117 seats, no Sikh leader: BJP’s 2022 Mission Punjab begins with hunt for credible local faces
New Delhi: Set to face the Punjab elections on its own for the first time in 25 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to induct prominent Sikh faces ahead of the 2022 assembly polls in the state. The BJP has been struggling to make headway in Punjab ever since its oldest ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), broke off ties in September last year over the three new farm laws passed by the central government. It brought to an end a 23-year relationship — the two had first allied for the 1997 Punjab assembly elections. The BJP now chiefly has three major problems in Punjab. It is facing the wrath of farmers in the state, a majority of them Sikhs, over the farm laws. The party does not have enough Sikh faces at the constituency level, given that it will be contesting on all 117 seats in the state as opposed to the earlier 23 — its share when it was in alliance with SAD. The BJP also has no leader strong enough to match the likes of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress and SAD’s Parkash Singh Badal, the two Sikh political heavyweights in the state. Faced with such dim prospects, the BJP high command recently called state leaders to Delhi for a brainstorming session to decide on the strategy for the assembly elections. Sources told ThePrint that Home Minister Amit Shah instructed state BJP leaders to identify 300-400 committed party workers in every constituency and also look out for Sikh intellectuals who can be inducted into the party. The party had on 16 June admitted several Sikh intellectuals, among them former Guru Kashi University vice-chancellor Jaswinder Singh Dhillon, and lawyers Harinder Singh Kahlon, Jagmohan Singh Saini and Nirmal Singh Mohali. They all joined the BJP in the presence of Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and general secretary Dushyant Kumar Gautam. Subhas Sharma, the Punjab BJP general secretary, told ThePrint that while those who joined are not political leaders, but influencers and achievers in their respective fields. “They are fresh Sikh faces who will break the perception that Sikhs are unhappy with the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi),” Sharma said. “The party is searching for such prominent faces including professors, vice-chancellors, doctors and advocates in the state.” A second Punjab BJP leader, who did not wish to be identified, said the party may also accommodate disgruntled leaders of other parties. “We didn’t expect the farmers’ protest and Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s exit from the cabinet. We have to now fight elections in this polarised situation. It will be even more difficult if we do not resolve the farmers’ deadlock before the elections but as a national party, we also have the opportunity to enhance our organisational strength,” the Punjab leader said. “Our vote share was 9 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Punjab. There will also be large-scale defections in other parties in the coming days. Candidates who do not get tickets will knock on the doors of the BJP.” Party focus on Sikhs Since 1997, the BJP has never had to fight for the Sikh vote, which was the SAD’s strength. The BJP had instead backed Dalit faces to better its caste arithmetic in Punjab. The BJP’s Punjab Dalit leaders include Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Som Parkash, who is also the Hoshiarpur MP, and Vijay Sampla, former Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment and current chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. So while the SAD catered to Jatt Sikhs, who comprise 25 per cent of the population, the BJP looked to make its place among the Dalits who are close to 32 per cent of the population, while keeping its traditional Hindu vote in urban areas. The BJP is now looking to assuage the anger among Sikhs, particularly farmers. Sources said the state unit has been told to distribute a booklet, prepared by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting at the peak of the farmers’ protest in January, to 150 prominent Sikh families in every assembly segment. District party leaders will be personally visiting the families to hand over the books and get pictures uploaded on social media for wider outreach, and to negate the perception that farmers are against the BJP, the sources said. The booklet mentions PM Narendra Modi’s special relationship with Sikhs. It also contains material detailing the Congress’ role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Kartarpur corridor developed during Modi’s tenure and the central government’s efforts to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in 2019.