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Prestige Not People Mattered in Jalandhar By-Poll Contest

For most political outfits, Punjab’s disenchanted youth is just voters and a crowd to fill rallies.
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Representational use only.

The by-election to the Jalandhar Lok Sabha constituency, a reserved seat, on 10 May, was a prestige battle for all political parties. Though the counting of votes is scheduled for 13 May, the same day the Karnataka votes will be counted, political parties are already doing their mental maths. Recriminations dominated the election campaign in Punjab, as parties sidelined people’s concerns.

The Jalandhar seat fell vacant due to the death of Santokh Chowdhary of the Congress party, who died of a heart attack during Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. It has nine assembly constituencies: Phillaur, Adampur, Nakodar, Shahkot, Kartarpur, Jalandhar West, Jalandhar Central, Jalandhar North and Jalandhar Cantonment, with 16,21,800 voters, of which 8,44,904 are male, 7,76,855 female, and 41 third gender. The Dalit population here is at least 38%.

The Congress fielded Karamjit Kaur Chowdhary, Santokh’s wife, while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fielded Sushil Kumar Rinku, formerly a Congress leader. The Akali Dal contested in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), fielding Dr Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi, MLA, from the Banga Assembly constituency. Even when the BJP and the Akali Dal were allies, it was the Akali Dal candidates who would contest from the Jalandhar seat. This time, the BJP is trying to do well alone and has fielded Inder Iqbal Atwal earlier in the Akali Dal. Atwal’s father was Charanjit Singh Atwal, former Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker.

Though there are 19 candidates, and the four major parties are trying their best in this by-poll, the primary contest is between the Congress party and AAP. Each brought prominent leaders to campaign vigorously. For the Congress, this seat holds prestige, for it won in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Winning this seat would also signal that it retains its strength in Punjab and countrywide. Karamjit Kaur Chowdhary also wants to establish her family’s political clout in this area. Her son Vikramjit won the Phillaur Assembly constituency in the last election. Many political experts believe Congress picked her to take advantage of her family’s status and cash in on sympathy generated after her husband’s death.

In the 2022 Assembly election, the Congress won five of the nine Assembly seats in the Jalandhar Lok Sabha region. It is believed that the Congress party’s internal divisions become significant obstacles in its path to victory. During the campaign, there was talk about former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi joining the BJP and contesting from this seat, but that did not happen. Instead, the Congress party managed to project a united fight with local and prominent State leaders.

For AAP, winning this election is vital since a few months after it swept the Assembly election; it lost the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat vacated by Bhagwant Mann, who became the Chief Minister. The loss gave the impression that Punjabis were quickly disenchanted with the party. Its main goal is to break this perception by winning Jalandhar and opening its Lok Sabha account from the State. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal also sought votes with the plea that it would help people who voted it to power for the next four years.

On the other hand, there is news of local AAP leaders pressuring panchayat post-holders for their votes. A sarpanch in the Lok Sabha constituency said on condition of anonymity, “Local BJP leaders and district level officials threateningly tell us if you want to get work done for the next four years, we must vote for AAP candidates, or we may face the consequences.” Senior journalist Jagtar Singh says, “It became exactly like the BJP’s chants about ‘double-engine ki sarkar’. It is morally suspect and contrary to democratic spirit to say we will not work for those who do not vote for us. It amounts to openly threatening people.”

A few days back, Congress leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira shared an audio on his Twitter account, in which AAP leader Sandeep Pathak was purportedly telling Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Cheema and other leaders in threatening tones that if AAP did not perform well, they would be taken to task. A few days ago, an allegedly obscene video featuring an AAP Cabinet minister gave the party’s opponents a big chance to target the State government.

On the other hand, Balkaur Singh, father of the late Punjabi singer Sidhu Musewala was in the Jalandhar constituency, appealing to people against voting for AAP, for its government did not provide justice in his son’s murder. The crowds who thronged his meeting were a clear challenge for AAP.

This election is a question of the very existence of the Akali Dal, which faced a historic defeat in the 2022 election. Its most significant challenge is that its candidate is not local. There is no visible emotional wave in favour of the Akali Dal after the death of Parkash Singh Badal either. Its ally, BSP, got more than two lakh votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but whether it will get as many for the Akali Dal remains to be seen.

The BJP has been trying to build its base in Punjab by including leaders from other parties. It contested this Lok Sabha election alone for the first time after its relationship with the Akali Dal ended. It has the support of leaders like Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, Bibi Jagir Kaur, and Inder Iqbal Atwal, a turban-wearing Sikh. But how much will its Sikh face help? Senior journalist Arundeep, who follows the politics of the Doaba region where Jalandhar falls, explains, “This constituency may have 38% Dalit votes, but divided into castes and categories. But the majority are from the Ravidasia community, a largely united caste, which can explain why Channi had influence here, and gave the Congress party a good run. The BJP’s problem is its candidate is from the Sikh Balmiki brotherhood, whom Ravidasias do not vote for traditionally, as they are not very close—it is an error the Akali Dal made in the 2009 Lok Sabha election by fielding Hans Raj Hans on this seat.”

Kulwinder Adampur, a social activist and writer, says, “People’s issues were completely marginalised in this election, as political parties played the blame game. The road to Adampur is no good, there are no good educational centres, and people must go to bigger cities seeking health care. Unemployment is a big issue, and all these were missing from this election campaign.”

According to Paramjit Singh Kadian, a social worker among the youth, “Our youth is completely confused and directionless, sees no future in Punjab and is leaving for other countries. Governments must create employment for them, but for all political parties, they are mere voters and crowds to fill pre-election rallies.”

The author is an independent journalist based in Punjab. The views are personal.

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