Factional fighting and the fall

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

HEARING the news of the victory of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's wife Parneet Kaur from Patiala, an enthusiastic party worker fired two shots in the air in village Zirakpur. Little did he know then that his two shots represented the Congress' final tally in Punjab. By evening his enthusiasm turned to gloom when the local police started making enquiries about the use of firearms in the party office. Gloomier was the atmosphere in the State Congress party office.

In Delhi, the visibly glum National Democratic Alliance leaders broke into a smile when they heard of 11 seats - the combined tally of the Shiromani Akali Dal (eight) and the BJP (three). The anti-incumbency factor was quite the reason for the Congress' poor performance.

It was apparent that the Congress was a divided house before the elections. Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had left no stone unturned to wreck the chances of the party's candidates. She did not campaign in the Lehra Gagga region of the Patiala constituency. Yet Parneet Kaur managed to retain the seat. It is another matter that while SAD leader Prakash Singh Badal's son Sukhbir Singh Badal won with a margin of over 1.35 lakh votes from Faridkot, Parneet Kaur won with a relatively slender margin of 23,600 votes. The results, however, indicate that infighting did less damage to the Congress' chances than the presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party. The votes polled by the BSP candidates in all the 13 constituencies and the margins by which the Congress candidates lost prove this point. For instance, in Ropar, SAD (Badal) candidate and Gurcharan Singh Tohra loyalist Sukhdev Singh Libra wrested the seat from Shamsher Singh Dullo of the Congress. Libra, who got 44 per cent of the votes polled, won by a margin of 33,637 votes. The BSP clearly cut into Dullo's vote share. Maan Singh Manhera of the BSP, who got 9.9 per cent of the total votes, polled more than 75,000 votes.

At the same time, caste-related issues failed to ensure the defeat of Congress candidate Rana Gurjit Singh in Jalandhar, where Talhan village voted in strength for the BSP. Rana Gurjit polled 3,44,619 votes and defeated Naresh Gujral, SAD candidate and former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's son, who polled 3,11,156 votes.

Dissidence and the absence of an alliance spoiled the game for the Congress. While the Akalis were a divided house in the 1999 elections following the Badal-Tohra standoff, this time round the absence of any internal bickering ensured the party's win. In fact Tohra's widow Joginder Tohra appealed to the people through newspaper advertisements to vote for the SAD.

Voters appear to have taken local and development issues into consideration. This was evident in Gurdaspur where BJP candidate Vinod Khanna managed to do a hat-trick. Khanna, who has fallen several steps short of reaching his promise of making Gurdaspur a second Paris, is lauded for building the Naushehra Bhinder bridge, which has made Gurdaspur accessible to the rest of Punjab. Khanna even managed to increase his victory margin. In 1999, he won by 1,399 votes. This time his margin of victory over the Congress Sukhbuns Kaur Bhinder is 24,983. This is the third time that Sukhbuns Kaur has been defeated by Khanna.

Navjot Sidhu, cricketer-turned-commentator-turned-politician, who was dubbed a political novice and outsider by his Congress rival R.L. Bhatia, won the Amritsar seat with a margin of over one lakh votes. The votes were as much for Sidhu's star status as for the fact that Bhatia had failed to contribute much for his constituency even though he had been elected for a record six times.

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