Thursday, April 24, 2014

High Stakes in Amritsar

As the sixth phase of polling comes to an end, all eyes are on the three big battleground states going to polls in the seventh phase on April 30: Telangana, Gujarat and Punjab. While Telangana has already been discussed and Gujarat almost a foregone conclusion, with their own Chief Minister Narendra Modi looking to be the next Prime Minister of India, it's time to turn to Punjab and what looks to be the most closely-contested election of 2014: Amritsar.

The border town, which I had the privilege to visit about a year back, has to choose between BJP stalwart and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, who is widely respected around the country for his erudite speeches and vast knowledge, and the Punjab Congress Chief and former CM Capt. (Retd.) Amrinder Singh. Political commentators are unable to come to any conclusion about the fate of this constituency, which so far elected three-time sitting MP Navjot Singh Siddhu, who was not given a ticket this time round.

The choice here is quite difficult for the people of the Temple city. In all probability, it will be an NDA government on May 16 that will stake claim before President Pranab Mukherjee. And although they can be hugely misleading, Delhi's rumor mills have it that Jaitley could be the next Finance Minister and thus, as a member of the Big Four (Home, Defense, Finance and External Affairs), would be able to greatly influence the government to the advantage of Amritsar. However, this is Jaitley's first election to the Lok Sabha and he is seen as a paratrooper candidate in a city that inherently prefers to elect one of its own. Religion is also a factor here, with the SAD having to work overtime to convince the hard right that Hindu Jaitley is indeed Sikh at heart!

For Capt. Amrinder Singh, who took charge after the last Assembly elections led to disaster for the Congress, possibly a harbinger of times to come, the election is crucial because Sonia Gandhi has placed a great deal of faith on him. A defeat for Jaitley would certainly shore up the party's morale in a state that has been overrun by the SAD-BJP alliance. No wonder then that he has used two important trump cards - his lineage to Amritsar and his Army background, in a state that sends large numbers to the Indian Army. Compared to Jaitley's drawing-room economist persona, this certainly is a plus point in a very patriarchal society. Local people also place a degree of trust in Singh, although whether he will be able to do anything at all with an NDA government in Chandigarh as well as in Delhi is anybody's guess.

In all this, the AAP, which has a decent following in Punjab, seems to be the dark horse that could upset calculations. There is almost no chance of the AAP candidate winning, but the question remains as to whose votes he will be able to poach. In the end, that might just decide the outcome of this electric election battle. 

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