In a clean break from past trends, Punjab is heading for what looks like a down-to-the-wire ‘triangular’ contest in a majority of the 13 parliamentary seats, even as the high-voltage campaigning came to an end on Monday evening.
What has clearly altered the contours of the April 30 electoral slugfest is the new entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), while in Ludhiana the election has shaped up into a bitterly-fought four-cornered contest.
On Monday, the almost twomonth-long venom-spewing campaigning, bordering on abusive, personal attacks, political parties exploiting the drug menace and leaders accusing their adversaries of involvement in drug trafficking, ended with the leaders of Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance and the Congress making last-ditch efforts to reach out to the maximum number of voters.
The last day of campaigning was marked by leaders’ roadshows and Rahul Gandhi’s rally in the high-stakes Bathinda seat to galvanise support for Congress candidate Manpreet Singh Badal, the estranged nephew of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is pitted against sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the wife of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal.
On Wednesday, more than 1.95 crore voters, including 92 lakh women, will seal the fate of 253 candidates in this border state. At present, the Congress has eight sitting MPs, the SAD four and BJP one. In line with their time-tested for mula, the SAD is contesting 10 seats and the BJP three.
Among the main contestants are BJP’s stalwart Arun Jaitley, against whom is pitted former CM Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress in Amritsar; Vinod Khanna of the BJP and Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa in Gurdaspur; former union minister and Congress veteran Ambika Soni (Anandpur Sahib) and union minister of state for external af fairs Preneet Kaur, who is vying for a fourth straight term from the family bastion, Patiala.
Initially, when the poll bugle was sounded, the Congress was a divided house, while the SAD was upbeat , banking on its much-touted “development” agenda, “Modi magic” and the abysmally low morale of the Congress cadre. The factional feud had put a question mark on the Congress’ ability to even give a face-saving fight in a majority of seats to the SAD-BJP nominees.
Finally, in a masterstroke, the Congress fielded its top guns such as Amarinder and Soni, besides three popular MLAs, including Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Sunil Jakhar.
Thus, slowly but swiftly, the Congress started recovering the ground, much to the unease of the SAD-BJP which began feeling the heat over the strong anti-incumbency factor due to its seven years’ rule in the state.
In another shrewd move, the Congress brought on board Manpreet Badal to corner the ruling Badal family on its home turf of Bathinda, and tie down the Badals to this high-stakes seat.
With the battle lines drawn and the Congress having no dearth of ammunition, at the centre of the party’s poll tirade were the charges of alleged corruption and misgovernance. The party tried to stir the conscience of the voters on the drug issue, which dominated campaigning like never before. The alleged nexus between the ruling politicians and the drug mafia busted recently by the state police triggered a no-holdsbarred blame game. And what added further fuel to the fire was former DGP (jails) Shashi Kant’s sensational disclosure naming politicians of different hues allegedly involved in the drug trade.
MAJITHIA, THE TARGET
The common target of criticism was predictably the powerful cabinet minister, Bikram Singh Majithia. The most commonly heard grouse of the electorate was “created” shortage of sand and grave land its skyrocketing prices.
But what seemed to be worrying the SAD-BJP think tank was people’s perception and their lack of faith in the state government.
Majithia further caused major embarrassment to the SAD-BJP when he distorted a shabad during an election rally held recently in Amritsar, inviting the wrath of the Sikh community and the Akal Takht (the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs), which on Monday summoned him to appear before it on May 1. Though the minister had tendered an apology, the damage had been done.
The poll discourse kept changing fast. The anti-Sikh riots were back as a poll issue, with the SAD in its manifesto promising a Commission of Inquiry under a Supreme Court judge to expose those who hatched the conspiracy behind the riots.
This emotive issue raised the political temperature when Amarinder gave the clean chit to Congress leader Jagdish Tytler. But it died down soon after Majithia did the self- goal on the shabad.
Like never before, the SAD-BJP tried to ambush the Congress time and again through its poaching games, spearheaded by Sukhbir. Congress leaders, including a sitting MLA and former MLAs, embraced the SAD and the BJP.
And the most startling defection took place when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s half-brother Daljit Singh Kohli joined the BJP in the presence of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Amritsar.
Another aspect of the campaigning was that the spotlight remained on high-profile contests in Amritsar and Bathinda, de-focusing the other 11 seats where keenly contested battles were being fought.
Having pulled out all stops to avenge its shocking defeat in the 2012 assembly elections, the Congress is betting on the anti-incumbency sentiment, while the SAD-BJP is keeping its fingers crossed, banking on the “Modi magic”.