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Will Sidhu manage a hat-trick in Amritsar?

May 8, 2009 12:43 IST

Image: Amritsar gears up for an interesting battle
Vicky Nanjappa and photographer Satish Bodas travel to Amritsar and find the colourful Navjot Singh Sidhu in a tough battle to retain his Lok Sabha seat.

The electoral battle for Amritsar, which goes to the polls on May 13, promises to be an interesting one. Charismatic Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Navjot Singh Sidhu is pitted against Congress candidate Om Prakash Soni, who holds the impressive record of winning every election that he has ever contested.

After spending a day on Sidhu's campaign trail, it is evident that the cricketer-turned-politician has impressed middle and upper middle class voters in Amritsar, which has 1.248 million voters.

However, he seems to have made a dent among voters in rural parts of his constituency like Ajnala. The villagers are unhappy about him being absent for long stretches of time; they feel he is more visible on their television sets than he is in the constituency that twice elected him to the Lok Sabha.

In person, Sidhu is quiet and reserved

Image: A fan gifts Sidhu a painting
Sidhu starts his campaign at 7.30 am every day and winds up by 9.45 pm. He has already finished touring his constituency and is undertaking a second round of campaigning, only too aware of the tough contest he is engaged in.

During the second leg of his campaign, Sidhu has been attending several prayer meetings every day.

In person, he is a far cry from his boisterous screen persona. He has a reserved manner and speaks little. But his demanour changes dramatically the moment he faces an audience.

In the villages of Amritsar, Sidhu doesn't make the routine election speech. He relies on one-liners and short stories that keep crowds engrossed. His campaign team claims this helps him connect instantly with his voters.

While addressing urban crowds, he adopts a different style. Though he cracks jokes and keeps the crowd in splits, he stresses on development issues.

Sidhu's opponent has never lost an election

Image: For rural voters, he is the wisecracking Sidhu we know
Given the fact that the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine won seven of the eight assembly constituencies in Amritsar in the 2007 election, Sidhu shouldn't have much to worry about.

But then there is Soni, a politician who has not lost a single election so far. A former mayor of Amritsar, he was elected to the Punjab assembly in 1997, 2002 and 2007. Soni, who is contesting a Lok Sabha election for the first time, says the BJP-SAD combine has not done anything for Punjab.

While the Congress is taking on the BJP on development-related issues, none of its leaders have spoken about Sidhu's conviction for culpable homicide, which was stayed by the Supreme Court. Even voters in Amritsar are not bothered by this issue; they feel it has no bearing to the current election or the development of the constituency.

Sidhu says his priorities are development and the modernisation of Amritsar airport, which will help boost tourism in the city. He makes it a point to tell voters that he has brought in Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) from the central government for the development of Amritsar. He also talks about the first waste management project in Punjab, which he introduced.

Will anti-incumbency fell Sidhu?

Image: Sidhu on the campaign trail
The Congress is relying on the anti-incumbency factor, and the fact that the electorate in Punjab usually never votes for the party in power in the state in a general election.

During the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, when the Congress ruled Punjab, the BJP and Akali Dal won a major chunk of the seats.

Since the BJP-SAD combine is currently in power, the Congress hopes to win most Lok Sabha seats this election.

The BJP is counting on its traditional middle and upper middle class support base, but has to ensure that these voters turn up at polling booths in large numbers.

Before the campaign began, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani met Akali Dal leaders -- some of whom were reportedly unenthusiastic about Sidhu's candidature -- and urged them to give their 100 per cent to the party's nominee in Amritsar.

The BJP is contesting only three of the state's 13 seats -- Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur.

The Congress believes rural votes will help Soni vanquish Sidhu. Plus it hopes a Sikh prime minister will help draw in urban votes.