When Congress MP Santosh Chowdhary, 69, was inducted as the union minister of state for health in the Manmohan Singh cabinet last summer, many believed her candidature for the Hoshiarpur seat was certain. But in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections this summer, the veteran Dalit leader knows that she has a fierce battle at hand, with a number of contenders competing with her for the Congress ticket.
Former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) president Shamsher Singh Dullo, state youth wing president Vikramjit Singh Chowdhary and PPCC general secretaries Dr Raj Kumar and Joginder Singh Chhina are also in the race for the Hoshiarpur ticket. Dr Raj Kumar is backed by Rajya Sabha member Ambika Soni, who hails from Bajwara in Hoshiarpur. The name of Jalandhar MP Mohinder Singh Kaypee is also doing the rounds.
Santosh Chowdhary moved to Hoshiarpur in 2009 after the delimitation exercise when the parliamentary constituency was reserved for a Scheduled Caste candidate. She had represented the Phillaur Lok Sabha constituency, which now stands dissolved, from 1992-96 and 1999-2004. Four of the assembly constituents of Phillaur, namely Phagwara, Bholath, Sri Hargobindpur and Sham Chaurasi, are now part of Hoshiarpur constituency.
Chowdhary defeated the BJP’s Som Parkash by a wafer-thin margin 366 votes in 2009. She trailed by 12,000 votes in Sri Hargobindpur segment, represented by Congress MLA Fateh Jang Singh Bajwa, and by 10,000 votes in Congress spokesman Sukhpal Khaira’s Bholath constituency. The fight was neck and neck in Phagwara and Sham Chaurasi. This gave her detractors the chance to say that people who had tested her had not voted for her comeback.
Clean track record
After a hard-fought win, Chowdhary made the most of the opportunity in the 15th Lok Sabha. She exhausted the entire sum of Rs 19 crore given to her under the MP local area development (MPLAD) fund. “What I promise, I fulfil. If I can’t, I don’t promise. This has been my principle,” she says.
At the end of her five-year tenure, Chowdhary is counting on the projects that she has been able to get for the constituency. These include a direct weekly, proposed to be a daily, train between Hoshiarpur and Delhi; DMU trains to Amritsar and Ferozepur, a survey for Hoshiarpur-Tanda and Hoshiarpur-Phagwara rail sections; stoppage of trains at Phagwara; railway overbridge at Jaja bypass to Sri Hargobindpur; the sanction of a tertiary cancer centre in Hoshiarpur; a Kendriya Vidyalaya at Gajja village in Bhunga block; two auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) schools in Phagwara and Ghuman; a centre for excellence for citrus fruits at Khanaura, besides incentives for ASHA workers, mushroom growers and those engaged in sanitation work.
Tough going ahead
Though there were multiple reasons for the Congress’ poor performance in the Punjab assembly elections in 2012, Chowdhary drew criticism for not pulling off a win. The party lost seven of the nine seats under her parliamentary constituency, including Sham Chaurasi, from where her husband Ram Lubhaya contested and where she had campaigned most vigorously.
The biggest allegation against her is inaccessibility to her own party men. This is a charge she vehemently denies. During All India Congress Committee Scheduled Caste cell chief K Raju’s visit last month, local party workers are known to have expressed their displeasure at her style of functioning.
Her criticism from within the party has given her opponents a reason to smile. “If her own party men are not happy with her, you can gauge her popularity with the electorate,” says chief parliamentary secretary and BJP leader Som Parkash, who lost to her in 2009.
However, there is a long list of her loyalists who believe that she is still the best choice for Hoshiarpur, given her vast experience, fighting spirit and clean image. “When the odds are against the Congress at the national level due to the anti-incumbency factor and corruption, Chowdhary is our best bet,” says former Congress minister Naresh Thakur.
Part 20 of 34:
Anurag Thakur, Hamirpur