The entry of the “Prince of Patiala” has turned the electoral contest of the predominantly rural constituency of Samana into one of the most keenly-watched battles of the January 30 assembly elections.
The scion of Patiala’s royal family and Congress nominee Raninder Singh, 44, is pitted against the SAD’s Surjit Singh Rakhra, 60, a one-time MLA with deep pockets and a flourishing business in the United States.
Spearheading Raninder’s campaign is his mother Preneet Kaur, Patiala MP and union minister of state for external affairs, better known in these parts simply as “Maharani”.
There are six other candidates in the fray too, but all eyes are on the SAD-Congress showdown.
In the past three elections the electorate of Samana has sent to Vidhan Sabha the candidate whose party had to sit in the Opposition benches. Will history be different this time?
Linked to the outcome is also the prestige of Raninder’s father Captain Amarinder Singh and chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. For the state Congress chief, ensuring his son’s victory is another challenge after Raninder lost the 2009 Lok Sabha contest to — an admittedly tough opponent — Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
For Parkash Singh Badal, the contest offers an opportunity to put his archrival on the backfoot by winning in the Patiala royal family’s backyard. Though campaigning is on at full steam, with both candidates hitting the dusty village roads to woo voters from across the caste and community spectrum, the guarded response from people should be a cause of concern.
NEW VESUS KNOWN
Rakhra’s strength is that he knows the constituency “like the back of my hand” as this is his third electoral battle here.
Though the SAD candidate was defeated in the 2007 assembly polls by the Congress’s Brahm Mohindra by a not-too-impressive margin of 2,576 votes, he says he has remained in close touch with voters and helped in the area’s development.
Raninder, on the other hand, is banking on the charisma and popularity of his parents — one a former chief minister, the other a union minister. If Raninder lacks experience, Rakhra rubs it in.
“Raninder doesn’t know the names of even 10 sarpanches and as many villages of Samana,” said Rakhra. “The other day he reached a Haryana village and was campaigning there thinking it is part of Samana. That’s his level of understanding of this seat.”
Conscious of his older opponent’s pitch to voters, Raninder urges them not to be “misled by Rakhra’s propaganda”. Referring to himself as the “child of Samana” he says: “The next Congress government will be formed under Maharaja sahib (Capt Amarinder) with your blessings.”
“I will bring a Rs 100-crore grant annually to Samana and set up a major industry in the government sector,” Raninder told people in Kamaspur village. “But you will have to strengthen the hands of Maharaja by electing me.”
Preneet buttresses her son’s appeal. “I assure you that Raninder will devote his entire time here,” she tells voters. “Behind him will be his father and I as your MP. Thus, three major forces will be taking care of this seat.”
Both camps start their day before dawn, making phone calls to poll managers and finalising the day’s agenda before hitting the campaign trail.
By 10.30am, Raninder is on course in his Ford Endeavour, while a Toyota Innova is parked on the porch at Moti Bagh, the royal residence, awaiting Preneet Kaur.
While canvassing, Rakhra does not forget to remind voters that he has been with them for the past 12 years “and shared your joys and grief”.
Congress leaders “show their faces” only during elections, he says.