Undoubtedly, the absence of two key parties – Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – from the electoral arena has taken the fizz out of the Khadoor Sahib by-poll. But, Amarinder’s last-minute gambit of opting out of the February 13 slugfest has upset the poll calculations of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The Congress move may not be good news for Akalis. Here’s why:
The Congress’ tactical retreat has pitch-forked Bhai Baldeep Singh, a Sikh preacher-turned-independent candidate –into a direct fight against Akalis on the Panthic turf. The major challenge before the SAD strategists will be how to contain the consolidation of anti-SAD votes in favour of Baldeep Singh, who had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Khadoor Sahib constituency as the AAP candidate. A respectable Sikh face with honorific prefix ‘Bhai’ to his name, Baldeep Singh is a no pushover. In this David versus Goliath contest, Baldeep will be seen as the underdog. And, the people of Punjab have an uncanny liking for the underdog.
Khadoor Sahib is the first electoral test for the Akalis since a string of sacrilege incidents of Guru Granth Sahib in November last year triggered a volcano of Sikh protests against the Badal government. Sitting Congress MLA Ramanjit Singh Sikki had resigned on the same issue, leading to the bypoll. This rural constituency of Majha has a deep-seated Panthic ethos. By pegging its boycott to the sacrilege incidents, the Congress has tried to resurrect the emotive issue and stir the Sikhs’ latent anger against the Akalis.
No three-way split
With both the Congress and AAP out of the game, Shiromani Akali Dal’s calculations on a split of anti-incumbency vote have gone awry. Worse, the Congress is expected to do all that it can to prop up Bhai Baldeep Singh’s challenge and undercut Akalis’ Panthic base. Even before a formal announcement on the byelection date, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had kicked off his pet sangat darshan programme in Khadoor Sahib, pumping grants worth crores in development projects in the constituency. However, the Panthic issue is likely to overshadow the populist announcements.
No political brownie points
In an unequal battle, the SAD victory would not count for much politically. Rather, it would be seen as a feat pulled off on the strength of being in power amidst the customary allegations of muscle and money power. However, a low margin or defeat would be a huge embarrassment and a potential game-changer in the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls.
Ray of hope
The recent electoral history of Khadoor Sahib favours the Akalis. In the 2012 assembly elections, Congress candidate Ramanjit Singh Sikki had won by 3,054 votes. Sikki polled 66,902 votes, while SAD veteran Ranjit Singh Brahmpura got 63,848 votes.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the SAD had bounced back with a vengeance. Akali candidate Ranjit Singh Brahmpura secured 73,382 votes alone from the Khadoor Sahib segment, while Congress nominee Harminder Singh Gill got 35,519 votes. Then AAP candidate Baldeep Singh, now an Independent, received 12,300 votes from the Khadoor Sahib assembly segment.