Punjab Elections: AAP Rising in Majha But It's Up Against Congress & SAD Bigwigs
AAP had failed to win a single seat in Majha last time. It's now expanding but in a very different way from Malwa.
"We came with almost nothing in our name. We stayed in a refugee camp for months, ate out of a public kitchen and slowly rebuilt our lives here," says Mr Bharti, a resident of Sujanpur town in Punjab's Pathankot district.
In his eighties, Bharti originally hails from Shakargarh tehsil, now in Pakistan's Narowal district. It was the only tehsil from Gurdaspur district to be given to Pakistan.
Bharti now sits in what he calls his "son's shop" and warmly chats with customers, many of whom he knows by name.
His son, who set up the shop, moved outside Punjab for work.
"I am taking care of the shop while he's away. Chatting with people like you who come by is the highlight of the day for me," he says.
Though refugees from West Punjab are settled across East Punjab and it is extremely common to meet people who came from the other side, the story of Bharti and many others like him is important to understand the idea of Majha region.
Majha actually means "middle" or "central" but in Indian Punjab it lies on the North Western corner of the state - almost a small triangle with the Beas and Sutlej rivers as two sides and the Pakistan border as the third.
The Partition of Punjab was actually the partition of Majha. While the present districts of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur and Pathankot are in the Indian part of Majha, the Pakistani part is bigger comrpising over ten districts including important cities like Lahore, Sialkot and Faisalabad (earlier Lyallpur).
This rough map on the dialects of Punjab would give an idea of how big the Majha region is. In the rough map, it is denoted by the areas speaking Majhi dialect.
The Centre of the Sikh empire, the Mughal and British provinces of Punjab, the seat of the Akal Takht, and the birthplace of Guru Nanak, all lie in the undivided Majha region, making it truly the heart of Punjab.
Its influence therefore is much more than the 25 out of 117 seats it accounts for in the Punjab Assembly.
We will now look at where each of the major political parties and personalities stand in this region.
AAP EXPANDS ITS PRESENCE
In both the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2017 Assembly election, AAP failed to penetrate Majha. It couldn't win a single seat and many of its candidates even lost their deposits.
In Majha, there are close linkages between sarpanches, party cadres and people at the local level and this works to the advantage of established parties like Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal both of which have been around for over a century.
For instance, let's go back to Mr Bharti. He narrates that when they came as refugees in the area in 1947, the family of the present Congress candidate Naresh Puri helped them with food and essentials for many weeks. And this created a connection that has lasted generations.
In rural Majha, the linkages are even stronger and tougher to break for newer parties.
However, it is changing this time and AAP has grown in the region.
Interestingly, in contrast to Malwa - where it has predominantly been a rural party, in Majha it seems to be growing better in urban areas.
A good example of this is Pathankot, where AAP is emerging as an alternative for voters fed-up with the Congress and BJP.
"We have tried Congress, BJP and Akalis. This time we want to give a chance to AAP. Let's see if they can replicate Delhi model here," says Ranvir Singh, a resident of Pathankot.
This sentiment can be seen in Amritsar city and Gurdaspur as well.
In Amritsar for instance, AAP witnessed a spurt in popularity last year due to its campaign over electricity bills.
Though the Congress government tried to address the electricity tariff issue after Charanjit Channi took over as chief minister, AAP's influence in Amritsar remained.
Currently it is giving tough compeition to the Congress in seats like Amritsar South, West and North.
AAP's growth here is different from how it broke into the political scene in Malwa in 2014.
In urban Majha, it is much more focussed on the "Delhi Model" and showcasing of "work done by Kejriwal on electricity, education and health".
In Malwa of 2014, the party occupied a vacuum created by rural anger against the SAD and Congress. Kejriwal wasn't the CM of Delhi then. In fact, what struck a cord in rural Malwa was the party's association with agitational politics, an approach it has shed since then.
AAP's reliance on Kejriwal is also because it doesn't have any strong leader in the Majha region. Its most prominent face is Amritsar North candidate Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, a former IPS officer originally from Bihar.
To build organic roots in Majha, AAP has imported several leaders from the Congress and SAD - such as Sukhjinder Lalli Majithia in Majitha, Raman Behl in Gurdaspur and Amit Singh Manto in Pathankot, all from the Congress and Jagroop Sekhwan in Qadian from the SAD. Laljit Bhullar in Patti and Sarwan Singh Dhunn in Khemkaran have been associated with both the older parties before joining AAP.
The emphasis on Kejriwal's Delhi Model is also to give the impression of change despite the fact that many of AAP's candidates are from older parties.
In Majha, AAP is up against some very strong personalities from Congress and SAD, leaders who have dominated the region's political landscape since decades.
CAN CONGRESS REPEAT ITS 2017 SWEEP?
The Congress has a very strong line-up in Majha, which includes Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu in Amritsar East, working president Sukhwinder Danny Bandala in Jandiala Guru, deputy chief ministers Sukhjinder Randhawa in Dera Baba Nanak and OP Soni in Amritsar Central, senior ministers Tript Rajinder Bajwa in Fatehgarh Churian, Raj Kumar Verka in Amritsar West, Sukhbinder Sarkaria in Raja Sansi and Aruna Chaudhary in Dina Nagar and finally former PCC chief Partap Singh Bajwa in Qadian.
In Majha, the stakes are highest for the Congress, which won 22 out of 25 seats in the 2017 election. The party is likely to incur significant losses from that tally, especially with the SAD's prospects reviving and AAP now emerging as a force to reckon with.
The party is facing significant infighting in the region. For instance, many of Sidhu's rivals in the region and Amritsar city are rumoured to be tacitly backing SAD's Bikram Majithia in the seat.
Then, Tript Rajinder Bajwa is said to share a frosty relationship with the Congress candidate in neigbouring seat of Batala Ashwani Sekhri.
Tript Rajinder Bajwa, Sukhjinder Randhawa and Sukhbinder Sarkaria together form what is called the Majha Express and they are said to not get along with Partap Singh Bajwa.
Besides a few exceptions like Soni, all the other leaders are facing a strong challenge in their respective seats.
AKALI REVIVAL ON THE CARDS
Leading the Akali charge is Sukhbir Badal's brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, known in the SAD as Majhe Da Jarnail (General of Majha). Taking on Sidhu in Amritsar East, he has left his pocket-borough of Majitha to his wife Ganieve Kaur Majithia.
Akali has fielded a number of its senior leaders in Majha such as Ranjit Singh Brahmpura in Khadoor Sahib, Gulzar Singh Ranike in Attari, Virsa Singh Valtoha in Khemkaran, Gurbachan Singh Babehalli in Gurdaspur, Adesh Partap Singh Kairon in Patti and Sucha Singh Chhotepur in Batala.
SAD is trying to revive its Panthic image and stalwarts like Brahmpura, Valtoha and Chhotepur are a crucial part of that mission. But the break-up with BJP has forced Akalis to try and expand in Amritsar city, where they had been playing second fiddle for the past two and a half decades. Majithia contesting from Amritsar East and the party bringing in Anil Joshi from BJP in Amritsar North is part of this process.
CHALLENGE FOR THE BJP
This is a crucial area for the BJP as well, which has a significant presence in about 8-10 seats in the region. One of its two MLAs in the outgoing Assembly is from Sujanpur.
But this time the party is facing an uphill task in its bastion and may find it a challenge to win Sujanpur for the fourth time in a row.
"I had voted for BJP in the past two elections. But this time I may vote for a change. The party has neglected this seat and the centre's policies have also not be beneficial for traders."Pawan Kumar, who owns a small business in Sujanpur
On being asked who represents this 'change', Kumar says, "Congress is the main Opposition here".
Of course, BJP isn't without its support. Many of its supporters say they are wary of openly speaking in favour of the party due to the larger anti-BJP atmosphere in the state following the farm laws.
"We know PM Modi is not liked in Punjab. But we trust him to run the country," says Vimla Devi, a voter in Gurdaspur, sitting next to a bonfire outside her home.
Her son who was sitting next to her says, "People here are full of unnecessary pride. What was the need to block Modi's convoy when he came to Punjab? Who knows he may have inaugurated a project or sanctioned a hospital."
Both mother and son, however, admit that BJP won't find it easy in this election.
"We'll probably still vote for the BJP but we know of people who may vote for AAP where BJP has no chance," they said.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN?
It is clear that AAP is gaining in the region but how much of this sentiment translates into votes and how many of the votes translate into seats, is not clear.
It is quite possible that AAP's vote share could rise significantly but the the gain in terms of seats may not be proportionate.
SAD is reviving in the area to some extent and many of its prominent candidates may notch victories. In places like Tarn Taran district and rural parts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur, Akali is already running a strong campaign.
Congress is still the only party that has a presence across the region and in both urban and rural pockets and in both Hindu and Sikh majority areas. It may still be the number one party in terms of seats but it may not be able to prevent some losses compared to 2022.
BJP is contesting without SAD for the first time. So while its vote share may increase, it may not lead to an increased seat tally.
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