With campaigning for the February 23 Moga byelection ending on Thursday evening, the stage is set for a face-off between Congress candidate Vijay Kumar Sathi (66) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) nominee Joginderpal Jain (67).
When SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal announced two-time Moga MLA Jain's controversial defection from the Congress in December last year, not many had given the opposition party a chance against the new Akali nominee. However, with the Congress presenting a united front and the SAD divided over Jain's candidature, the contest has become tougher for the ruling Akalis.
Of the remaining nine candidates, only Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal (45) of the People's Party of Punjab (PPP) looks likely to make a dent into the vote share of the two main contenders.
As far as the voters are concerned, they feel that the money being wasted on the byelection could have been spent on Moga's development.
"We will win the seat by more than 51,000 votes," Sukhbir has claimed. Going a step further, SAD leader Balwant Singh Ramoowalia raised the potential victory margin to 62,000 votes.
After Sukhbir and his brother-in-law, cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, launched the SAD's campaign in the constituency, they not only sung Jain's praises but also harped on lack of development in Moga and how the SAD-BJP government would ensure holistic growth of the entire township and its surrounding villages.
In view of party cadres' feedback and intelligence inputs that there is a strong undercurrent against Jain and winning the seat would not be easy, Sukhbir and Majithia decided to stay put in Moga and intensify campaigning. Whenever the gatherings were not big enough, they ensured that their cadres travelling along with them in cars mingled with the locals to make the crowds look bigger.
Finding it hard to defend Jain's defection and his "shady past", the SAD has faced embarrassment during public gatherings, including the one held in the district Bar association office. People wondered how Jain, who was a "smuggler" for Sukhbir only a year ago and whom he wanted to put behind bars, had suddenly become dear to the Akalis. The SAD leaders have also found it difficult to justify the byelection imposed on the people of Moga just a year after the January 2012 assembly polls.
Top Akali leaders, including Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, did not have much to say against Sathi during public gatherings. The senior Badal also did not say much in Jain's favour. He rather chose the occasion to criticise "anti-people" policies of the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre.
Sukhbir has banked largely on defections of Congress leaders. Since the announcement of the byelection, he has managed about 12 defections of local Congress leaders, besides some panches and workers. However, the Akalis have been beset by the rebellion by supporters of former Punjab DGP PS Gill, who was the SAD nominee from Moga in the 2012 polls (he had lost to Jain). Sukhbir's choice of Jain as the SAD candidate has also not gone down well with senior Akali leader Tota Singh's sympathisers. The Akalis' alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has sought votes for Jain, albeit reluctantly.
Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh, supported by Congress Working Committee member Jagmeet Singh Brar, decided to stay put in Moga for campaigning. Brar's old association with Sathi is well known in the constituency.
Amarinder, who preferred to have food at houses of voters, tried to highlight the deteriorating law and order situation in Punjab. Among the other issues raised by the state Congress were the imposition of property tax and exorbitant rates of sand and gravel being allegedly controlled by Majithia.
Addressing the people of Moga, Amarinder said, "Victory in Moga will not only boost the morale of Congress workers but also give the people of Punjab the hope that they can topple the government if it does not perform. Moreover, our triumph would also dispel the myth that Sukhbir can win every election with muscle and money power. I know you will rise to the occasion and choose the right candidate."
The PPP candidate, Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal, who seemed to be a reluctant candidate this time, left it to party president Manpreet Singh Badal to lead campaiging. Though Manpreet has gone from door to door seeking support for Dhaliwal, the latter may find it hard to match his performance in the 2012 polls, when he polled more than 9,000 votes.