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Poor showing, but she still runs the show

Rajinder Kaur Bhattal’s stature doesn’t reflect in her constituency, which is one of the most backward in Punjab. Though she does not have much to write home about, the lack of development has not interfered with her poll prospects. Ravinder Vasudeva reports.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2011 23:18 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva

Former chief minister and leader of opposition Rajinder Kaur Bhattal has won four consecutive assembly elections from Lehra (Lehragaga before delimitation) since 1992, and with each win her stature in the Congress has grown. Her growing importance, however, failed to reflect in her constituency, which remains one of the most backward in Punjab to this day.

Little in the name of development
Regarded as a high-profile constituency since Bhattal came to represent it, Lehra has gained nothing from its hot seat status. It has recorded the highest number of suicides by farmers in the state.

Lehra enjoyed the prestigious status of CM’s constituency in 1996 when Bhattal served as chief minister for 51 days. The Congress heavyweight also represented the constituency as deputy chief minister, agriculture and rural development minister, food and supplies minister, technical education minister, PWD minister and tourism and cultural affairs minister.

But the residents of this assembly segment are still struggling to get basic amenities. Education and health services in Lehra leave a got to be desired.

Announced by Bhattal a number of times, a degree college is still a distant dream for residents of the area. The only institution of higher learning in Lehra is the Baba Hira Singh Institute of Engineering and Technology, which was started by Bhattal in her father’s name.

Unfulfilled promises
Ahead of every election, Bhattal promises to turn Lehra into a separate district, but she has made no efforts to keep her word. She announced to set up a PRTC depot in Lehra and even laid its foundation stone, but things did not move beyond that.

The devastation caused by the Ghaggar every rainy season, the most important election issue for people of this constituency for the past 30 years, is yet to get the attention it deserves despite Bhattal’s assurances to get a special project sanctioned from the Central government to channelise the river.Interestingly, villages situated along the

Ghaggar have always been Bhattal’s stronghold, but the area also happens to be the most backward one.

Lehra lacks health facilities with only one 50-bed Civil Hospital catering to the entire assembly constituency, forcing patients to go to Sangrur and Patiala for treatment.However, Moonak, which covers areas of Lehragaga, is now a sub-division, largely due to Bhattal’s efforts.

Yet it won’t be easy to unseat her
“Though people of this constituency have stood by Bhattal in every election, she has failed to do anything for them in return. We are living in the same miserable conditions as we were around 20 years ago. We are still the most backward people in Punjab,” said Ranjit Lehra, a 56-year-old resident of Lehra village.

Despite this, the people of the constituency feel that it will not be easy for Bhattal’s adversaries to unseat her from Lehra. Preparing son to take on the mantle Bhattal is busy shaping the political future of her 32-year-old son Rahul Inder Singh Sidhu who, in the Youth Congress polls got elected as president of Lehra assembly constituency. Sidhu remains at the helm of affairs when Bhattal is out of the constituency.

Bhattal’s father late Heera Singh Bhattal, a freedom fighter, had represented the Dhanaula seat in the state assembly. The political clout of Hira Singh and his closeness to former chief minister Giani Zail Singh paved the way for her daughter’s entry in politics.

‘My work reflects in their support’
Commenting on the lack of development in her constituency, Bhattal said, “The development of Lehra has always been on top of my agenda. I have tried my level best to develop the area, and people of my constituency have rewarded my efforts by ensuring my victory in every election. There might have been some shortcomings, but I have been working day and night to solve the problems of my people. You will see how convincingly I win the election this time.” She said that before she got the chance to represent the seat, the area was utterly neglected. “Successive governments had completely ignored it. Whatever development has taken place here is largely due to my efforts. It takes time to develop an arid and sandy area,” said Bhattal.

Till 2002, Bhattal had been winning this seat by a convincing margin of over 10,000 votes, but in the 2007 assembly election SAD leader Prem Singh Chandumajra gave her a tough time and she got past him by just 248 votes.

Her adversaries not convinced
PPP leader Bhagwant Mann, who is likely to be his party’s choice from Lehra, termed Bhattal as a leader who had betrayed the people of the constituency by making false promises to them. “Bhattal failed to use her clout to carry out development. What good is her stature to the people of this constituency who do not even have a degree college to this day. People are even deprived of basic health facilities,” he said.

Sukhdev Singh Sarao, who is eying the SAD ticket for Lehra, claimed that Bhattal was not on a strong footing this time. “Voters have seen through her games. She stands exposed,” said Sarao.