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Jalandhar Bypoll: High Stakes for 6 Parties, 6 Factors Will Determine the Result

From Amritpal Singh's arrest to Parkash Singh Badal's death, a lot happened during the Jalandhar bypoll campaign.

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It's not common for a by-election to be seen as a referendum but that's what seems to have happened with the bypoll to the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat where voting is taking place on 10 May.

The bypoll was necessitated by the demise of two-term Congress MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary during the Bharat Jodo Yatra earlier this year.

However, the larger context of what's been happening in Punjab over the last one year has made this a high-stakes battle between the different contestants - Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP combine, BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar.

It is also being seen as a referendum on a number of issues - the crackdown on Amritpal Singh, the performance of the AAP government and the demand for justice for Sidhu Moose Wala. The demise of SAD patriarch Parkash Singh Badal also took place while the campaign was on.

Here's what is at stake for each of the players in the fray and what are the X-factors that could decide the result.

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1. Congress

The stakes are very high for the Congress. It needs to win to show that it is the main Opposition in Punjab and to show its winnability in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The seat has been a Congress bastion. It has won the seat seven out of the past nine elections. The demography of the seat - with a strong presence of Dalit and Upper Caste Hindu voters - has traditionally suited the Congress.

Santokh Singh Chaudhary was largely liked and the Congress has fielded his wife Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary in the election.

Congress also holds five out of the nine Assembly segments in Jalandhar and it was one of the few areas where the party did well even amid the 2022 debacle.

Therefore the seat is for the Congress to lose.

If it wins, it would be a sign that its fortunes are on the upswing in Punjab. If it loses then it could raise more doubts about the party's prospects and may even trigger more defections.

2. Aam Aadmi Party

The stakes are even higher for AAP. It's defeat in the Sangrur bypoll at the hands of Simranjit Singh Mann was seen as an indication of its rapidly falling popularity. However, if it somehow wins this election, it will be able to portray the Sangrur loss as an emotional reaction to Sidhu Moose Wala's killing and not a larger rejection of AAP.

The party has left no stone unturned, deploying huge resources to run a high-visibility campaign. It brought on board Sushil Rinku from the Congress and made him their candidate. But it also inducted leaders with influence in some pockets such as Jagbir Brar from Jalandhar Cantonment, Mohinder Bhagat with some influence in the Bhagat community and Dalit leader Chandan Grewal.

3. SAD-BSP

The Akali Dal and its ally BSP had a massive rally in the final days of campaigning and the party is optimistic about the bypoll leading to its revival.

The BSP has a committed base in Jalandhar district, which also has a high Dalit population of around 39 percent.

The SAD has some influential leaders such as Gurpratap Singh Wadala in Nakodar, Naib Singh Kohar in Shahkot and Pawan Tinu in Adampur.

However, the alliance is likely to struggle in urban segments.

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4. BJP

The BJP has deployed massive resources and according to local inputs, its campaign got a lot of visibility at least in urban areas.

The BJP has a good presence in the Jalandhar Central and Jalandhar North seats, which have a high concentration of dominant caste Hindu voters. The party would hope for a decent vote share in the bypoll. Anything above 12-13 percent would be a positive sign for BJP.

5. SAD-Amritsar

Buoyed by the win in Sangrur, Simranjit Singh Mann's party is hoping to make its presence felt in Jalandhar as well. It is also hoping to channelise the resentment among certain sections on the crackdown on Amritpal Singh and Waris Punjab De.

However unlike Sangrur, the demography doesn't suit SAD-Amritsar as the seat has a high proportion of Hindu, Ravidassia, Ad Dharmi and Christian voters.

6. Sidhu Moose Wala's Parents

Though not in the fray, Sidhu Moose Wala's parents have made an important intervention in the election. His father Balkaur Singh made multiple appeals asking voters to defeat AAP.

This is an interesting and also a risky strategy. Despite being from a Congress background, they went for a broader anti-AAP appeal than a pro-Congress one. This indicates that the parents want the cause of 'Justice for Sidhu Moose Wala' to broad-based and directed singularly against AAP.

If AAP wins, it will enable the party to claim that this is not a major issue any more.

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X-Factors

While other parties are likely to make their presence felt, the fight for first position could end up being between Congress and AAP. This is because these are the only two parties with a base among all the major communities in the seat and across all the Assembly segments.

However, the final result could depend on the following X-factors.

1. Ruling party advantage and Government Schemes - Punjab has a history of the ruling party having an advantage in bypolls. Sangrur was an exception in this regard. The campaign period of over a month-and-a-half gave the ruling AAP ample opportunities to expand its influence. A great deal would also depend on the impact government schemes like lower electricity bills would have.

2. Amritpal Singh Factor - Now, this is a factor that can cut both ways. There is no doubt a sizable section that is upset over the crackdown. But that section could get divided three ways - between SAD, SAD-Amritsar and to a lesser extent Congress.

Unless this entire section votes tactically for the Congress just to defeat AAP, it may not harm the ruling party to a great extent. This would be easier said than done because the Congress is seen as a hostile party by many Panthic voters due to its track record from the 1980s and 1990s.

However, leaders like Sukhpal Singh Khaira have tried to woo this section. In this campaign, former CM Charanjit Singh Channi also tried to do the same by slamming the government for preventing Amritpal Singh's wife from travelling abroad.

Then there may also be a section that's supportive of the crackdown. But even that section could get divided three ways between AAP, BJP and Congress.

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3. Dera Ballan Factor

Dera Sachkhand Ballan is the most influential organisation of Ravidassia Dalits and Jalandhar falls in their core area of influence. A lot would depend on which way the Dera leans. There has been no open indication. In the 2022 Assembly elections, this vote leaned more towards the Congress. It remains to be seen whether this support continues or shifts towards the ruling party, AAP. Even the BJP has been trying to woo the Dera.

4. Polling Day Mobilisation

In case of a tight race, a lot would depend on polling day mobilisation. The Congress has five MLAs in Jalandhar, including the son of Santokh Singh Chaudhary - Phillaur MLA Vikramjit Singh Chaudhary. This would no doubt help the Congress. However, AAP also has four MLAs and has the ruling party advantage. Then, it has brought in individuls to make up for its comparatively weak position in some areas - like Jagbir Brar from Jalandhar Cantonment.

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5. Christian Votes

The Christian influence in this area has increased over the past few years. This isn't often acknowledged. In this election, a newly formed Christian party voiced its support for AAP.

However, Congress also has a presence among this section of voters.

6. Impact of other events that took place during the campaign

There were a number of events, besides the crackdown, that took place during the campaign. For instance, there were mysterious blasts in Amritsar. This could make security weigh heavily on the minds of voters, especially sections like urban traders. But who does that work in favour of? Possibly BJP or Congress, since it involves doubts over AAP's handling of security issues.

Then of course, there was the demise of Parkash Singh Badal. It is possible that some Akali voters who may have drifted away could come back to the party.

The Jalandhar bypoll result is likely to set the tone for the 2024 Lok Sabha battle for Punjab's 13 seats.

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