Gurdaspur Bypoll: Jakhar’s Win Shows Congress’ Strength in Punjab
Sunil Jakhar won the battle of perception with voters giving a thumbs-up to his clean image in Gurdaspur bypolls.
You may see it as a referendum on the Modi regime less than two years before the general elections due in 2019. Or you may see it as a stamp of approval on the eight-month-old Congress government in Punjab. The reality of the Gurdaspur bypoll – won by a humungous margin of 1.9 lakh votes by the Congress’ Sunil Jakhar – is neither. The God/devil is in the detail.
The Congress led decisively in each of the 15 rounds, in each of the nine Assembly segments that fall in the LS constituency. Jakhar is pitching it as a referendum that rejected the central government’s policies, particularly demonetisation and the manner of GST implementation that flummoxed the small trader in particular.
And he also wants us to believe that this is a positive vote for the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government that has been in place in the state since March.
Gurdaspur Not Averse to Outsiders
On the ground, though, it boiled down to a battle of stature and sex scandals.
In Jakhar, the Congress fielded its state unit chief, a leader with popular family lineage and three Assembly wins under his belt. He had lost this time on home turf Abohar in Fazilka district due to typical anti-incumbency. And Gurdaspur is 300 kms from Abohar.
Vinod Khanna may trace his roots here but was no local when he won four times. His death last April necessitated the bypoll. His demeanour of a statesman contrasted greatly with that of Swaran Salaria. And it was not just real grey hair versus a black wig!
Jakhar Stayed Away from Sleaze-fest
In Salaria, the BJP had brought another ‘local’ from Mumbai after Khanna, though this one is a businessman, not an actor. Yet he was on film, one that was labelled ‘blue’ by the Congress. This ‘blue film’ included intimate photos with a woman leaked days ahead of the 11 October polling.
Before that, a sex video of former minister in the SAD-BJP regime, Sucha Singh Langah, came out. Langah is now under arrest for raping the police constable, who had shot and submitted the video as proof.
Debutant Salaria, limited also by his lack of oratorical skills, fumed and fumbled in defending himself and the SAD.
The game had signs of turning dirty early on, when state BJP president and Union minister Vijay Sampla commented how Jakhar’s wife is Swiss and the electorate “will have to go all the way to Switzerland to get work done when he’s visiting his in-laws”.
Jakhar kept quiet on this front. Navjot Sidhu, now a Congress minister, made the kind of comments he is known for, playing to the gallery; and so did local MLAs. But Jakhar kept it to policies and “decency”.
The BJP then appeared indecent when it forgot Khanna’s birth anniversary in the middle of campaigning. Salaria had managed to get the ticket only after battling a challenge against Khanna’s widow, Kavita Khanna.
BJP’s Central Leadership Chose to Keep Distance
The BJP anyway did not appear keen on raising the pitch too much in Punjab as the Congress was strong to begin with. And the central leadership kept away. The Modi wave had not really worked in Punjab in 2014 or early this year in the Assembly polls, as the BJP remains a minor partner in the alliance with the SAD which faced the brunt of the anti-incumbency that appears to be continuing.
Even the yet-unfulfilled promise of a farm loan waiver apparently was a non-factor, given that people seem to be relatively patient with the Congress that has come back to power after 10 years under Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.
Adding to Jakhar’s statesman charm was the CM who too pitches himself as a gracious statesman compared to the “loutish” Badals of the SAD. In the two-horse race, the AAP was far from being a contender and its candidate Maj Gen Suresh Khajuria (retd) finished a distant third. At no point in the last eight months did they find any new reason to elect a party whose excessive rhetoric was rejected in the Assembly polls.
Such was the lead in perception that even a protracted ticket-battle did nothing to hurt the Congress. Amarinder had backed Jakhar even as Rajya Sabha member Partap Singh Bajwa, who lost here last time, wanted the ticket for his wife. But the Bajwas later campaigned for Jakhar.
Political observers had said their claim was “mere posturing to not lose relevance here”.
The Congress remained strong also because its pitches worked at several levels in a segment that has Hindus (mostly traders) and Jat Sikhs (mostly farmers) almost in equal numbers. While the trading towns of Batala and Pathankot – both places have Congress MLAs – appeared to have reflected anger over the economic conditions, the Jat Sikh vote too went to Jakhar, purportedly after the Langah fiasco.
What Next for Jakhar
Now Jakhar, 21 years after he first contested a Lok Sabha election and debuted in 1996 from home seat Ferozepur, is in Parliament. He is third time lucky. And this marks the return of a Jakhar to central politics two decades after his father, Balram Jakhar, was an MP.
This also comes at a time when the party is seeking to rise from the ashes, and he may be one of the next-generation leaders from the Rahul Gandhi brigade, no matter that he is 63.
The Jakhar clan, a Hindu Jat family that has limited chances in Punjab’s political demography, is quite at home in central politics. Balram, who died last year, was Lok Sabha Speaker for two terms. Once an Indira Gandhi loyalist, he also served as Union agriculture minister in the Narasimha government, and then as governor.
Balram had decided not to contest in 1996 and Sunil was the chosen heir to the mantle at the Centre. He lost then. The bypoll victory now comes merely eight months after Jakhar lost home turf Abohar even as Congress won the state with a huge majority. And it also comes three years after his loss in the 2014 LS polls that he contested reluctantly. He had wanted to contest the 2009 LS elections.
Somewhat Similar Script
Sunil’s first success in politics came in the 2002 Assembly election after his father got him the ticket in the face of a local rebel contender. Elder brother Sajjan Kumar was ineligible as the party had decided not to field those who had lost in 1997.
Sajjan, who was a state minister in the 1992-97 government, has since been in the background. Two more victories and 10 years later, Sunil became leader of Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, a position his father held in 1977 before he went to the Centre in 1980. The script seems filially familiar on this count.
Will Sunil too be a Balram in a Congress resurgence? That is a question for another day, maybe soon, but this victory on one of the 13 seats in Punjab is open to interpretations. A key takeaway is: Decency and lack of hollow bluster still have currency in the poll field.
(The author is a Chandigarh-based journalist.)
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