After his party’s defeat in the recent Lok Sabha polls, Patiala royal scion and Amritsar member of Parliament (MP) Captain Amarinder Singh is taking all efforts to hold his home bastion even as the Akali-BJP sprung a surprise by fielding Hindu candidate and social worker Bhagwan Das Juneja in the Hindu-dominant Patiala Urban constituency for the bypoll scheduled for August 21.
The Patiala bypoll, while a matter of reputation for the Patiala royals, is an acid test for the Aam Aadmi Party as Dr Dharmvira Gandhi won the Lok Sabha seat of the constituency by defeating Congress candidate Preneet Kaur.
Though Preneet has won thrice from this seat in parliamentary polls, this is her first assembly election, just like Akali candidate Bhagwan Das Juneja and AAP's Harjit Singh Adaltiwala.
Sensing that byelections have always remained a challenge for the opposition parties and that another loss at Patiala will be a setback to the royals, the Captain has been injecting serious efforts into garnering support for his wife and Congress candidate Preneet.
Though Preneet was defeated from Patiala in the Lok Sabha polls, she had secured a 7000 votes lead from Patiala Urban, which is one the nine segments of the Patiala Lok Sabha seat. The Patiala Urban seat fell vacant after her husband Amarinder Singh was elected as MP from Amritsar.
In spite of having been a minister of state in the UPA government, she has no significant achievements to show for this assembly segment. She has drawn much flak for this from her opponents, who have termed her as a non-performer.
However, with the Captain back in action in Patiala, unlike during the Lok Sabha polls when he was contesting from Amritsar, her campaign has gained an impetus.
This time, Preneet is facing tough competition from SAD's Bhagwan Das Juneja, whom she once honoured for his social work.
Meanwhile, the Akalis are trying to woo Hindu voters, who form 60% of the constituency’s electorate, by fielding Juneja, a Hindu candidate who is popular for his social work.
What would have been a bipolar fight between the two traditionally dominant parties — SAD-BJP and the Congress — has now been upset by the political greenhorn AAP’s entry, which is making the best of the blame-game between the other two opponents over Patiala’s lack of development.
A total of eight candidates are in the fray, although the contest is largely triangular.
Despite being a royal city, Patiala does not have much to offer in terms of job opportunities or quality civic amenities. The ruling party in the state and even the Congress candidate are being blamed for it.
Preneet and Juneja are both on the back foot because of disgruntled leaders in their respective parties. However, Juneja is dependent on ward incharges deployed by the party, while Preneet has a direct rapport with grassroots-level workers.
While Preneet is busy accusing the SAD-BJP government of diverting funds to Bathinda and scuttling her projects, Juneja is claiming that she failed to bring any major project to Patiala in the past 15 years, 10 years of which were ruled by the Congress-led UPA.
The AAP is blaming both the SAD and the Congress for "failing on all fronts".
Key factors in this election
The AAP’s vote share will decide the fates of SAD and the Congress. The SAD-BJP is highlighting that that they are in power at the state and the Centre and can usher development in the city, if their candidate is elected.
Anti-incumbency against Preneet, who served three consecutive terms for 15 years, led to her defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Now the Captain is holding the fort for her and has deployed leaders from all over Punjab. Amarinder is popular face in the city and the philanthropic acts of the royal family can work to their advantage.
The SAD’s chances will depend on the polarisation of Hindu votes and the extent to which urban Sikhs (Bhapas) would support a Hindu nominee.
Poor civic amenities despite heavy taxes is a common complaint in urban areas which can dent the prospects of the Akali-BJP alliance.
Dera Sacha Sauda has a strong base here and can tilt the scales either way. Bhagwan Das Juneja is a Dera Premi.
The AAP is banking on the anti-incumbency feelings against both the SAD and Congress.
Preneet Kaur, 69
Though she has contested four Lok Sabha elections, this is her first assembly election. Despite being the royal ‘bahu’, she has a strong connect with urban voters because of her accessibility. Unlike her husband Captain Amarinder Singh, she keeps a low profile and meets people directly.
Bhagwan Das Juenja, 65
Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)
The soft-spoken social worker was the personal choice of SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal. The SAD-BJP alliance is trying to polarise Hindu votes by fielding him as the electorate is dominated by Hindus. His uncontroversial image can help him garner support.
Harjit S Adaltiwala, 61
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)
A former SAD leader, he joined the AAP in April. Though not the party’s first choice, he got the ticket because of pending cases against the candidate projected before announcement of polls. He is banking on the failure of ruling SAD and the Congress in bringing any major projects to the city.
1,51,461 Total voters