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Arun’s double-edged liability

- Anti-incumbency makes Badal stake all on Amritsar race
Amarinder Singh (top) and Arun Jaitley limber up for the duel in Amritsar. (AFP and PTI file pictures)

To political observers here, the Amarinder Singh versus Arun Jaitley battle is pregnant with serious possibilities.

Some are ready to predict doom for Parkash Singh Badal’s Akali Dal-led government in the state if ally BJP’s candidate Jaitley loses. Some others feel that Amarinder’s candidature has rejuvenated the demoralised Congress workers and claim that this will be reflected in the voting pattern across the state.

The buzz in the street is that Amarinder, a former chief minister known as “Captain” and “Maharaja” in Punjab, will win easily. The palpable anger against the Akali government too bolsters that perception. But keen watchers of Punjab politics caution against hasty conclusions.

They suggest that deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal would spare no effort to pull off a victory here, aware that Amarinder is capable of derailing the Akali juggernaut ahead of the Assembly elections, nearly three years away.

Jaitley, the master BJP strategist now making his Lok Sabha poll debut, has been campaigning hard but holds few aces in this constituency.

He may have thought the Badals’ clout and the “Modi wave” would hand him a cakewalk but Sonia Gandhi’s decision to field Amarinder against him, after having virtually let other BJP stalwarts off the hook, has transformed the situation. If Jaitley comes out unscathed, it would be a miracle.

Amritsar’s educated classes see the BJP candidate as a gentleman who would play a key role in guiding a Modi-led central government. But most among them argue that he would be better off without the baggage of the Akalis, who seem to have antagonised both rich and poor, Sikh and Hindu.

“We would like to have a person of Jaitley’s stature represent us but the Captain has suddenly emerged as the better choice, though he too is an outsider,” a well-known Sikh doctor in the city told The Telegraph.

“The Captain can certainly be trusted to teach the Akalis a lesson. For the ordinary people here, the issue is not who forms the government at the Centre; the people want to punish the Badal government.”

A Hindu labourer echoed him, saying: “There’s a goonda raj (rule of thugs) here. This is a government of the powerful and not the poor. There’s looting everywhere. We want Captain saheb to come.”

Asked why the Akalis had then been voted to power two years ago, most people blame the “unnatural result” on Congress bungling and Akali “micro-management”.

If one journalist alleged that “liquor, cash and coercion” played a big role, a shopkeeper said free grocery coupons had been distributed in certain localities.

“We were later paid by the Akali leaders,” he said, chastising the Congress leaders for being “miserly” and holding on to the entire “loot”.

Another of Jaitley’s problems is the feeling of betrayal among a chunk of voters at outgoing MP Navjot Singh Sidhu being denied a ticket.

It’s difficult to find too many MPs in the country who are loved by their voters, and Sidhu is definitely one of the few who are.

One damaging factor for Jaitley is the widespread perception about the “honest” Sidhu’s running battle with the “corrupt” Akalis, who are said to have used every trick in the book to prevent the emergence of a popular Jat Sikh within the BJP’s ranks.

Sidhu criticised what he saw as the Akalis’ misdeeds and pushed certain projects in the city that vested interests couldn’t digest.

Amritsar’s elite, youth, ordinary citizens and poor — everybody has something nice to say about the cricketer turned commentator. If someone hasn’t benefited from his work, they are impressed by his warmth, friendliness and eloquence.

At Khalsa College, a group of young men described how Sidhu was “undone” by state revenue minister Bikram Majithia, whom they accused of excesses, illegal businesses and financial bungling.

Majithia, MLA from Amritsar’s Majitha Assembly segment, has been given the responsibility of ensuring a victory for Jaitley. There were rumours that Jaitley had asked that Majithia not be seen publicly with him, but the minister organised the BJP’s biggest rally here only a few days ago.

Sidhu hasn’t campaigned for Jaitley though he had said he had “no issues if he fights from Amritsar”.

The former cricketer’s MLA wife, also named Navjot, has campaigned for Jaitley but publicly announced that she and her husband would never share the dais with the Akalis.

These sentiments and the Captain’s popularity have rocked the Akalis’ initial calculations of a massive win for Jaitley, with support from Sikhs in the rural areas and the BJP’s traditional urban Hindu voters.

Most Sikhs seem to be backing Amarinder and see Jaitley as a Delhi man. Amarinder has targeted his opponent’s image by questioning him about Akali corruption and describing him as Majithia’s “pitthu (stooge)”.

When Jaitley hit back by describing Amarinder as “feudal”, the Captain retorted: “Ask anyone in Punjab who is feudal, me or your patrons who have monopolised every business — liquor, sand, transport, cable TV — besides presiding over the illicit drug trade through Majithia.”

People’s anger against Majithia and Sukhbir Singh Badal appears more widespread and stronger than the “Modi wave” that Jaitley’s backers are trying to create here.

The December 2012 shooting of an Amritsar policeman protesting his daughter’s harassment, in which the accused is an Akali leader, has become a focal point of discussion among women. A group of around 200 women students have met Amarinder and requested him to make women’s safety his main issue.

Fear factor

With the going appearing tough, the BJP-Akali combine has revived talk of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and Operation Bluestar. This seems to have worked to an extent, with the city witnessing protests against the Congress almost every day.

The Congress is also worried about the “fear factor”. At the party office, the commonest complaint pouring in from every village and block relates to the registration of false cases against party leaders and supporters.

“A few days ago, Captain saheb visited the Majitha locality. The Akali government cancelled a man’s licence for a ration depot only because he had presented a saropa (scarf) to him,” a party official said.

“Such is the level of victimisation. Our booth agents and local leaders are being threatened.”

In the villages, where the people talk about the fear factor, many don’t seem to even recognise Jaitley. An elderly man referred to a “Chutney” who “has come from Delhi to fight our Captain saheb”.

Told that the challenger’s name was Jaitley, not Chutney, he said: “He will become chutney anyway on May 16 (the results day).”

This despite the local television channels, all controlled by the Akalis, showing Jaitley round the clock while Amarinder is being shown only in the context of the 1984 riots and Operation Bluestar.

Most observers believe that Amarinder is the front-runner but some are wary of possible “last-minute management” by the Akalis.