In this constituency in the hinterland of the state, the basic dynamics of Punjab politics are on full display. The Congress has gone ahead with its strategy of fielding stalwarts, so the Leader of Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, Sunil Jakhar, is in fray. He is challenging the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) sitting MP, Sher Singh Ghubaya, who is facing anti-incumbency ag ainst the state’s SAD-BJP regime.
As for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its candidate, Satnam Pal Kamboj, a lawyer from Ferozepur, is relatively unknown but he is banking on his party’s general appeal and the about 1 lakh votes of his community to make an impact.
The issues here have remained largely unchanged for decades. For farmers, salinity in water and non-discharge of sand deposited by flooding are hindrances, particularly near the border. Lack of basic civic infrastructure is apparent when you get off the highways.
Streetlights are broken, roads are perpetually potholed, and a proper garbage-collection system is absent. These problems are compounded since the nature of the constituency, despite having 1,216 villages, is primarily urban in outlook and aspiration.
There is, thus, a demand for better quality of life — malls and multiplexes being the new markers of development.
But the biggest bane of the area remains its location near the border with Pakistan. Since the 1971 war, the border trade link has not been opened. Locals talk of possibilities emerging out of linkages with Kasur’s leather industry across the border, or the scope of rice export.
Education remains largely a private-owned commodity, with Ghubaya himself having an engineering college in his hometown Jalalabad.
It comes down to political math. Of the nine assembly seats in this LS constituency, four are with the SAD, one with the BJP, and four with the Congress.
The Congress, which has traditionally been marred by infighting, last won this seat in the 1985 sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Since then, even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has won twice, but the Akalis turned it into their stronghold.
Ghubaya was the Jalalabad MLA but vacated the seat to ensure SAD chief Sukhbir Badal’s entry into the assembly, after he entered the Lok Sabha in 2009. Ghubaya, who extended the hat-trick of his one-time mentor Zora Singh Mann, is known to stick with his Rai Sikh vote base, which forms around 13% of the 14.98 lakh votes here.
The community enjoys more clout than its numbers as the polling percentage is high and usually remains one-sided.
But Ghubaya is facing allegations of being inaccessible beyond his pocket borough, and his near-nil speaking record in the Lok Sabha is being discussed. He is trying to stitch together votes through the socalled ‘Modi wave’ in favour of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi.
Largely apologetic in his speeches for “not managing to meet expectations”, Ghubaya recently gained support of gangster-turned-politician Jaswinder Singh Rocky, who had lost the 2012 assembly polls as an Independent by a slender margin to BJP’s Surjit Jyani in Fazilka.
Jyani obviously is not enthused by Rocky’s entry; and Rocky’s criminal taints could well be a liability. Add to that the infighting in the Ferozepur BJP unit in particular, and Ghubaya seems to be pressed against a wall.
Sukhbir and CM Parkash Singh Badal have been taking keen interest here because the former’s assembly segment is in this LS constituency and even state BJP chief Kamal Sharma hails from the city.
For Jakhar, a clean image, family legacy and stature are the key. The three-time sitting MLA from Abohar has been able to quell infighting and take along Guru Har Sahai MLA Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi, who was a ticket contender.
It’s only incidental that Jakhar had lost the 1996 LS contest, his debut electoral fight, from here. What’s being discussed more is how his father Balram Jakhar was also the Leader of the Opposition in the assembly when he was asked to contest the LS poll and won from Ferozepur in 1980.
That legacy, coupled with his demeanour and oratory, adds to the statesman- politician image that he has managed to cultivate. Also, his local connect is in contrast to the ‘seasonal leader’ image of Jagmeet Brar, who had lost the last time but wanted the Congress ticket this time too.
Brar has since been pacified with the post of the Congress campaign committee co-chairman. As for the ‘Modi wave’, Jakhar has sporadically been playing up the BJP PM candidate’s anti-Pakistan stance that “may damage this border region if Modi comes to power”.
The AAP remains a national factor behind the awareness among voters, but the election here is a traditional contest, being fought on the planks of legacy and vote-bank arithmetic. The ‘Modi wave’ is a mere defence for the incumbent.