking down on those demanding an investigation. Months later, the incident has now blown in the face of the Akalis, leaving the field open for the opposition to step in and make political capital out of the sensitive issue.