Captain’s victory

Print edition : June 07, 2019

Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh addressing media persons after the Lok Sabha election results were announced in Chandigarh on May 23. He marshalled his resources skilfully to deliver the State to the party almost independent of its central leadership. Photo: AKILESH KUMAR

Sunny Deol, the first-time contestant of the BJP, elected from Gurdaspur. (Right) Ravneet Singh Bittu of the Congress who has been elected from Ludhiana. Photo: THE HINDU

Ravneet Singh Bittu of the Congress who has been elected from Ludhiana. Photo: PTI

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has been elected from Firozpur. Gurjeet Singh Aujla (right), the Congress winner in Amritsar. Photo: AFP

Gurjeet Singh Aujla, the Congress’ winner in Amritsar. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Preneet Kaur of the Congress, elected from Patiala. She had won the seat in 2009 but was defeated in 2014. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the SAD, elected from Bathinda. (Right) Preneet Kaur of the Congress, elected from Patiala. She had won the seat in 2009 but was defeated in 2014. Photo: PTI

Bibi Jagir Kaur, the defeated SAD contestant from the Panthic seat of Khadoor Sahib. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Dharam Vira Gandhi. He lost the Patiala seat from where he was elected in 2014. Photo: PTI

Mohammad Sadique, Congress candidate elected from Faridkot, paying obeisance at Golden Temple in Amritsar on May 24. Photo: PTI

The Congress’ score of eight of the 13 seats was facilitated as much by the charisma of Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh as by the badly splintered opposition.

The Indian National Congress bucked the trend in northern India to notch up an impressive victory in Punjab. Although the State failed to live up to pre-election expectations of delivering the highest success rate to the party—that honour went to Kerala—it reinforced its faith in the oldest national party. Of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the State, the Congress won eight, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) two each and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) one. The Congress polled 40.12 per cent of the votes, the BJP 9.63, the SAD 27.45 and the AAP 7.38 per cent. In 2014, the SAD and the AAP had won four seats each, the Congress three and the BJP two.

The Congress’ victory was facilitated as much by the charisma of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh as by the badly splintered opposition. Amarinder Singh was said to have been denied a free hand in the selection of candidates. He was reportedly not in favour of nominating the sitting SAD Member of Parliament, Sher Singh Ghubaya, to contest on the Congress ticket from Firozpur. He also faced opposition from his Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu who expressed his displeasure at the denial of the party ticket to his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu. But Amarinder Singh marshalled his resources skilfully to deliver the State to the party almost independent of its central leadership. An ex-serviceman, Amarinder Singh countered the BJP’s Pulwama and Balakot narrative successfully and was also able to turn the focus on his government’s achievements since coming to power in 2017. The easy availability of farm loans and better prices for produce went some way in easing agrarian distress in the State.

Incidentally, in Firozpur, Amarinder Singh’s personal choice was the Sports Minister Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi. He planned to field Ghubaya, who joined the Congress in March, as an independent candidate with the idea of eroding SAD votes and thereby making Sukhbir Singh Badal’s winning chances difficult. Although early trends showed Badal to be trailing, he won the seat with a margin of 1,98,850 votes. The second SAD seat went to Badal’s wife and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur. She defeated the Congress’ Amrinder Singh Raja Warring in Bathinda by a margin of 21,772. With the victory of the Badals, the SAD was reduced to a family firm with all its other candidates losing from their respective constituencies.

The result was not entirely unexpected for the SAD as the party approached the general election after a split which resulted in the formation of the SAD (Taksali). Although the Taksali faction did not win any seat, it eroded the SAD’s vote share and also impacted the parent party in the perception battle. Also, the burning of the holy corpus of the Guru Granth Sahib at Malerkotla on May 12 may have cost the SAD dear. The State voted on May 19.

Similarly, the AAP entered the election like a wounded and even betrayed soldier. Its erstwhile MPs had left the party complaining of party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrogance and high-handedness, either to form splinter groups or to contest as independents. AAP rebel Sukhpal Khaira formed the Punjab Ekta Party (PEP), which became part of the third front called the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PAD). The PEP fought the elections in alliance with the Left, the Lok Insaaaf Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The alliance failed to win any of the 13 seats it contested. Also, Dharam Vira Gandhi, who contested on the AAP ticket in 2014 and won the Patiala seat, contested as an independent this time and came a poor third. Amarinder Singh’s wife Preneet Kaur of the Congress won the seat by a margin of 1,62,718 votes. It was an impressive comeback for Preneet Kaur after having tasted defeat at the hands of Dharam Vira Gandhi in 2014.

As for the AAP, its fortunes showed a predictable and consistent decline. Reading the writing on the wall, the party concentrated its energies on Sangrur where State party chief Bhagwant Mann was re-elected. Mann won a handsome victory defeating Kewal Singh Dhillon of the Congress by a margin of 1,10,211 votes. The AAP’s other MP, Prof Sadhu Singh, lost to Mohammad Sadique of the Congress in Faridkot. Though the party managed to retain one seat, its vote share got reduced drastically from 24 per cent in 2014 to around 7.38 per cent. The fact that non-resident Indians who had come forward to help the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the following Assembly election with funds and manpower withdrew their support meant that the party was short of both manpower at the ground level and the financial strength needed to take on political bigwigs. Also, if in 2014 aspiring candidates queued up to seek the AAP ticket, this time some of the candidates were chosen to merely fill the numbers. Clearly, the party has lost its way in the State.

While both the SAD and the AAP have some soul-searching to do following their electoral debacle, popular Hindi actor Sunny Deol provided a glimmer of hope to the BJP by winning the Gurdaspur seat, which Hindi film actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna had won in 2014. Deol had not exactly given a great account of his political acumen during the campaign. Apparently, he was unaware of the Balakot air raid when the media asked him about it. His victory had much to do with Gurdaspur’s predilection for electing film heroes. After the seat fell vacant following Vinod Khanna’s death, Congress’ Sunil Jakhar won it in the byelection held in 2017. Sunil Jakhar failed to repeat the feat, ensuring Sunny Deol’s entry into Parliament. Jakhar’s defeat was a blow to the Congress as Amarinder Singh called him the future Chief Minister of Punjab during the election campaign.

Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri lost to Gurjeet Singh Aujla of the Congress in Amritsar. Joining him on the losers’ list was the SAD’s Gulzar Singh Ranikhe who lost to Mohammed Sadique in Faridkot. Sadique, a popular folk singer, became the only Muslim candidate to win a Lok Sabha seat in the State. Also consigned to the ranks of losers was the PAD’s Paramjit Kaur Khalra, widow of noted human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra. The Panthic seat of Khadoor Sahib went to the Congress for the first time in 38 years as Jasbir Singh Gill “Dimpa” raced ahead of Bibi Jagir Kaur of the SAD and Paramjit Kaur Khalra, who enjoyed the support of the educated people and netizens and was a sentimental favourite among many sections. Her lack of manpower at the ground level proved costly.

Incidentally, although the Congress had not won the Khadoor Sahib for almost four decades, this time Dimpa was the favourite from the beginning as the party had won all the nine Assembly segments falling under the Lok Sabha constituency. Dimpa enjoyed the support of all the Members of the Legislative Assembly and carried out a high-octave campaign, promising to turn the constituency into a tourist hub. His victory was a foregone conclusion.

The Congress doubled its tally of four (three seats it won in 2014 and one seat in the 2017 byelection). Incidentally, the party wrested three seats from the AAP and two from the SAD (Anandpur Sahib and Khadoor Sahib). The results should bolster the stature of Amarinder Singh, who has clearly cast aside the threat posed by Navjot Singh Sidhu. For long, he had to make allowance for Navjot Singh Sidhu who seemed to enjoy the support of party chief Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Vadra. Emboldened by their support, Navjot Singh Sidhu became a critic of the Chief Minister and was clearly aspiring for a bigger role in the State. He addressed around a hundred rallies, too. In the end, though, Amarinder Singh’s ability to steer the discourse away from the BJP’s nationalism narrative and focus on his own accomplishments clinched the day for the Congress. The way he countered the nationalism claims of the BJP was a lesson for the Congress elsewhere. He was, of course, helped by the fact that the Sikh community in general did not show much enthusiasm to embrace the politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The party’s success in Punjab could enable Amarinder Singh to play a bigger role at the party’s central level.