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Singh is King? Not for the Akalis

By Jaideep Sarin, IANS,

Chandigarh : The ruling Akali Dal in Punjab – a party that derives its support base from Punjab’s dominant Sikh and particularly rural population – has finally decided not to let religious affiliations dominate its political leanings.

By choosing not to vote in the crucial vote of confidence over the India-US nuclear deal in favour of the Manmohan Singh government, the Akalis have thrown their lot with alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of supporting the country’s first Sikh prime minister.

Akali Dal’s chief mentor and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has already accepted that he would take the blame for voting out the country’s first Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

With eight MPs in the Lok Sabha, the Akalis have been under pressure from various quarters, including the Punjab Congress, to support Manmohan Singh in the July 22 trust vote. The main argument extended was that Manmohan Singh was the first Sikh to be elevated as prime minister and that his standing and integrity were beyond doubt.

The Congress even reminded the Akalis that they had in 1982 voted with the Congress nominee for the presidential election when Giani Zail Singh was in the fray. He went on to become the first Sikh president of the country.

More recently, in 2005, the Akalis voted with the Congress in Punjab when the Amarinder Singh government in Punjab abrogated water sharing agreements with neighbouring states.

The compulsion for the Akalis this time is that they share power with the BJP in the state. Since the Akali Dal does not have a clear majority in the assembly, the party has to depend on the BJP with 19 legislators to remain in power.

Congress leaders and others in Punjab have been asking the Akalis to vote conscientiously on this issue giving the recent example of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

The Shiv Sena, another alliance partner of the BJP, voted against the official BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) presidential candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in the election to side with the Congress nominee Pratibha Patil. The Shiv Sena extended the argument that Patil was a ‘Maharashtrian’ and that the party was proud to be supporting her.

However, Badal has categorically pointed out that his party’s decision to not support Manmohan Singh showed the “secular” credentials of the Akali Dal.

Akali leaders know that despite being a Sikh and hailing from post-partition Punjab, Manmohan Singh does not have much of a political base in the community or in the state. So, not supporting him at this stage would not make much of a difference to their political base.