With Jakhar at the helm, the BJP looks to expand its support base in the state, where it had been playing second fiddle to SAD for years. The party will also leverage his popularity among masses
In a bid to set its house in order before 2024 general election, the BJP has kick started its long anticipated party overhaul appointing new chiefs in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Jharkhand.
Former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar has been named Punjab unit president replacing Ashwani Sharma. The BJP has also replaced Bandi Sanjay as Telangana unit president appointing G Kishan Reddy in his place. Jharkhand BJP will be headed by tribal strongman Babulal Marandi and Andhra Pradesh will have D Purandeshwari as state chief. She will relinquish responsibility as national general secretary of the BJP.
Former Andhra CM Kiran Reddy who recently joined the BJP has been included in the BJP national executive. Jharkhand BJP will be headed by tribal strongman Babulal Marandi and Andhra Pradesh will have D Purandeshwari as state chief. She will relinquish responsibility as national general secretary of the BJP. Former Andhra CM Kiran Reddy who recently joined the BJP has been included in the BJP national executive.
However, with the appointment of Sunil Jakhar as new Punjab BJP president, the BJP seems to have covered a long distance as far as its new president’s outlook is concerned. Jakhar, who narrowly missed the chance to become Punjab CM in September 2021 and remained Punjab Congress chief for close to four years till July 2021, has the image of a liberal Punjabi Hindu politician.
It was under Jakhar’s leadership that the Congress wrested control of the state from the SAD-BJP combine after 10 years in March 2017 assembly polls. He was also instrumental in the Congress winning eight out of 11 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab in 2019 polls defying the nationwide Modi wave. In 2017, Jakhar also won the Lok Sabha byelection from Gurdaspur — a seat that has been BJP’s pocket borough for the past 30 years, having been represented by the likes of Vinod Khanna and Sunny Deol.
Jakhar remained three-time MLA from 2002 to 2017 from Abohar and one-time MP Sunil Kumar Jakhar had left the Congress party after hinting that the non-acceptance of a Hindu face was the reason behind not making him the Punjab Chief Minister. In May last year, three months after the Congress debacle in the Punjab Assembly polls, Jakhar had moved to BJP following a spell of bad blood with the leadership of the grand old party with whom his family had decades of association. That the 69-year-old Jakhar is central to the BJP’s plans for Punjab was evident when he was inducted as a member into the BJP National Executive in December last year along with ex-Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
The BJP, whose support base in Punjab is mainly concentrated in urban areas involving Hindu voters, had embarked on a “Mission Punjab” after its two-decade-long alliance with the Sukhbir Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) ended in September 2020 over the now-repealed three contentious farm laws. However, the party could win only two seats in 117-member Punjab Assembly in the 2022 polls despite contesting the polls in an alliance with Capt Amarinder’s then Punjab Lok Congress and the Akali Dal breakaway faction Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) led by Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa.
With Jakhar at the helm of the state BJP, the party hopes to expand its support base in the state, where it had been playing second fiddle to the SAD for years. Jakhar is a Jat Hindu leader, who has had a long political career. He seems to fit the bill for the BJP, which has been going all out to expand its support base in the Sikh majority state that also has a distinction of having about one-third Dalit population.
On his part, Jakhar tweeted to express his “gratitude” to PM Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and party national president J P Nadda “for reposing their trust in me and giving me this important responsibility of Punjab BJP president”, adding that “I will work relentlessly to safeguard interests of Punjab and aspirations of every Punjabi”. He also attached a photo showing him and Modi interacting with each other during the opening of Kartarpur Sahib corridor on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev on November 9, 2019.
He is a seasoned leader, who is known for putting his viewpoint forcefully and logically while maintaining decorum. He is erudite, can easily quote from English literature, world history, Urdu poetry and Sikh lore is known for his strong articulation skills. Significantly he had lent support to protesting farmers who had launched a long stir against three contentious farm laws. Jakhar who evokes respect among even his political opponents has never identified with any communal or caste politics and has often referred to the path shown by Sikh Gurus and the spirit of Punjabiyat. While Jakhar comes from a traditional Congress family, as his father Balram Jakhar remained a Union minister and the longest serving Lok Sabha Speaker.
The strategic move comes at a time when the saffron party, going solo in Punjab for the first time in parliamentary polls, is strengthening its base in otherwise a Sikh-dominated State. Just over 13 months in the party, the BJP top leadership has handed over the party reins in Punjab to Jakhar — who not only has wide experience in handling the party affairs but also enjoys considerable presence among the masses, both rural and urban. BJP chief JP Nadda had also inducted Jakhar in his national executive committee in December last.
With a senior Hindu-Jat leader like Jakhar — who is politically well-connected, with a clean image, and enjoys support among all sections, BJP is confident of expanding its base in Punjab. His elevation as the state BJP chief may help the saffron party in not only wooing the Jat community, but also winning back the Hindu votes — that has always been the BJP’s vote bank but is believed to have drifted towards AAP in 2022 state assembly polls. Notably, the Hindus constitute a little over 38 per cent of the population in Punjab.
The BJP, which contested 65 seats in 2022 Punjab polls, could win just two seats with a vote share of a little over six percent. However, BJP is looking at the silver lining — an increase in its vote share, its expansion in Punjab where it has all along been playing a second fiddle to SAD, and foraying into unexplored territories. In 2017, the party won three seats out of 23 it contested with a vote share of 5.3 percent, which, this time (in 2022), has increased to 6.6 percent — witnessing an increase of 1.3 percent.
The BJP has played its card and a major challenge for Jakhar remains expanding the party’s support base, especially in rural segments which were earlier taken care of by the Akali Dal, fortifying the party cadre and reaching out to them before taking the saffron party’s agenda to the masses.