At a time when regional parties are jostling for more space in the national political arena and goading big parties to toe their line in crucial policy matters, it seems reasonable for coalition leaders, such as the main Opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to brace for either winning back lost turf, or making inroads into states where they are a weak electoral force without support from allies.
‘Between brothers’: Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal says the clashes during the recent local body polls will have no effect on the alliance
That is exactly what the BJP has been trying to do in Punjab, where it wants to purge the image of being a “Hindu urban party” and warm up to voters in the Sikh parties-dominated hinterland—to expand its political base on virgin territory and boost its bargaining power in the seat-sharing arrangement with its formidable ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, or SAD.
For a while now, the main Opposition party, say observers, has been waiting for a golden opportunity. It is never easy to get cracking when the ally is the ruling SAD, a predominantly Sikh rural party that has always guarded its domain, and resisted every attempt by the BJP to enter the rural areas of Punjab.
But the local bodies’ elections held on Monday may have changed all that, at least in some small measure. The BJP’s performance was dismal, but the party camp in the state was unfazed.
The party’s logic was simple, say analysts: to invade rural Punjab, especially the SAD bastions of Malwa and Majha, by all means. It was with this rationale that the BJP fielded candidates against the SAD in the local body elections, making the latter angry.
The BJP fielded candidates for 54 seats in zila parishads, or district councils, and 380 seats in panchayats. Elections were held to 20 zila parishads and 141 panchayat samitis.
While the BJP defends its decision to contest the polls against the SAD, political analysts say the party was also trying to take advantage of the worse-case scenario on the other side—the opposition Congress party in the state is a divided house, with two factions warring bitterly.
By contesting the elections, analysts feel, the BJP could make some headway by reaching out to more people in the countryside. After the election results were announced on Thursday, the party’s state president Rajinder Bhandari summed up the mood. “Rural areas were a virgin territory for us and, given the circumstances under which we fought, I think our candidates have done a commendable job.”
The SAD won 85% of the zila parishad and panchayat samitis seats, compared with 6% won by the Congress and 5% by the BJP. Independents fared poorly.
Meanwhile, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal said the clashes will have no effect on the alliance as it was entirely “between two brothers”.