Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Modi, not Sunny Deol the real hero in Gurdaspur; Sikhs divided over Jakhar
In the heat and dust of a prestige battle between the Congress and the BJP, communal lines are getting blurred and redrawn in Gurdaspur constituency which borders Pakistan. In urban seats with sizeable Hindu population, the drift of the community’s vote is discernibly towards the saffron party.
In the 2017 assembly polls, the local trading community had sided with the Congress as an expression of its anger over demonetisation under the watch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the October Lok Sabha bypoll the same year after death of four-time BJP MP, actor Vinod Khanna, the saffron party failed to regain the support of Hindus who were disenchanted over introduction of the goods and services tax (GST). That propelled the Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar to a resounding win. Despite being an outsider, he had led in all nine assembly segments – six of them Hindu-dominated.
But in the summer of 2019, Modi’s Balakot airstrikes are resonating in Gurdaspur. It is Modi, not reel hero Sunny Deol, who is the real hero on the ground. In the predominantly-Hindu town of Pathankot, Jakhar starts his day by visiting Parshuram Jayanti celebrations on Tuesday, with Congress MLA Amit Vij. Jakhar gets a warm welcome at the Brahmin Samaj’s mandir on Shahpur Chowk but voters inside remain non-committal, while Hindu shopkeepers outside openly pledge their support to the BJP.
“Look at this gali (street). Has the Captain Amarinder Singh government done anything to improve it? We voted for the Congress in the bypoll due to GST, but it does not matter anymore,” says Jitender Mohan Vig, a stationery shop owner.
Jakhar’s next touchdown is again a religious place 40-km away – Brahmin Samaj mandir in Gurdaspur. Here local Congress MLA Brindermeet Singh Pahra takes over. He points to the newly-built Parshuram Chowk, claiming credit for fulfilling this long-pending demand of the community.
But a few yards away from the chowk, what matters for Renu Vohra, who owns a wholesale medicine shop, is that Modi silenced Pakistan with the Balakot airstrikes. “Pakistan will no longer dare India with threat of being a nuclear-armed nation. Also, we want a stable government at the Centre,” she says.
In Batala, the long-rusted industrial town, the Hindu sentiment is also playing out against the Congress. This assembly segment, with an evenly-poised population of the Sikhs and the Hindus, elected the Congress’s Ashwani Sekhri in 2012 and Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 2017. But the ire against Sekhri is still palpable. “Sekhri cannot drive to his own home due to broken roads. The plight of our town remains the same, no matter who wins,” rues 24-year-old shopkeeper Sahil Mahajan.
So what will decide his vote? “Balakot” is Sahil’s instant answer. Then, he explains his logic, bringing in the two high-profile terror attacks that Gurdaspur has seen in the recent years: “Had the Congress-led Centre given a befitting reply to Pakistan after the Mumbai terror strike, Pathankot and Dinanagar would not have happened. This vote is for our border hero Modi.”
The Congress is trying to counter the Balakot narrative by invoking the dangers of BJP’s “war-mongering” against Pakistan. It particularly reminds the Sikh voters of threat to their livelihoods and the Kartarpur corridor. “Modi told Pakistan that India’s nuclear weapons are not for Diwali. With him, you will also have threat of war looming over you,” says Jakhar in his election meetings in rural areas.
He doesn’t forget to dovetail the Congress trump card on minimum income guarantee scheme. “Modi claims to be son of a poor man but his heart beats for the rich. It is only the Congress that will give the poor nyay (justice),” he says.
The Hindu vote matters in Sujanpur, Bhoa and Dinanagar too. The entry of Deol, a Jat Sikh, has also divided the community votes, mainly due to intense groupism in the Congress. However, in villages dominated by Jat Sikhs and Mazhabi Sikhs, Jakhar’s Hindu tag does not matter. His promises do. Hearing him speak at Dhadiala Natt village in Fatehgarh Churian, the Sikh famers vouch for him. But some like Malook Singh, 75, turn back to ask others: “Will they give Rs 6,000 a month now? Captain (chief minister) promised Rs 1,500 as old age pension, but I still get Rs 750.”
Only a few own land in this village with a substantial population of Mazhabi Sikhs. For the landless, jobs matter. Jakhar reminds youth of Modi’s promise to create 2.5 crore jobs and says 33 lakh government posts are still lying vacant, which Congress president Rahul Gandhi has pledged to fill. But youth joke about the Amarinder Singh government’s promise of ‘ghar ghar rozgar’ before the 2017 polls. “We are all jobless, even as graduates,” says 23-year-old Yadwinder Singh.
As he battles anti-incumbency against his own government, Jakhar’s best bet to win the seat is his loyal brigade of ministers and MLAs. They have their task cut out with Amarinder’s ‘perform-or-perish’ message. Each MLA has done the Hindu-Sikh math in his seat. “There are 114 villages in my constituency with 1 lakh votes. There are 55,000 urban voters. Of them, 40,000 will vote. We will still get a good lead,” Pahra says. In poll times, politicians make it a point to sound gung-go, no matter what the ground reality.