A Punjab seat where Christians are important
Reservation in state government jobs, a state minorities commission and safeguarding churches. With 150,000 Christians in this constituency and a high stakes poll game under way, the community's demands are being backed by the Congress and being "considered" by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Lok Sabha seat of Gurdaspur, bordering Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, is not only known for being one of the most backward constituencies in Punjab and its incumbent actor-MP Vinod Khanna of the BJP, but also for being home to a sizeable Christian population.
"In Punjab, there are around 900,000 Christian voters and the largest chunk, 17 percent, reside in Gurdaspur district. Here their number is over 150,000. After Gurdaspur, maximum Christian voters are in Amritsar, Ferozepur and Ludhiana districts," Kanwal Bakshi, state president of Punjab's United Christian Front (UCF), told IANS.
"This time we want a change in Punjab and Christians are not going to vote for the BJP or the Akali Dal. We are all fed up of their anti-Christian policies and moreover their leaders are never accessible to us," Bakshi declared when asked about the way the community was inclined to vote.
The UCF extended support to the Congress following a call given by senior Congress leader and former chief minister Amarinder Singh.
Talking about the Christian community's demands, Bakshi said: "We want two percent reservation in state government jobs for Christians, as it is available in Kerala. Despite the fact that Christians are in such large numbers in Kerala, they still have reservation. Then why can't we have it in Punjab?"
He said there should be a state minorities commission on the lines of the National Commission for Minorities and the government should prevent encroachment on Christian property in the state.
"There are around 60 churches in Punjab, constructed by the British, which are nearly 150 to 200 years old. They are in a dilapidated condition and nobody is bothered about their preservation. We want the government to declare them heritage property and do the needful to safeguard them for future generations," stated Bakshi.
Partap Singh Bajwa, Congress candidate for the Gurdaspur parliamentary seat, agreed.
"We support the reservation of jobs for Christians as most of them are from Dalit families who later embraced Christianity," Bajwa told IANS.
"Their condition in Punjab is really bad and they are forced to suffer as there are no schemes for their upliftment. We have promised to get their demands fulfilled," said Bajwa, a former public works department (PWD) minister in Punjab and a legislator from the Kahnuwan assembly constituency.
He is pitted against BJP candidate and actor Vinod Khanna who had won this seat three times in 1998, 1999 and 2004 but faces a tough contest this time.
A senior BJP leader of Punjab told IANS: "The Congress is trying to blow the issue of Christian reservation out of proportion to avail of undue advantage in the polls. We are also considering it, but it is a long process and certainly takes some time."
State BJP leaders admit they want the Christian vote in Punjab but have a lot of explaining to do to the community about incidents against the community in Kandhamal, Orissa.
Gurdaspur, one of Punjab's 13 Lok Sabha seats, goes to the polls on May 13 -- the last day of polling for the parliamentary election. Punjab conducted its election over two phases on May 7 and May 13.