No Gadar: 5 Factors That Could Make Sunny Deol Ghayal in Gurdaspur

From Kavita Khanna playing spoiler to Punjabis’ dislike for Modi, Sunny Deol faces several obstacles in Gurdaspur.

6 min read

Some of Bollywood actor Sunny Deol’s most famous films were set either set on the India-Pakistan border – Border, Gadar - Ek Prem Katha, Maa Tujhe Salaam, The Hero: Love Story of A Spy and Jaal: The Trap to name a few – or in Punjab such as Sohni Mahiwal, Jo Bole So Nihal, Yamla Pagla Deewana and Singh Saab the Great.

Now he will be appearing in an entirely different role as the BJP candidate from the border constituency of Gurdaspur in Punjab in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. BJP has relied on star power in Gurdaspur in the past as well – actor Vinod Khanna won the seat in 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2014. But after Khanna’s death, BJP lost the seat to Congress’ Sunil Kumar Jakhar in October 2017. Now the party is once again relying on a film star to wrest the seat back from the Congress. He is up against the Congress’ Jakhar, AAP’s Peter Masih and Lal Chand Kataruchak of the Punjab Democratic Alliance.

But Gurdaspur isn’t going to be an easy battle for Deol. Here’s why.


Kavita Khanna Contesting

Despite being an actor, the late Vinod Khanna relied on much more than star power to maintain his hold over Gurdaspur. He won Gurdaspur for the first time in 1998, when it was the stronghold of Congress leader Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, who had been winning the seat continuously since 1980. Khanna turned out to be a relatively better MP than most actor-turned politicians and defeated Bhinder three times in a row – 1998, 1999 and 2004.

After Bhinder’s death, the Congress’ leadership in the area fell into the hands of the Bajwa brothers – Partap Singh Bajwa and Fateh Jang Bajwa. Partap Singh Bajwa defeated Khanna in 2009 but lost to him in 2014.

Vinod Khanna’s death in 2017 left a vacuum for the BJP in Gurdaspur. A natural choice for the party would have been to field his wife Kavita Khanna, who is said to have worked a lot in the area on behalf of her husband.

But the BJP ignored her and instead experimented by fielding businessman Swaran Salaria, who hails from Bhoa in Gurdaspur and is known to be close to Baba Ramdev. But that proved to be disastrous as he lost to Congress’ Sunil Jakhar by a huge margin of 1.93 lakh votes.

Now, BJP has decided to ignore Kavita Khanna once more by fielding Deol. An upset Khanna has reportedly decided to contest as an Independent candidate.

“I know, keeping in view my substantial vote bank, the party will urge me not to contest. However, this time, I will not climb down. I have nothing against Sunny Deol. His family and mine have known each other for long. But I think I am justified when I say the BJP is a party which takes perverse pleasure in ditching its own cadre,” she told The Tribune.

Outsider vs Local

One major criticism that the BJP is facing in Punjab is that it has backed outsiders and ignored its state leaders in these elections. Deol isn’t the only “paradropped” BJP candidate in Punjab.

In Amritsar, the party has fielded Union Minister Hardeep Puri, overlooking local leaders like Rajinder Mohan Singh Chhina, Tarun Chugh, Anil Joshi and Shwait Malik

In Hoshiarpur, the party has fielded a local Som Prakash but this has upset sitting MP and Union Minister Vijay Sampla, who was also former chief of the BJP’s state unit.

Deol will have to face the outsider tag from BJP functionaries as well as voters.


Congress Lead

The other obstacle that Sunny Deol faces is the formidable lead the Congress has in the seat. In the 2017 bypoll, the Congress got 58 percent of the total votes cast while the BJP got around 37 percent. Therefore, Deol would need a swing of over 11 percent towards the BJP and an equal swing against the Congress to win the seat.

Of course, the turnout was substantially low in the bypoll so Deol would hope to mobilise the voters who chose to stay away during the by-election.


Non-Hindu Voters

Gurdaspur is one of the few Lok Sabha seats in Punjab where Sikhs are not in a majority. There are approximately 47 percent Hindus, 44 percent Sikhs and a little less than 8 percent Christians in the seat.

Deol’s father Dharmendra is originally an Arya Samaji Hindu Jat from Ludhiana and Congress’ Jakhar is a Jat Hindu from Panjkosi near Abohar. The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded a Christian candidate Peter Masih.

One of the positive aspects for the BJP in the bypolls was an increase in vote share in Hindu-dominated areas compared to the Assembly elections earlier that year.

In the by-election, the BJP’s vote share increased by 13 percent in Bhoa, 11 percent in Pathankot, 10 percent in Dinanagar and 4 percent in Sujanpur, compared to the 2017 Assembly elections.

On the other hand in the bypoll, the BJP’s vote share in Sikh dominated segments feel drastically compared to the SAD-BJP’s combined vote share in the Assembly elections.

Interestingly, these happen to be segments that the Shiromani Akali Dal had contested in the Assembly polls.

In the bypoll, BJP polled 14 percent less votes in Dera Baba Nanak segment than the Akali Dal had secured in the Assembly polls. The fall was 10 percent in Fatehgarh Churian, 6 percent in Qadian, 4 percent in Batala and 3 percent in Gurdaspur segments.

According to a rough estimate, around 38 percent of those who voted for SAD in the Assembly polls, chose not to vote for the BJP in the bypoll.

This indicates that Hindu and Sikh voters responded differently in the bypoll. While some Hindu voters who may have consolidated behind the Congress in the Assembly poll have likely shifted to the BJP in the bypoll, many Sikh voters who voted for SAD in the Assembly poll did not vote for the BJP.

The challenge for Deol would be to win the support of Sikh voters and a lot would depend on how effectively the Akali Dal works for him.

This won’t be easy for two reasons. First, the Akali Dal is facing a crisis in Gurdaspur after senior leader from the area Sewa Singh Sekhwan left the party and formed SAD (Taksali) with other rebel leaders like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and Ratan Singh Ajnala.

Second, Sukhbir Badal will be busy in his own campaign in Ferozepur and may not be able to help Deol to a very great extent.

However, a silver lining for Deol is AAP candidate Peter Masih who could eat into the Congress’ Christian votes to some extent.


Modi Unpopular, Balakot Card May Not Work

There is another problem for Deol. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the BJP’s trump card in many parts of the country, is actually rather unpopular in Punjab.

According to CVoter’s election tracker, PM Modi’s net approval rating in Punjab is just 18.7 percent, one of the lowest among all the states in the country. Modi’s unpopularity is higher in only southern states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Punjab is one of the few states where more people picked Congress President Rahul Gandhi as their prime ministerial choice than Modi. According to CVoter, 40 percent respondents in Punjab picked Rahul Gandhi and 36 percent chose Modi.

Given Deol’s track record of doing jingoistic movies, he would naturally try to cash in on the Balakot air strikes as an election issue. But even that may not yield much for him. The CVoter tracker said that only 2.7 percent respondents in Punjab said that terrorism is an important issue in the election, this is the lowest among all the states in India.

Since the proposed Kartarpur Sahib corridor is supposed to come up near the border in Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur, many people in the area are more likely to feel strongly about having better relations with Pakistan than falling for jingoism.

Due to these five reasons, Sunny Deol will face a difficult battle in Gurdaspur. It remains to be seen if Deol’s ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ is heavy enough to outweigh the Congress in the seat.

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