Since the day the local assembly byelection was announced in early January, for most people in Punjab, it was a foregone conclusion that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) will win the seat hands down, giving another crushing defeat to the Congress. With nine days to go for the polling, the prediction seems to have changed.
The united face being presented by the Punjab Congress and the relentless campaign spearheaded by its state president, Captain Amarinder Singh, who has not gone back from Moga since February 2, appeared have already made the going tough for the SAD president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, who thought the contest would be a cakewalk.
Among the voters in Moga, there is a strong undercurrent to teach SAD nominee Joginder Pal Jain, 67, a lesson for betraying the people of this town, who had voted for him against all odds in 2012 and spurned former director general of police Paramdeep Singh Gill, who was a strong Akali candidate.
It is not that Jain became a turncoat only in 2012. The businessman-turned-politician joined the Congress in 1992, crossed over to the Akalis in 1997, left them in 2005, moved back to the Congress, and rejoined the Panthic party in December last year. Never before in the history of Indian politics, a sitting legislator had resigned to switch over to the ruling party and become its official candidate in a byelection.
Sense of betrayal
"We voted for him against all odds. The Akalis won all the assembly seats around Moga such as Jagraon, Dharamkot, Baghapurana, Nihal Singh Wala and Faridkot. In the 2009 parliamentary elections also, votes from the Moga assembly segment put the Congress in lead before the party lost the Faridkot Lok Sabha seat. Time has come when each of us should teach a lesson to Jain and the politicians of his kind who take voters for a ride," said Umesh Kumar, a shopkeeper from Street 9.
Jain's worry is compounded by the absence of senior Akali leader Tota Singh from the campaign on the pretext of ill health, and the unconvincing support of former DGP PS Gill at public gatherings. Tota Singh and Gill, though, will never admit on record that they feel let down by the SAD leadership's bringing their archrival into the party.
Both find it difficult to justify the track record of Jain, as many cases of cheating and fraud are pending against him and his family. The Moga byelection is also witnessing an altogether different Amarinder. The leader who is always accused of running away from hitting the roads in heat and dust during election has not shied from reaching out to the people, even if he had to walk an extra mile. After two consecutive defeats in the assembly elections, Amarinder's charisma is still intact, as people, especially youngsters are keen to shake hands with him and take pictures with him.
"I feel a tremendous response to our campaign," said Amarinder, "as people are ready to teach a lesson to not only Jain but also deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his brother-in-law, Bikram Singh Majithia, for their arrogance and power-drunk attitude. The win in Moga will be a huge morale booster for not only the Congress but also the entire Punjab, which is tired of lawlessness and atrocities on weaker sections, especially children and women, ever since the Akalis came to power."
On the prospects of Congress nominee Vijay Sathi, 66, Amarinder said the party had fielded an honest and clean candidate, and the Akalis had nothing to oppose him.
Looking for CM
It's strange to see chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who thrives on being in the thick of political activity, missing from the election scene. Not even once has he come over to Moga to campaign in favour of Jain. His visits have been postponed many times. "He is coming over to Moga tomorrow (Thursday) and will stay here till the end of the election," said a youth Akali leader managing the party's campaign.
As far as reconciling the Akalis is concerned, Jain appears to have left it to Sukhbir and Majitha to sort out. Given Sukhbir's record in election planning and management, Jain is confident he has put himself in right hands.
Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal, 45, candidate of the People's party of Punjab (PPP), who got more than 9,000 votes last time, is unable to make his presence felt. His party's president, Manpreet Singh Badal, does campaign for him but has failed to add lustre to it.
Manpreet also had to face uncomfortable questions as why he has fielded a candidate at all when the byelection was an opportunity to decimate Akalis. "Whose interest is he serving by fielding a candidate when his partners in the Sanjha Morcha, patron Surjit Singh Barnala and Joginder Dayal of the Communist Party of India (CPI), have both desired that the PPP should withdraw from the race to give the Congress a better chance to defeat the Akali candidate," Sathi sought to know.