The Gurdaspur bypoll may not be an acid test for Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh but by fielding President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee Sunil Jakhar the party has certainly raised the poll pitch. The son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, Sunil is known for his honesty, forthrightness and an intellectual
bent of mind. His speeches in the state Assembly were heard with rapt attention by both the ruling and Opposition members. This election is important for Jakhar’s political career as well.
He remained Leader of the Opposition for several years during the SAD-BJP rule.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has added to the election crescendo by giving the ticket to Maj-Gen Suresh Khajuria (retd). The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) nominee is Swaran Singh Salaria who has the strong backing of yoga guru Ramdev. The fact is that the Congress has given the Gurdaspur by-election more importance than it otherwise merited. One seat will not make much difference in the present Lok Sabha as the party has a very low tally in the lower house and that too at a time when only a year and a half is left for the next general election. However, the presence of Congress and AAP heavyweights for filing nominations and the BJP fielding a businessman with the blessings of Baba Ramdev have put life into this otherwise insipid by-election.
The factors that go in favour of Jakhar are his being a veteran pitted against novices and that the Congress is at present ruling in Punjab. The factors that go against him include the tag of being an outsider and that he had lost the poll from Abohar during the last Assembly elections in Punjab. Adding to Jakhar’s woes is infighting in the Congress. The Bajwa family led by Partap Singh, former party chief and Gurdaspur MP who is now a Rajya Sabha member, dominates some important pockets. His brother Fatehjung Singh Bajwa is the MLA of Qadian, the family’s home turf. This seat was held by Partap’s wife Charanjit Kaur in the last Assembly and he wanted a Lok Sabha ticket for her. It will not be easy for the state chief minister to rein in Bajwa, his bête noire, and make him work for Jakhar. Bajwa and his wife were absent when Jakhar filed his nomination papers.
For the BJP it would be a vote on the economy and demonetisation. Loss of jobs and the shakeup that implementation of GST has caused will play an important role.
Confident of his victory in the by-election, Jakhar has said votes would be polled in the name of the Congress and Capt Amarinder Singh, who he claimed has put the people of Punjab back on the path of progress. “Six months is not a long period to judge anybody’s performance and that too when we have to clean the 10-year mess of the SAD-BJP government. But despite financial constraints, the Congress government had announced loan waiver for farmers. In contrast, the previous SAD-BJP government did not give a single penny to the distressed farmers,” he claimed.
Jakhar said he would ensure all-round development of all sections of society, including farmers, the youth and ex-servicemen and promised to take their issues to the Lok Sabha if he wins the bypoll. He assured the Congress workers that he would ask state tourism and culture minister Navjot Singh Sidhu to resolve the issue of a dam construction near the Mukteshwar Dham Temple in Pathankot.
Interestingly a day after filing his nomination papers, Jakhar kicked off his campaign from Pathankot by visiting Kavita Khanna, wife of actor-politician Vinod Khanna, whose death in April necessitated the bypoll. Kavita was a contender for the BJP ticket that eventually went to businessman Salaria. “I paid a visit to her as I knew Vinod Khanna personally too. I have a lot of respect for him. So, I could not have started my campaign without paying my respects to his wife. There was nothing political about it,” Jakhar said. Kavita too said, “It was just a visit of one leader to show respect for the other. I am and will remain with the BJP”.
The Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll, scheduled for October 11, is a three-cornered contest involving the BJP, Congress and AAP but the stakes are seen to be higher for the ruling parties at the Centre and in the state. For the Congress that came to power in Punjab with a thumping majority this year, this is its first big test to know if it still enjoys the support of the electorate. While the Opposition parties are trying to ensure that the bypoll does not become a cakewalk for the Congress, for Amarinder the biggest challenge comes from within his party. Expectations among veteran MLAs who have won multiple elections, as well as within Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade, are running high and hectic lobbying for positions has given way to impatience. Interestingly, the toughest fight for ministerial berths comes from the Majha region, of which Gurdaspur is a part.
Frustration is also growing among those hoping for second-rung berths as chief parliamentary secretaries. The posts were struck down as unconstitutional last year by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, forcing the SAD-BJP government to remove its parliamentary secretaries. While the Punjab CM is toying with the idea of bringing in legislation to circumvent the court’s orders, the move might still run into legal problems. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction among the MLAs is also on the rise because many believe the CM has empowered the bureaucracy and kept a tight leash on his administration. Many MLAs say that they are not sure about what is happening in the government.