The once-menacing Ravi may have been tamed with the construction of the Ranjit Sagar dam, but the scars left behind by the river persist in numerous villages along the Indo-Pakistan border, where life is full of hardships as the fruits of development never reached residents even after 15 Lok Sabha elections.
Once ranked as the most prosperous district after Amritsar, Gurdaspur today has been officially listed as the most backward district in Punjab. Barring government jobs, no employment opportunities have been created and the area lacks quality educational facilities.
The Batala township, with its famed foundry industry, was once the pride of this constituency. The units in this town are now either shut or have been turned into marriage palaces.
Though there are 17 candidates in the fray, the contest will be triangular — between sitting MP and Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Partap Singh Bajwa, three-time MP and Bollywood star Vinod Khanna of the BJP and former minister Sucha Singh Chhotepur of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Khanna, who had to strive hard to get the BJP ticket, is out to avenge his 2009 defeat at the hands of Bajwa. A former union minister of state, he had to use all his influence in the BJP to get the party’s nomination as he had a very strong challenger in Mumbai-based businessman Swaran Salaria, a member of the national executive of the BJP.
Salaria, after being denied the ticket, had decided to contest as an independent. However, he finally opted out after the intervention of some senior BJP leaders, much to Khanna’s relief.
The Bollywood star, who dislodged the once-unbeatable and five-time MP of this constituency, the late Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, is back on the dusty roads of the constituency, telling people how Bajwa ignored them in the past five years.
He is trying to win back the electorate which had sent him to Parliament in 1998, 1999 and 2004.
Citing the two bridges he got built over the Ravi and another on the Beas, Khanna promises more development in the constituency, while his supporters woo the electorate with the promise that in an NDA government under Narendra Modi, the cine star could be made a minister.
Khanna will be heavily dependent on Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders for seeing him through in rural areas as the contest in urban areas and the Hindu-dominated Pathankot district is expected to be close.
Bajwa was reluctant to contest initially but had no option when the Congress high command put its foot down. Having ignored the constituency, Bajwa is projecting himself as the chief minister in 2017 to win votes.
Bajwa does not have to contend only with the opposition but also with his own partymen, particularly Amarinder loyalists. However, he has succeeded in winning back the support of some of his detractors and has now got his campaign going.
Chhotepur is no pushover as in the 2002 assembly polls, he won as an Independent from Dhariwal. He has remained in the SAD and also in the Congress and has a support base, particularly in areas around Gurdaspur. He is likely to cut into both Congress and Akali votes.