Punjab deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal (49) is hoping for a smooth sailing in the assembly polls from the Jalalabad constituency. His rivals include Congress rookie Malkiat Singh Heera, two Congress rebels and a People’s Party of Punjab candidate.
Sukhbir had won the seat by a whopping margin of more than 80,000 votes in the 2009 byelection. The only challenge for him is to maintain or even increase the margin.
The Congress has fielded first-timer Malkiat Singh Heera. Former Congress minister Hans Raj Josan and former District Congress Committee president Gurbir Singh Sandhu are contesting as Independents. Dr Raj Singh of the PPP is also in the fray.
Heera and Dr Raj Singh are Rai Sikhs, Josan belongs to the Kamboj community and Sandhu is a Jat Sikh. They are all banking on en bloc votes from their respective communities.
Rai Sikhs, Jat Sikhs and the Kamboj community have a sizeable presence here, which could be a matter of concern for Sukhbir.
Sukhbir’s poll plank is the development carried out in this constituency bordering Pakistan. He has promised to transform the predominantly agrarian area into an urban hub and an international rice centre, set up a university and get a separate border area package. He has also announced a PGI-like institution with world-class infrastructure to tackle health problems in the area.
In Sukhbir’s absence, his officer on special duty, Nirbhjit Singh, alias Nippi Dhanoa, is spearheading his campaign.
Heera (35) is relying on the support of his own community, which has around 55,000 votes in this segment. “The Congress has given the ticket to a Rai Sikh for the first time. Not just members of my community, all those committed to the Congress ideology will vote for me,” he told HT.
After addressing supporters at Chak Kheeva village near the border, he visits a house where posters of Congress rebel Josan ‘greet’ him at the gate. His supporters take no time in removing these posters and pasting those with Heera’s photos.
Josan (53) won this seat in the 1992 and 2002 assembly elections, but lost to Sukhbir in the 2009 byelection. He also served as a minister in the Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government. Denied the ticket this time, he is contesting as an Independent.
Josan, whose election symbol is television, says he has nurtured the constituency for three decades.
“I am comparing the work done by Sukhbir during his current tenure with what I did during my term,” he said. There are about 25,000 Kamboj votes in Jalalabad.
Villagers are demanding an increase in working hours in fields across the border fencing, relaxation in security checks and measures to control floods.
“Koi nahin aaya ji ethey kitey. Koi kam nai hoya sade pind vich (No leader has come here. No development has taken place in our village),” says Ram Raj, an elderly villager.
A major problem plaguing the area is contaminated groundwater. “The water is causing vision loss, premature greying of hair, skin ailments and mental retardation in youths,” says Umendra Dutt, executive director, Kheti Virasat Mission. “The situation is alarming in village clusters, where dozens of youngsters have either gone blind or are on the verge of losing eyesight,” he added.