iconimg Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Sukhdeep Kaur, Hindustan Times
ChandigarH, April 29, 2014
  Punjabis love potboilers, and the Congress seems to have whetted their appetite by stirring up a few in the state for the Lok Sabha Verdict 2014. Add to that the Aam Aadmi Party masala, and you have a lip-smacking fare. The script of this Lok Sabha election in Punjab seemed to have been written by the BJP when it replaced its sitting MP, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, from Amritsar with the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, who is making his electoral debut.

But that was until the Congress decided to go for the kill.

As 1.95 crore voters queue up to get inked, the state is on the tenterhooks, eagerly awaiting the climax of two potboilers - Amritsar and Bathinda - one witnessing a clash of titans Jaitley and Capt Amarinder Singh, and another a battle for the Badal family legacy between chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's daughter-in-law Harsimrat and estranged nephew Manpreet.

The day will also decide the fate of other Congress satraps. State unit chief Partap Singh Bajwa is defending his fort, Gurdaspur, against actor Vinod Khanna. Leader of opposition in the assembly, Sunil Jakhar, is pitched from Ferozepur, and former union minister Ambika Soni from Anandpur Sahib.

While the Congress strategy seems to have clicked by bringing its workers and leaders back into the fighting mode and confining the Akalis to their two seats of prestige, the entry of a third front, the AAP, has made the contests a close call for the two main parties. The impressive road-shows of AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal and the profile of some of its candidates indicate that the party may well spring a surprise or two in Punjab.

Will it be the "central" anti-incumbency against the Congress-led UPA that decides this hand, or will the state-level sentiment against the SAD-BJP regime that will tilt the scales? Only May 16 can tell us.

But it is the holy city of Amritsar on the Pakistan border that is serving the real sizzler. With Amarinder and Jaitley exchanging heavy artillery, it is one battle being watched keenly by the whole country.

Despite adding spice through what he does best - engineering defections - SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal has so far remained low-key as his brother-in-law, controversial revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, and handpicked director general of police (DGP) Sumedh Saini made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

While Majithia's movement has been restricted and he is under video surveillance in his constituency Majitha in Amritsar on poll day, the DGP has gone on leave. The EC also transferred three deputy commissioners, one police commissioner and five senior superintendents of police, including Gurpreet Gill of Amritsar (rural).

In Malwa heartland Bathinda, Manpreet will not only take on his sister-in-law but also a namesake who has his two most prized possessions: the Badal surname and the 'kite', which was the 2012 assembly poll symbol of the People's Party of Punjab (PPP) that Manpreet had formed after parting ways with the SAD.

Congress stalwarts showed little interest in requisitioning the services of the party's top three campaigners - Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and PM Manmohan Singh. Once the toast of his native Amritsar, the PM was missing from the scene not just in the holy city but the entire state, where he had campaigned extensively in the 2009 LS polls. Sonia and Rahul did come, but primarily to bolster the prospects of the relatively low-key candidates.

Taken by surprise by the Congress strategy and state-level anti-incumbency, the SAD and BJP are betting on the 'Modi wave' to take them through.