Chandigarh: While the hunt for Sikh hardliner and Khalistan sympathiser Amritpal Singh is finally over with his arrest on Sunday, the leaders of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab, including chief minister Bhagwant Mann, are now busy patting themselves on the back.
Mann said in a video message on Sunday that the government handled the law and order situation well and Amritpal was arrested without any bloodshed.
“We could have arrested him earlier too. But we did not want any violence or firing,” Mann said, justifying the delay in the arrest.
In contrast to statements and videos suggesting that Amritpal surrendered himself in Moga district’s Rode village, Mann claimed, “We got to know Amritpal’s location late last night. I did not sleep. I was taking minute-by-minute updates from senior police officials till the time he was arrested.”
Mann added, “I want the youth of Punjab to have degrees in their hands, and not get brainwashed into doing illegal activities.”
Soon after Mann’s statement, AAP’s social media handles were crowded with statements from all important party leaders. They were all praising the party’s performance in keeping Amritpal in check and restoring peace and security in Punjab.
There is a reason AAP is turning up the messaging after Amritpal’s arrest. The state will see a crucial by-election to the Jalandhar parliamentary constituency on May 10.
Even as this seat is a reserved constituency and Dalits make up almost 45% of the total 17 lakh voters, AAP knows that hysteria around law and order and prevailing Sikh issues are likely to play a vital role in shaping the election.
Given that Punjab has a troubled history around the demand for a separate state in the ’80s and those days are still fresh in public memory, the opposition parties will go full throttle to blame the AAP government for allowing radical elements to expand and hijack the state at the cost of public harmony and safety.
They were already critical of the Mann government for delay in action on Amritpal. AAP was then accused of running a mishandled operation, which allowed Amritpal to escape and at the same time curtailing the civil liberties of citizens through internet suspension for days, detention of hundreds of Sikh youths and gagging of Sikh media that was reporting on Amritpal. Their action, the opposition said, was creating an unnecessary scar to hide their failure to catch Amritpal.
AAP strategy, therefore, appears to neutralise any negative propaganda by claiming how it diligently handled Amritpal without disrespecting Sikh ethos and communal harmony.
But with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) already painting AAP’s Amritpal operation as anti-Sikh and the BJP highlighting the Khalistan threat to target Hindu voters, some point out that this issue may provide fertile ground for polarisation in the upcoming election.
Political observer Harjeshwar Singh does not believe the Jalandhar by-election is getting too polarised for the simple reason that Amritpal did not enjoy much ground support – his support was hyped in the media. But he believes that law and order will definitely be a buzzword on which AAP has been on a sticky wicket since the beginning, due to a string of high-profile murders and the expansion of radical forces.
Along with this, the AAP government’s performance in the past year will remain a key election point, he added.
While AAP will focus on zero electricity bills and mohalla clinics to claim success in its first year in government, the opposition will target Mann for surrendering his government to Delhi bosses, and plunging state into extreme debt through mindless freebies, said Harjeshwar.
The ruling party often has an edge in by-elections. But AAP, which won a historic mandate in Punjab on the narrative of change in the 2022 assembly polls, has been less than lucky on that count. Within three months of forming the government, AAP lost the Sangrur Lok Sabha by-poll and that too on the seat vacated by chief minister Mann.
Now, as the party faces another by-election in Jalandhar, it can’t afford another defeat – especially when the 2024 parliamentary election is not far away.
In a recent interview with Hindustan Times, AAP’s Jalandhar election in-charge and Punjab finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema declared that the by-poll result will be a verdict on the state government’s performance. In case AAP loses, the message will be loud and clear that it has not lived up to its governance claims.
The revival of the opposition, especially SAD, also hinges on this election. In the Sangrur by-election, while AAP lost badly, people also discarded traditional parties by giving a mandate to Sikh hardliner Simranjit Singh Mann.
It will be interesting to see if this election paves the way for the revival of traditional parties in the state.
Congress has fielded Karamjit Kaur as its candidate. Karmajit’s husband Santokh Chaudhary was a two-time MP from Jalandhar and had strong support among Dalits and city voters.
His sudden death due to cardiac arrest during party leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra necessitated this by-election. Congress hopes that fielding Karamjit will give it an edge over other parties as she may get sympathy votes.
The choice of the AAP candidate was surprising. Instead of giving a ticket to a leader within the party, it made local Congress leader Sushil Rinku join the party and fielded him from the Jalandhar seat.
The caste combination is learnt to have played heavily into AAP’s decision. Rinku is believed to have strong support from the Ravidasia Dalit community, which has a strong presence in the constituency.
Meanwhile, other candidates in the fray are Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi from the SAD-BSP alliance, Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal from the BJP and Gurjant Singh, a nominee from the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar).
Sukhi is a two-time MLA, who won the assembly elections in 2017 and 2022. He is an ENT specialist who switched to SAD from BSP. He was one of just two MLAs from SAD who was able to win in the 2022 assembly elections. His Banga assembly seat falls outside Jalandhar.
Inder Iqbal Singh of the BJP is an Akali turncoat who joined the saffron party only last week. He is the son of senior Akali leader Charanjit Singh Atwal, who too resigned from the party after his son joined the BJP.