Gurdaspur Bypoll in Punjab Shows Politics at its Sleaziest Worst
Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll has turned out to be a sleazefest, with issues taking a backseat amid mudslinging.
It’s a state-versus-Centre fight, a battle of sleazy videos, and a war of reputations — on paper, though, it’s only a bypoll for one of 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab.
Gurdaspur, which votes on 11 October, was won four times for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by actor Vinod Khanna, whose death last April necessitated this byelection that comes just over a year before the general elections. But that does not mean it’s a saffron citadel.
Congress Candidate Battling Against Outsider Tag
The Congress, back in power in the state after 10 years of a Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP alliance regime, has upped the game by fielding its state unit president Sunil Jakhar.
Son of the veteran Congressman Balram Jakhar, he lost the assembly election this time from family citadel Abohar where he had won thrice in a row, and knows a thing or two about how voter fatigue with the same-old can crack fortresses.
His latest battleground is 300 kilometres from his hometown, but he has sought to counter the ‘outsider’ tag by coming across as the sincerest of the three main contenders, the other two being BJP’s moneybag Swaran Singh Salaria and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Maj Gen Suresh Khajuria (retd).
Viral Dirt Doing the Rounds
It helps Jakhar’s case that the native, Salaria — a businessman who runs TRIG private security firm, owns a small airline and believed by locals to have a ‘rangeen’ (colourful) life in Mumbai where he stays — is faced with allegations of the nature that make the Congress candidate look, well, clean.
In a 2004 report published in Open Magazine, Salaria confirmed that there was a huge demand for ex-servicemen in Iraq due to their professionalism.
The Congress has been incessant in insisting that Salaria faces a rape case, though only ‘criminal intimidation’ figures in the chargesheet in Mumbai. This has not stopped leaking of his intimate photos with the woman, his face smeared with lipstick, his baldness revealed!
And the sleaze fest – its timing key to Congress fortunes – does not have him as the main protagonist. It is a former minister in the SAD-BJP regime, Sucha Singh Langah, who is accused in a different case of rape by a police constable and is now in custody. A since-resigned member of the Sikh religious mini-parliament, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Langah is seen taking off his ‘kirpan’, the ceremonial dagger that baptised Sikhs wear, before getting into the ‘act’ in a video gone viral before Salaria’s photos were circulated.
Sleazefest Takes Over Women-Related Issues
Salaria is left defending himself and the Akalis – matters made worse by his limited oratorical skills on political debut – even as leaders such as Navjot Singh Sidhu, a former BJP-mate who is now a minister in the Capt Amarinder Singh government, thundered how “these pictures also tell us that Salaria wears a wig” and how “Akalis known for their blue turbans are now known by their blue films”!
BJP’s state chief and Union Minister Vijay Sampla had, in fact, took to personal attacks after he mentioned how Jakhar’s wife is Swiss and people may have to go all the way to Switzerland to get their work done when he’s visiting his in-laws. Jakhar did not react, verbally.
Delhi Durbar Spells Doom for AAP
AAP’s Khajuria has been making the right noises, but the voter finds little reason to vote for a party whose bluster and rhetoric in the assembly polls reduced it from ‘we are winning 100 of the 117 seats’ to just 20. Its inner squabbles are far from concluded. Five of its candidates for the nine assembly seats in this LS segment have left the party.
And such is the dissonance between the competitive state leadership and the ‘Delhi durbar’ of Arvind Kejriwal that no one from the central leadership has come to campaign in the bypoll.
In that sense, despite being a local and from among ex-serviceman who have a significant population in the segment bordering J&K, Khajuria is battling an underlying ‘AAP is an outsider’ wave that marred the party’s assembly chances early this year.
Fight Over Ticket in Cong and BJP
Not that the other two parties don’t have internal challenges. Salaria, who declared assets in access of Rs 700 crore, managed to get the ticket only after battling a challenge from Khanna’s widow, Kavita Khanna. And the party conveniently forgot Khanna’s birth anniversary that fell in the middle of the campaign.
In the Congress, as seems the tradition, the ticket battle was fought with vengeance. Amarinder backed Jakhar, who had succeeded him as the state unit chief, even as the CM’s long-time bête noire, Rajya Sabha member Partap Singh Bajwa, met Sonia Gandhi to press for a ticket for his wife.
The wife, former area MLA Charanjit Kaur Bajwa, did not contest this time as the party had a ‘one family one ticket’ rule. Partap's younger brother Fateh Jung Bajwa fought the assembly election from the seat she held – Qadian, part of Gurdaspur LS segment – and won. But the Bajwas later came around and campaigned. Political observers underlined that their claim was mere posturing to not lose relevance here.
Will the Religion Card Work?
On the issues front, Jakhar has in his speeches pitched this also as a referendum on the Modi regime, citing the troubles brought about by demonetisation and the rollout of GST for the traders, most of whom are Hindus.
With him, it is after nearly three decades that the Congress has fielded a Hindu in Gurdaspur. From 1980 till 2014, it relied on Jat Sikhs. Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder won five times (between 1980 and 1996) and Partap Bajwa in 2009. Khanna ended Kaur’s winning spree but, lost to Bajwa in 2009 only to avenge his defeat in 2014.
The BJP has won four times — Vinod Khanna alone — and a Janata Party candidate won in 1977. Of these, nine were Hindus and seven Sikhs. The math is not straightforward at all.
This is the first time, though, that all three prominent parties have fielded Hindus.
Congress in the Driver’s Seat But....
With the Congress seemingly in the driver’s seat, one issue remains a thorn that the party hopes will be crushed by the still-prevalent anger against the SAD-BJP misrule and the dissonance with the AAP.
That is, the yet-unfulfilled promise of a farm loan waiver. It cleared a notification for the waiver – up to Rs 2 lakh for all 10 lakh small and marginal farmers (with land not over five acres) – in a cabinet meeting held after the poll code prohibited new announcements.
The fact of the matter is that the state does not have the Rs 10,000 crore required for the conditional waiver, and has not been able to persuade the Centre to relax its borrowing limit too. But perceptions matter.
Amid all the posturing and perception-management, the key questions being asked are: In a segment that’s a mix of communities, of the rural and urban, and of traders and farmers; whose promises will really be tested for fulfilment and sincerity? Will it be about an eight-month-old state government’s manifesto? Or the Modi regime’s achhe din commitment made much before that?
Anyhow, it may just be that the sleaze sealed the deal.
(The author Harish C is a Chandigarh-based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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