Religion, riots, dynasty dominate Punjab poll battle

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Hoshiarpur: Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Parkash Singh Badal and Punjab BJP chief Shwet Malik during a public rally ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in Punjab's Hoshiarpur on May 10, 2019. (Photo: IANS)

Chandigarh:  In agrarian Punjab, where Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes make 55 per cent of the population, religion and riots more than concerns of farmers and poor are likely to play a decisive role in the Lok Sabha elections going to the polls on Sunday.

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Wednesday promised a memorial in the Bargari area of Faridkot for victims of the 2015 Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura firings. The announcement was aimed at raking up the incidents, following alleged desecration of holy scriptures during the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP government in 2015.

Parkash Singh Badal, 91-year-old SAD chief and former Chief Minister, tried to appease voters by asking them to “pardon family members”.

His son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, in fray from Ferozepur, lost no opportunity to remind people of Congress leader Sam Pitroda’s remark on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots “to let bygones be bygones” and accused the Congress of “sprinkling salt on the simmering wounds” of its victims.

Congress star campaigner and Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said the riots were a national tragedy and Pitroda’s comment were shameful and unpardonable. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi also condemned the remark.

After thwarting intra-party feuding, Captain Singh is fighting to retain four of the 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab.

While the Congress is banking on having fulfilled its 2017 Assembly poll promise of making easy availability of farm loans, the SAD-BJP combine is attacking the state government for betraying farmers, who contribute over 50 per cent of grain to the national kitty from just 1.54 per cent of the country’s land.

“Farmers are reeling under debts and are not getting due remuneration for crops, youth have no jobs, people lost their hard-earned money due to demonetisation, GST (goods and services tax) has forced many traders and small businesses to shut shop. These are issues that matter on the ground,” Captain Singh told IANS.

The straight contest between the Congress and the Akali Dal-BJP has become three-cornered with the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) fielding candidates in seven seats.

The PDA comprises Sukhpal Singh Khaira-led Punjab Ekta Party (PEP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Lok Insaaf Party (LIP), the Punjab Manch led by suspended AAP MP Dharamvira Gandhi, the CPI and the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India (RMPI).

However, all eye are on two seats — Amritsar and Gurdaspur — witnessing a clash of personalities. In Amritsar, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, 69, is making his electoral debut against sitting Congress MP Gurjit Aujla. In Gurdaspur, actor Sunny Deol, 62, is the BJP candidate against Congress state President Sunil Jakhar, who won the October 2017 by-election by 1.92 lakh votes.

But political dynasties continue to dominate the state politics. As many as four Congress and three SAD candidates belong to political families.

Parkash Singh Badal’s daughter-in-law and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur is locked in a multi-cornered contest in the SAD stronghold of Bathinda. Two-term MP from the seat she is taking on PDA’s Khaira, AAP’s Baljinder Kaur and Congress MLA Amrinder Singh Warring.

Interestingly in 2014, Harsimrat Kaur scraped through by 19,500 votes against her estranged cousin Manpreet Badal.

In Patiala, the Congress has retained three-time MP and former Union Minister Preneet Kaur, 75, for the fifth consecutive time. Preneet Kaur, wife of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, was defeated by AAP’s Dharamvira Gandhi, 69, by over 20,000 votes in 2014. This time Gandhi is in the fray as nominee of the Nawan Punjab Party, a new outfit.

In Ludhiana, Ravneet Singh Bittu, 43, grandson of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was assassinated in 1995, is seeking re-election.

Former Union Minister Manish Tewari (Congress) is in the fray from Anandpur Sahib, one of the holiest places of the Sikhs. Tewari is pitted against sitting Akali Dal MP Prem Singh Chandumajra.

The Fatehgarh Sahib (reserved) seat is seeing a battle of former bureaucrats Amar Singh (Congress) and Darbara Singh (Akali Dal).

The shadow of terrorism also hangs over electoral battle in one constituency, Khadoor Sahib. PDA candidate Paramjit Kaur Khalra’s husband, Jaswant Singh Khalra, was allegedly abducted and killed by the police for exposing fake encounters in 1995, while Congress candidate Jasbir Singh Dimpa’s father, Sant Singh Lidher, was gunned down by terrorists in 1986.

They are pitted against former Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee chief and Akali Dal candidate Bibi Jagir Kaur.

Unlike 2014, the infighting-ridden AAP is now struggling to save its sinking ship, with several leaders either having defected or facing suspension. Most Punjabi NRIs, who backed the AAP even with cash, have given it a noticeable miss this time.

Countering defection within the party, actor-comedian Bhagwant Mann, AAP’s only hope to retain his Sangrur seat, accused party rebel leader Khaira of being an agent of both the Congress and the Akali Dal and for engineering defections of AAP legislators to the Congress.

The Congress, out of power in Punjab for a decade (2007-17), won 77 seats in the February 2017 Assembly elections. Its tally increased to 78 with the Shahkot poll victory in May 2018, giving the party two-third majority in the 117-member House.

The AAP finished second with 20 legislators. However, of the 20, eight have defected to opther parties.

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