Jalandhar: Having lost the Sangrur bypolls last year and now with a national party status to protect, Aam Aadmi Party is understandably eager to win the Jalandhar Lok Sabha by-election.
The by-poll is being seen as a curtain raiser to the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
It will not only decide the fate of AAP, its main opposition Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, and Bharatiya Janata Party, but of Punjab politics too.
Punjab witnessed a major political change with AAP’s clean sweep in the 2022 assembly polls, in which it won 92 seats out of total 117.
The Jalandhar by-election will be the first electoral test for AAP – although there is also the Karnataka assembly election – after attaining national party status. The by-election was necessitated after the sudden demise of Jalandhar MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in January this year.
Surprising political opponents, AAP fielded former Congress MLA Sushil Kumar Rinku, hours after he jumped ship.
“After losing the Sangrur by-poll, AAP was eyeing a heavyweight candidate who could influence the Dalit votes. By fielding Sushil Rinku, AAP has launched a strong candidate, which has made the contest challenging,” said Jalandhar-based professor G.C. Koul, an expert on Dalit issues.
Rinku, who started his political innings from his home turf Jalandhar West, a reserved assembly constituency, was defeated by AAP candidate Sheetal Angural in the 2022 assembly polls by a margin of 4,253 votes. Rinku’s move to AAP had created buzz in political circles, as he has not exactly seen eye to eye with Angural for years now.
On the other hand, Congress banking upon the legacy of two-time MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary, has fielded his wife, academic Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary, from Jalandhar. Karamjit Chaudhary’s son Vikramjit Singh Chaudhary is the sitting MLA from Phillaur (reserved) assembly constituency, the home turf of the Chaudhary family in Jalandhar.
The SAD-BSP alliance chose its sitting MLA from Banga (reserved) constituency Dr Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi while BJP, after many deliberations, gave a ticket to former SAD leader Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal.
Inder Iqbal is the son of former Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal. Notably, Charanjit Atwal had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a SAD ticket but lost to Santokh Chaudhary.
AAP’s desperate bid to win
In an interview to Hindustan Times AAP’s Jalandhar election in-charge and Punjab finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema stated that the Jalandhar by poll result will be a verdict on their government’s performance.
It is no surprise as to why AAP is leading a high decibel campaign with its national convener Arvind Kejriwal and chief minister Bhagwant Mann holding a series of rallies.
AAP is sweeping Jalandhar… pic.twitter.com/Z97szBZU2G
— Sameer Naqvi (@SameerNaqviii) May 6, 2023
The Congress on the other hand is eyeing to retain the Jalandhar seat, a party stronghold where it had been winning consecutively since 1999.
AAP’s desperation is primarily because of two reasons. First, the party wants to compensate for the loss of the Sangrur by-election, which it lost to SAD’s Amritsar president Simranjit Singh Mann. A pro-Khalistan ideologue, Mann defeated AAP candidate Gurmail Singh by a margin of over 5,822 votes. This was within three months of AAP coming to power in Punjab.
Secondly, following the protracted chase for pro-Khalistan leader Amritpal Singh in March, the AAP leadership has been in a tight spot.
Talking to The Wire, professor Koul said that AAP was likely to face the heat from the Sikh voters in the by-poll. “The way Sikh youths were picked up, the sentiment of hurt among the Sikh community – over the fact that they have always been discriminated against by all the Union governments – was likely to affect AAP. The imposition of NSA on some youths and targeting journalists and intellectuals in Punjab are some issues which could cost them dear,” he said.
Recently, the Quami Insaaf Morcha holding a protest for the release of Sikh prisoners at Mohali, Punjab, held a press conference in Jalandhar, announcing that it will boycott AAP in the by-election. Their argument was that AAP was way more anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab than the previous governments.
Professor Koul also said that AAP has already lost its lone parliamentary seat of Sangrur last year. “If AAP loses Jalandhar by-poll, it would severely impact its prospects in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha polls in Punjab, which was its major target now,” he emphasised.
Notably, during Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s visit to Dera Ballan, CM Bhagwant Mann had told party workers that they cannot afford to lose the Jalandhar by-poll, as it will severely impact its poll prospects in 2024.
It was also hardly a surprise as to why Kejriwal recently laid the foundation stone of Guru Ravidas Bani Research Centre at Dera Ballan, a major religious dera of Guru Ravidas followers in Ballan village of Jalandhar, and handed over Rs 25 crore for its construction.
It is pertinent to mention here that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, AAP had won four seats out of the total 13 in Punjab. However, in 2019 polls, AAP’s tally was reduced to merely one seat – Sangrur – which was then represented by Bhagwant Mann.
In the 2019 parliamentary poll, Congress had won eight seats, SAD two, BJP two, and AAP one.
Testing phase for Rahul Gandhi’s brand of politics
Professor Koul said that even for the Congress, Jalandhar by-poll was crucial as it is the first ever election after Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra.
“If Congress wins the Jalandhar seat, it would be seen as a major boost for Rahul Gandhi’s brand of politics, along with the Congress in Punjab and across the country. Since Jalandhar has always been a strong Congress bastion, yet another victory in the by-poll would further consolidate its position in the Dalit-dominated Doaba belt of Punjab, the region where it fared well despite a clean sweep by AAP in 2022 assembly polls,” he said.
He said that a Congress win would further weaken AAP’s position nationally, at a time when Kejriwal is hard selling himself as a national leader.
Talking about the voting pattern of Dalit communities, he said that for long they have remained inclined towards the BSP but the SAD-BSP alliance has failed to make an impact. “Had it been so, the SAD-BSP alliance would have performed better than remaining confined to a mere three seats in the assembly polls. The Dalits view the SAD-BSP alliance as a partnership of convenience and committed Dalit voters are not much into this alliance,” he said.
Interestingly, as AAP knows well that Jalandhar was a Congress bastion, during a rally at Phillaur, Kejriwal was seen asking voters to support AAP and avoid Congress, as it would lead to fights. “Elect an MP, who would go in sync with the AAP, else your work will not be done. The Congress leader would keep on fighting with AAP. It is for you to decide whether you want fights or work,” Kejriwal said.
Jalandhar-based Sikh scholar Gurbachan Singh said argued that in case AAP lost the Jalandhar by-poll, it would amount to “nothing short of political bankruptcy.”
Singh also said that it is not just the outcome, but even the margin of votes which would affect the outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. “No doubt AAP has introduced 300 units of free electricity for the public but the dwindling law and order situation, drugs, farmers’ suicides, sacrilege issues and losing public support were not small issues to handle. If AAP wins the by-poll, they will truly capture Punjab and if Congress wins, it would prove the voting sentiment of the Dalits in favour of Congress,” he added.
From reaching out to the Dalit deras and camping in Jalandhar – the Congress on the other hand was seen trying the time tested formula of wooing voters through Dalit dera politics. Former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi has frequently reached out to all Dalit deras in the Doaba region, eyeing a consolidation of Dalit votes.
At their rallies, besides targeting the opposition, AAP has banking on the major poll plank of providing 300 units electricity free and opening 500 mohalla clinics.
On the other hand, Congress, SAD-BSP and BJP are targeting the AAP on law and order problems (particularly the killings of rapper-singer Sidhu Moosewala and international kabaddi player Sandeep Singh), delayed justice in sacrilege cases, drugs issue, farmers’ suicides, MSP on select crops, and other issues.
However, the editor of the Jalandhar-based Punjabi newspaper Nawan Zamana Jatinder Pannu said that by fielding an ex-Congress MLA Sushil Kumar Rinku, AAP has posed a sizeable challenge to Congress.
“AAP has 10 Rajya Sabha MPs but their presence in the parliament is nil, this is a good opportunity for AAP to snatch away something from Congress,” he added.
The senior journalist said that people in Punjab were happy with the free electricity scheme, which is being viewed as a monthly saving and discussed everywhere. “Earlier, people used to pay around Rs 3,000 to Rs 8,000 as electricity bills but that is not the case now,” he said.
Talking about BJP’s prospects, he said, “The BJP is likely to perform better among the urban Hindu voters.”
Further, a divided Congress is advantage AAP. “The way its leaders and party workers are leaving Congress, it is putting them in a tight spot. Factionalism within Congress led by different groups of Navjot Sidhu, Charanjit Singh Channi, Amrinder Singh Raja Warring and Sukhpal Khaira was affecting the party,” he added.