Sangrur Bypoll: Setback for Ruling AAP as Sikh Hardliner Trumps Party Candidate

The consolidation of the Sikh panth vote, Sidhu Moosewala murder, Bhagwant Mann's growing image of being a ‘rubber stamp’ chief minister, a low vote turnout and failure of opposition are all being seen as possible reasons behind the ruling party's defeat.

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Chandigarh: Three months after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stunned the whole country with its landslide win in Punjab assembly elections, the party candidate in the Sangrur parliamentary bypoll was dealt a surprising loss by Sikh hardliner Simranjit Singh Mann, who until his latest victory, was perceived as an insignificant fringe figure in Punjab politics.

The result was a big setback for AAP as well as a personal humiliation for chief minister Bhagwant Mann. Mann occupied the Sangrur parliamentary seat for two straight terms in 2014 and 2019 before he resigned in March this year in order to take the oath as Punjab chief minister, thereby necessitating this bypoll.

In 2019, Mann won this seat by a margin over 1 lakh votes. In the 2022 assembly polls, AAP candidates had won all nine assembly segments falling in the Sangrur parliamentary seat, considered a pocket borough of Mann and an AAP stronghold.

Also read: Why an AAP ‘Tsunami’ – and Not Just Wave – Has Come Over Punjab

The result of Sangrur bypoll, however, is a reminder that nothing is permanent in politics.

AAP candidate Gurmail Singh, Mann’s close aide, lost the seat to 77-year-old Simranjit Singh Mann of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) by 5,822 votes as 2,47,332 votes were polled in his favour against Mann’s 2,53,154 votes.

Although Mann’s margin of victory was thin, he consistently maintained a lead over Singh ever since  counting began  at 8 am on Sunday morning. His lead kept fluctuating but he remained ahead of the AAP candidate throughout.

What made AAP lose and Simranjit Singh win?   

First and foremost, the AAP lost due to its failure to maintain law and order in Punjab.

The recent communal clashes and gang wars left Punjabis high and dry after they voted the AAP government in with the biggest ever mandate in the assembly polls with hopes for better administration.

Instead, killings involving gangsters became even more common.

The broad-daylight murder of singer Sidhu Moosewala last month shocked the people of Punjab to their core, which many believe played a massive role in the AAP candidates defeat in the latest bypoll.

The AAP was largely blamed for Moosewala’s death since two days before his murder, the Mann government had curtailed his security in the name of “cracking the whip on VVIP culture” in the state.

Also read: Sidhu Moose Wala: A Complex Character in Life, Death and Music

Further, the AAP had promised to stop drug related deaths and farmer suicides once it formed government in the state. However, drug trade continued as usual, as reflected in the regular deaths of Punjab youth due to drug overdose.

Farmer suicides, too, continued unabated, the latest reason being the crop loss due to March-April heatwave in North India.

Apart from this, the word had spread among Punjabis that the AAP government in the state was being run from Delhi, with Mann being reduced to a ‘rubber stamp’ chief minster.

There is a huge political message behind Simranjit Mann’s victory; that people have, once again, again rejected the candidates of mainstream parties and decided to vote for a political fringe element who has not won any election for over two decades now.

Candidates of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and SAD were at a distant third, fourth and fifth place respectively.

For Simranjit Mann, who last won a poll in 1999 from the same Sangrur parliamentary seat, it was a shot in the arm. Neither he nor his outfit, SAD (Amritsar), a splinter group of the main Badal family-led SAD, has been effective since then.

On what made Simranjit Mann win this time around, former AAP MLA and senior journalist Kanwar Sandhu told The Wire that there are several reasons.

First, the people are still fed up with Punjab’s mainstream opposition parties, like the SAD, BJP and Congress.

Second was AAP’s lopsided performance ever since it formed government in Punjab; otherwise, it would have been impossible for a chief minister to lose his own constituency in such a short span of time.

“Third, there was an emotional appeal behind Mann’s victory. Given his age, it was probably his last poll. People must have been swayed by his continuous struggle in electoral politics,” Sandhu added

Fourth, Sandhu said, was Sidhu Mooselwala’s murder, which benefited him politically.

“In this election, Mann did not raise the Khalistan issue. Rather, he stuck to campaigning for the federal rights of Punjab, something that came into limelight after Moosewala’s death,” said Sandhu.

Moosewala’s latest song, which was released posthumously (and has since been removed from YouTube) was based on the issue of Punjab’s river water sharing agreement with neighbouring Haryana. Punjabis are opposed to sharing river water with Haryana and blame the Union government for this age-old row.

Panth vote consolidation also a big factor 

In Punjab, a sizeable section of the population continues to vote on the name of the Sikh panth and Simranjit Mann’s victory is being seen as the consolidation of Sikh panth vote, something that the Badal-run SAD also tried, but failed.

Badal’s party fielded Kamaldeep Kaur Rajoana, sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana who sentenced to death for his involvement in the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995, in order to reach out to the Sikh core vote, which once was the party’s most formidable support base.

However, she ended up in fifth position with mere 44,428 votes.

Before declaring Rajoana’s sister as the party’s candidate, SAD president Sukhbir Badal met Simranjeet Mann to nominate a joint candidate for the Sangrur bypoll. But Mann decided to go it solo, which ultimately paid dividends.

After his victory, Mann attributed his victory to the youth of Punjab, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala and those who were ‘shaheed’ with him.

Also read: Why BJP’s Punjab Expansion Spree Rings Hollow

Many fear that with his victory, a religion based politics may take centre-stage in the state, just three months after when voters in Punjab rejected appeals to caste and religion appeal; a major factor in the AAP winning 92 out of 117 assembly constituencies.

Mann won more at the expense of Congress and SAD than AAP

As per the data, Simranjit Mann, whose vote share in the Sangrur parliamentary constituency increased from 4% (48,000) in 2019 elections to 35% (2.53 lakh) in 2022 bypolls, won the election more at the expense of Congress and Akali Dal than the AAP.

In 2019, the winner, AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, polled 37% (4.12 lakh) of the total votes (11 lakh). In this by-election, AAP’s vote share has reduced to 34% (2.47 Lakh) of total votes polled (7.10 lakh).

But the drop in the vote share of the Congress and the SAD is, perhaps, more significant.

In 2019, the Congress candidate polled over 27% votes (3.03 lakh), but in the 2022 bypolls, the party’s candidate’s vote share tanked to a mere 11% (79,668 votes).

For the SAD, the performance was equally bad. In 2019, its candidate polled 23% vote share (2.63 lakh), which has now fallen to a mere 6% (44,428 votes).

The BJP, which contested this seat for the first time,only got 9% vote share (66,298 votes).

AAP blames low voter turnout 

AAP’s spokesperson Malvinder Singh Kang held that low polling, among other factors, were responsible for the party’s defeat.

Polling in the Sangrur bypoll was 45%, the lowest since 1991, which went against the party.

Voters queuing in front of the polling station in Sangrur on Thursday, June 23. Photo: PTI.

On whether the party lost due to performance issues, he said it couldn’t be so. According to him, the party has been doing well in Punjab. It took key decisions to get rid of corruption and improve Punjab’s agriculture

“But the result, no doubt, is an eye-opener. We will analyse it and take corrective measures in the days to come,” he added

Kang, too, was surprised that the party lost from assembly constituencies like Dirba, Malerkotla, Amargarh, Barnala and the like (falling within the Sangrur parliamentary constituency), which it won convincingly just three months ago in the assembly polls.

Kang also blamed the poor performance of the candidates of traditional parties for Simranjit Mann’s victory.

Political reactions

Following the result, Congress leader of the opposition, Partap Bajwa tweeted at the AAP, saying “public relations can never be a substitute for good governance.

BJP leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa, meanwhile, tweeted that the Sangrur bypoll results are a “clear reflection of Punjabis’ sentiments”.