Prestige issue for Akalis, Bathinda has become triangular contest

| | Chandigarh
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Prestige issue for Akalis, Bathinda has become triangular contest

Thursday, 16 May 2019 | Monika Malik | Chandigarh

One of the oldest cities in Punjab, Bathinda has a long history of battles. Way back in 1004, Mahmud of Ghazni besieged the local fort. The battle this time is much different and not violent, but nevertheless curious with opponents from three political parties attacking the Badals in their bastion.

Here, one MP and three MLAs are in fray — making it the only constituency where the candidates of four major political parties in the state are already occupying seats of power.

Bathinda has virtually turned the arena for political bigwigs ever since Harsimrat, the wife of SAD president Sukhbir Badal, made an entry in the electoral field, conquering the seat every time — defeating her brother-in-law Manpreet Badal in 2014, and the Congress stalwart Capt Amarinder Singh’s son Raninder Singh in 2009.

This time too, Bathinda battlefield is expected to witness a cliff-hanger with a sitting MP, a rebel, a legislator and a youth leader resting their stakes on this southern district of the State, with all three challengers targeting Harsimrat to end her supremacy in the constituency.

Eyeing a hattrick, SAD’s sitting MP and the Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal is locked in her toughest battle this time. Unlike the previous elections where her direct fight is with the Congress nominees, the election this time is a four-way battle with the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the mahagathbandhan of six outfits — Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) — is keeping her on toes. In fact, Akali patriarch and five-time Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has also been camping in the district to campaign for his daughter-in-law.

Challenging her in her fortress are the Congress’ MLA from Gidderbaha Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, AAP’s sitting MLA from Talwandi Sabo Prof Baljinder Kaur, and AAP’s ‘rebel’ MLA from Bholath Sukhpal Singh Khaira who is now heading a new outfit Punjab Ekta Party (PEP) and contesting under the banner of PDA.

Harsimrat may be enjoying a larger-than-life image in her own home ground, but her opponents are giving her a hard time, limiting her only to her constituency, going village to village, and largely focussing on the local issues, besides lashing out at the Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh for his unfulfilled pre-poll promises.

But the “confident” Badal bahu maintained that a “multi-cornered contest suits me”. She claimed that her main fight is with the Congress candidate once again as AAP has lost its ground in the state following 2017 elections when the infighting shook the party to the core.

“Congress government has failed to fulfil even its single poll promise and it is facing a huge anti-incumbency...My development work speaks for me,” said Harsimrat while listing out All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)-Bathinda at her main achievement.

After initial thoughts of shifting from Bathinda, Harsimrat’s confidence also stems from the fact that SAD has a favoured electoral record in the constituency — considered as the Badals pocket borough — winning five out of six times in the past two-and-a-half decades.

Holding the fort since a decade, Harsimrat is also combating a strong anti-incumbency against her, coupled with 2015 sacrilege issue, farm distress, among others.

Harsimrat is largely concentrating on the urban segment of the constituency. Even though Harsimrat managed to win 2014 election by a threadbare margin of about 20,000 votes against Manpreet — the Congress-People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) combine candidate, she trailed behind him by nearly 30,000 votes from Bathinda Urban assembly segment.

Harsimrat, who has emerged out of the shadows of the Badal family to assume the mantle of a leader with her own identity, accredit herself for bringing the investment of Rs 1,500 crore in 41 projects in Punjab as the Union Food Processing Minister. Besides, she lists the AIIMS Bathinda and a government-aided girls’ college in Mansa as her achievement during the second tenure.

In addition, Harsimrat is banking on the Centre’s slew of decisions for the Sikh community, including opening of Kartarpur Sahib corridor, conviction in the cases of 1984 anti-Sikh riots, waiving off GST on langar items, translation of Gurbani in every Indian language and some foreign languages as well, among other things.

But the issue of sacrilege and related police firing, that has dented the image of the Akali Dal in general, and the Badal family in particular, is set to affect her prospects, coupled with the anti-incumbency factor against her in the segment and against the SAD-BJP combine at the Centre.

To cash in on the same, Congress considered its young, dynamic, and popular leader Warring as the best bet.

Two-time MLA and Indian Youth Congress’ former president, Warring’s name was given a go ahead after the state Finance Minister Manpreet Badal, and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s wife Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu refused to contest from Bathinda. It has been learnt that he was the only Congress leader to volunteer to take on the Badal bahu in her citadel.

Even as the Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh has been addressing rallies in Bathinda with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi too giving a much-needed push to the party’s campaign in the constituency, it is the young and high-spirited Warring couple which is holding the fort for the party.

On an average, both Warring and his wife Amrita, having laudable oratory skills, have been addressing 35 to 40 public meetings daily across the villages stressing that the fight in Bathinda is between a “common man and the rich and arrogant Badals”.

At one point of time, Bathinda was considered to be a one-sided affair after the Congress fielded a comparatively lightweight candidate. But Warring has turned it into a close contest while keeping his attack focussed on the Badals for “looting Punjab for 10 years”, besides blaming them for 2015 sacrilege and police firing incidents.

Political observers maintained that Warring is in a win-win situation by contesting against a heavyweight Union Minister and that too from the Badal family when other senior Congress leaders backed out. “If Warring wins, this would be a turning point of his life, and if he loses, he would still be the MLA, and moreover, he would be appreciated for giving a fight against the Badals,” said a political analyst.

Even as AAP has lost track in Punjab after its commendable performance during 2014 elections, it wrested five out of the total nine Vidhan Sabha segments in Bathinda Lok Sabha constituency in 2017 state assembly polls leaving two each in SAD and Congress’ kitty.

But with AAP, hit by strong rebellion within the party, is struggling in the constituency, after two of its sitting MLAs — Jagdev Singh Kamalu from Maur is openly supporting PDA candidate Khaira, Nazar Singh Manshahia from Mansa has joined the Congress — while other senior leaders also turning rebel denting the party’s prospects in the constituency.

Among the remaining three MLAs, the party has fielded one, Baljinder Kaur, who is silently going ahead with the canvassing, which has been lacklustre so far. 

The division between the AAP is going to cost it dear as not only the party leadership in the constituency, the workers are also divided between the two factions.

In 2014 elections, AAP candidate Punjabi singer-actor Jassi Jasraj, who parted ways with the party and is now contesting as PDA candidate from Sangrur, was polled just 87,901 (7.47 percent) votes in his first electoral battle and went on to lose his security deposit.

What turns Bathinda into an exciting encounter is Khaira, who has recently floated his own outfit PEP after parting ways with AAP following his unceremonious removal as the Leader of Opposition in Vidhan Sabha.

Khaira, who is contesting as a joint candidate of PDA — a conglomeration of six political outfits and splinter groups, was the first one to declare his candidature “to fight against Badal clan” in their bastion.

Declaring a fight against the “Badal clan” dubbing them as the “fountainheads of corruption” irrespective of the victory or defeat, Khaira said that they need to be destroyed, demolished so that Punjab can breathe easy, otherwise, they would eat away everything.

Even as the Badals have all along been claiming that desecration of Guru Granth Sahib and the subsequent police firing on Sikh protesters during the SAD-BJP term in 2015 was “no more an issue”, it remained a prominent part of the political speeches of their opponents.

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