The Congress returned to power in Punjab after a 10-year hiatus by wooing back its traditional vote-bank of Hindus and Dalits. Unlike the election of 2012, when kinship and loyalty to factional leaders was the deciding factor even in seats with dominant presence of the community such as Mansa and Sangrur, this time it fielded Hindus for seats where that matters. And the results have not been disappointing.
Now, after 27 years, the Congress has fielded a Hindu candidate, state unit chief Sunil Jakhar, for the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat. From 1980 till 2014, it relied on Jat Sikh candidates. Sukhbans Kaur won five times (between 1980 and 1996) and Partap Singh Bajwa in 2009. BJP’s Vinod Khanna ended Kaur’s winning spree but lost to Bajwa in 2009 and avenged his defeat in 2014 by trouncing Bajwa. The seat fell vacant after Khanna passed away in April this year.
Before Kaur, the Congress had fielded Hindu candidates — Diwan Chand Sharma and Prabodh Chandra — who won. The party’s first candidate here, in 1952, was a Sikh, Teja Singh Akarpuri.
With a new contender in the the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the October 11 bypoll to the seat will witness a triangular contest among Hindus for the first time. The Congress picked a Hindu face to prevent the BJP from polarising the community’s vote. So has the AAP, which had gone wrong in its calculations for state polls by relying heavily on the Sikh vote. The party has roped in Maj Gen Suresh Khajuria (retd) to harvest the “disillusionment” of voters with both the SAD-BJP and the Congress besides cashing in on votes of ex-servicemen in the border district.
The BJP believes its candidate, Swaran Salaria, like his name that means ‘gold’, has the Midas touch. Other than being moneyed, Salaria is also a Rajput, the community which has highest percentage among Hindus in the nine assembly segments of the seat.
According to internal estimates of the Congress, Rajputs comprise 21% in Sujanpur out of 37% Hindus in the area. They make 17% of Bhoa seat out of 29% Hindus, 10% in the nearly 50% Hindu population in Pathankot, and 8% of the 25% in Dinanagar. Their presence is 5% or less in the four other segments.
The Congress calculations hinge on the fact that the Rajputs do not vote en bloc, and Salaria may find little favour with other Hindu groups such as Mahajans, Khatris and Brahmins who have more presence than Rajputs in Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Batala segments. Batala has few Rajputs and nearly 10% Christians who traditionally vote for the Congress. Qadian and Dera Baba Nanak have 12% and 14% Christians.
While Sujanpur, Pathankot and Bhoa have less Jat and non-Jat Sikhs, they make nearly half of the population in Qadian, Fatehgarh Churian and Dera Baba Nanak seats. As the party in power in the state and with sitting MLAs in all three seats, the Congress is banking here more on support of urban Sikhs (non-Jat), and Hindus and Christians, at a time farmers are up in arms against the government over its “half-hearted” loan waiver, hike in market fee and rural development fee on some crops, and sugarcane arrears. In Gurdaspur, Batala and Dinanagar, Sikhs and Hindu voters are almost on a par in numbers, and other communities, including SCs and OBCs, can tilt the scales too.
Having garnered the biggest chunk of reserved seats in the state polls, the Congress is also hoping to find favour with SCs not only in the reserved seats of Bhoa and Dinanagar but also general seats, because Ramdasia, Valmiki, Bhagat and Mazhabi communities have a high presence — 15-30% — in almost all other segments.
Out of 16 elections, Gurdaspur has sent Congress MPs to the Lok Sabha 11 times. The BJP has won four times — Vinod Khanna all four times — and the Janata Party candidate won in 1977. Of these, nine were Hindus and seven Sikhs. Does Gurdaspur vote on party or community lines? History says it is almost 50-50!