What’s common to the country’s foremost holy cities: Amritsar, Mathura and Varanasi? The Dickensian search for a life of quality, the overriding urge to get past years of neglect and low existence. Their contemporary story could borrow its title from Dickens’ epic 19th century work, A Tale of Two Cities. Its protagonists, like Dickens’, would be from among peasants, traders and the working class tormented by poor social and economic conditions.
The scramble for votes in these ancient centres of worship is led by high-profile candidates: Arun Jaitley and Capt Amarinder Singh in the city of the Golden Temple; Hema Malini and Jayant Chaudhary in lord Krishna’s birthplace; Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress’s Ajay Rai in Kashi.
A strong anti-incumbency against the Centre and the SP regime in UP makes Modi’s development mantra resonate in Mathura and Varanasi. The cities are afflicted by paucity of drinking water, power outages, mountains of garbage, bumpy roads and negligible civic facilities.
Bare subsistence! That’s what life is about in Mathura where Hema banks on Modi’s gravitational pull. Her Bollywood lure dulled by a diffident campaign, the actor’s celebrity could be negated by her RLD rival’s Jat lineage resting on his grandfather Charan Singh’s formidable legacy.
The contours of the triangular contest in Varanasi will be clearer after Modi visits the town to file nomination. But in Amritsar, Jaitley has three adversaries: Amarinder’s formidable challenge, tangible public anger against Akali strongman Bikram Singh Majithia and a groundswell of sympathy for sitting MP Navjot Singh Sidhu whom the BJP denied ticket. “People here are feeling lost without him,” said the former cricketer’s wife, Dr Navjot. “Arunji is a tall leader…Yet the way things happened wasn’t good,” she continued.
Odds apart, the BJP’s campaign pitch is logical — that Jaitley is Amritsar’s best bet as a key figure in the likely NDA regime at the Centre. Majithia himself made the point at a village off Chowk Mehta road: “My sister (Sukhbir’s Badal’s wife) Harsimrat will become a minister and so would Jaitley. I’ll hold them by their hands to get money for Punjab from the Centre.”
The problem is that a vote for Jaitley has come to be viewed as a vote for the unpopular Akali dispensation. Translated on the ground, the distrust turns the contest as one between Amarinder and Majithia. The latter is randomly accused of patronising extortionists, land grabbers and narcotics peddlers.
For his part, Majithia dismisses the allegations as politically motivated. “We’ll defeat Amarinder here the way my sister defeated his son in Bathinda,” he told this writer. “People may not talk about Modi. But they know he’s coming. That will get us the floating votes.”
But voices on the streets should worry the BJP. “Captain aa gaya, Captain chaa gaya,” the crowds sang at a Congress rally. Amarinder’s audience in Amritsar (East), from where Sidhu’s wife is the MLA, was responsive to the extent of being raucous.
But the Congress’s booth level arrangements are way inferior to that of the BJP-Akali combine — whose poll management saw it snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the 2012 assembly polls.
Another imponderable in the tight contest is the Aam Aadmi Party nominee Daljit Singh, an elderly eye surgeon who has served the city for half a century. If he polls 100,000 or more, Amritsar could be touch and go.