Jalandhar: The ruling Aam Aadmi Party scripted history by winning the crucial Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat on Saturday by a margin of 58,691 votes. The reserved constituency is a Dalit-majority area.
The by-poll was held on May 10 and was necessitated by the death of former MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary.
AAP snatched away the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat from the Congress with a 34.05% vote share. Since 1999, this has otherwise been one of the safest constituencies for the Congress. Even before that, it was a Congress stronghold for long and the party lost the seat just twice to the then Janata Dal leader and later Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in 1989 and 1998.
Punjab Congress chief Amrinder Singh Raja Warring conceded defeat and congratulated AAP candidate Sushil Kumar Rinku: “We humbly accept people’s mandate! I thank party workers, volunteers, supporters and the entire congress leadership for the hard work and efforts put in by them for Jalandhar byelection. I congratulate Sushil Rinku and AAP party for the victory.”
In his address, AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal said while standing with Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann, “It is a historic win in the sense that out of 60 years, Congress ruled Jalandhar constituency for 50 years. Jalandhar parliamentary seat’s win is Punjab’s mood. It is a validation of AAP’s work.”
Sushil Rinku’s one-sided victory
AAP candidate Sushil Kumar Rinku scored 3,02,297 votes, defeating Congress candidate Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary, who got 2,43,588 votes. Rinku’s lead kept increasing with every round of counting. Though it was a four-cornered contest between AAP, Congress, SAD-BSP and the BJP, the main fight was between only between the AAP and Congress.
The SAD-BSP alliance finished third, as its candidate Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi got 1,58,354, votes while the BJP ended up fourth with 1,34,706 votes.
With this victory, Rinku has not only become the only AAP MP in the Lok Sabha, but also a prominent face of AAP in Punjab. Earlier, prominent Dalit leaders of the Congress – from the Chaudhary family and Kapypee family – enjoyed the most political clout in the Doaba region.
Thanking voters, Rinku said, “AAP’s superb win is people’s stamp on our party’s work. I will work to complete the pending Smart City and other development works in Jalandhar. It is a huge victory for all of us.”
The ruling AAP government’s victory in Jalandhar despite facing heat over law and order problem and the Delhi high command’s interference in Punjab hints that the party’s road ahead of the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections is promising. AAP was struggling to gain ground in parliament after it lost the Sangrur by-poll in May 2022.
For the Congress, the Jalandhar by-poll loss is huge, as the party not only lost its strong Dalit vote base but also one of its safest seats.
Talking to The Wire, professor and political analyst G.C. Koul said, “For the Congress, it is a huge blow. Jalandhar has been one the safest bets for the Congress for decades now. Losing Jalandhar means that the Congress has lost its traditional Dalit vote bank. Congress will have to rethink its strategy and give a chance to new faces instead of banking on traditional and old faces, whom people have ignored.”
Koul, however, pointed out that ex chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s single-handed efforts to reach out to Dalit deras and religious leaders also deserves a mention. “It seems that the number of votes Congress got was largely because of Channi’s efforts. Since March onwards, Channi was visiting every Dalit dera, event and religious leader in Jalandhar, which helped in consolidating votes in some Dalit pockets,” he added.
Ironically, the Congress was the first one to announce Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary’s candidature in March, expecting a sympathy wave, but AAP changed the poll equation by roping in ex-Congress MLA Sushil Kumar Rinku. A lacklustre campaign in comparison to AAP and the BJP coupled with lack of coherence among the local Dalit leaders also dented Congress’s chances.
AAP was reduced to only one parliamentary seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when Bhagwant Mann was the MP. However, after Mann became the chief minister, AAP lost the seat to SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann.
Notably, Punjab created history twice, first when people voted four AAP MPs to power in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and second, when it gave a clear majority to AAP in the 2022 assembly elections. AAP won 92 seats out of a total 117.
An ex-Congress MLA, Rinku’s sudden move to join the AAP had created a buzz in political circles, as he does not see eye-to-eye with the sitting Jalandhar West MLA Sheetal Angural. Rinku started his political innings as a councilor and won from his home turf Jalandhar (West), an urban constituency, in the 2017 assembly polls.
What worked for AAP?
Fulfilling one of its major election guarantees in the first year of its rule, AAP introduced the scheme of providing 300 units free electricity to the people of Punjab, which certainly gave them a push.
While earlier people paid anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 8,000 as electricity bills, they were able to save that amount now. The opening of 500 mohalla clinics and providing 29,000 government jobs, as promised by the AAP government, also worked in its favour.
Senior journalist from BBC Punjabi Pal Singh Nauli said, “People in Jalandhar voted for their own welfare, putting aside the sympathy wave either for ex-MP Santokh Chaudhary or ex-CM Parkash Singh Badal. AAP’s decision to cover nearly 80% of Punjab’s population under the free power scheme changed the entire poll story. Also, CM Bhagwant Mann’s message that people should give them just 11 months to perform in Jalandhar worked for them. With this victory, AAP’s performance is likely to improve in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.”
On the Congress debacle in Jalandhar, Nauli said, “It is after 24 years that the Congress lost ground in Jalandhar. With this loss, the dominance of Chaudhary family over Dalit politics in Doaba is over. It is shocking that across the country, Congress is gaining ground, as is evident from the Karnataka assembly results, but it failed to save its safest seat in Punjab.”
He also spoke about BJP’s micro-management in the bypoll and how the saffron party ensured the votes of migrant workers in the industrial areas of Jalandhar. “The BJP Punjab leadership ensured that its leaders from Uttar Pradesh speak to migrant labourers, convincing them to vote for the saffron party. Apart from this, they consolidated Valmiki community votes by fielding Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal, who scored 134,800 votes,” he added.
Another factor was AAP’s aggressive campaign coupled with back-to-back rallies and road shows led by AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann, which gave them an edge over other parties. In comparison to AAP, the Congress campaign was led by senior Punjab leaders while top leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi were missing.
AAP compensated for Sangrur bypoll loss
AAP was determined to compensate for the Sangrur bypoll loss and preferred to field an influential and known Dalit face from Jalandhar.
Koul, who also taught Rinku at DAV College, Jalandhar, said, “By fielding Sushil Kumar Rinku, not only did AAP regain its lost ground, they also got a strong Dalit leader. A young leader who grew from the grassroots level, Rinku is likely to perform better and work for the constituency’s development.”
The United Christian Party
The Jalandhar bypoll witnessed a twist with the formation of the United Christian Party, a new political outfit, which was solely aimed at targeting the Christian community in Jalandhar.
The party first fielded its candidate Surjit Thapar in the bypoll but within days decided to back out and declared its support for AAP. As per the 2011 census, Punjab has merely 1.5% Christian population, but with the advent of churches in many villages with a Dalit population in the Doaba belt, the number would likely have increased by now.
Formed under the aegis of the Pentecostal Christian Community Parbandhak Committee, the United Christian Party had claimed that nearly all major church bodies like the Roman Catholic Church, Church of North India, Salvation Army and others were supporting their call to vote for AAP.
It is pertinent to mention here that on April 10, Mann visited the apostolic administrator of the Jalandhar Diocese Bishop Agnelo Gracias. It was learnt that Christian community leaders raised their pending demands with Mann, who in turn assured to fulfil them.
How will this defeat affect Congress?
After losing the 2022 assembly elections, the Congress was already on the decline in Punjab. But losing the Jalandhar bypoll just eight months ahead of the 2024 polls is a huge loss for the party.
During the 2022 assembly polls, the Congress had won five out of the nine seats in Jalandhar.
However, this time, the Congress failed to take a lead in any of the nine constituencies of Jalandhar while AAP maintained its lead right from the word go.
The Congress was wiped out of the Malwa and Majha regions in Punjab during the assembly election and the only saving grace was the Doaba region. But with the Jalandhar loss, the congress has not only lost its influence in Doaba but the crucial Dalit vote base too.
A Congress leader, requesting anonymity, said, “The result is indeed shocking. AAP not only managed the state machinery and won the bypoll but also threatened the sarpanchs and panchs that their development grants would be halted if they did not vote for AAP. Another major factor is how the BJP swayed Valmiki votes in its favour by fielding Valmiki leader Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal in the bypoll.”
The Congress leader said that AAP also managed the support of the United Christian Party, which boosted their victory margin. “The way people, particularly the Dalits, are joining Christianity in hordes in the Dalit-dominated Doaba region, Punjab’s politics is set to witness a change in the coming times. It is a wake-up call for the Congress ahead of the 2024 parliamentary polls,” he added.
Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously called Inder Kumar Gujral a Jan Sangh leader.