» Election » Sikh PM is a big Congress draw in Punjab

Sikh PM is a big Congress draw in Punjab

By Jyoti Malhotra
May 08, 2009 11:17 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may be taunted about being a 'weak prime minister' by the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani, but in Punjab the jibe falls on fallow ground.

There is a discernible pride in a Sikh being in the top job, and it is one of the reasons why the Congress party may win as many as 8 or 9 seats out of the state's 13 constituencies.

So when the prime minister arrives in the holy city of Amritsar on May 11 in support of his Congress candidate O P Soni, independent observers say he is expected to get a response that matched last week's large rally in Jalalabad (a small town in Ferozepur division) against sitting BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu.

The Sidhu-Soni contest is expected to be a 'very tough one', considering Sidhu's national reputation and Soni's local one -- he has been an MLA in these parts three times -- and is being watched with the same interest that characterises the clash in Bhatinda between Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Akali Dal Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal's wife, and Raninder Singh, former Patiala maharaja Amarinder Singh's son.

The PM's popularity in Amritsar, where he arrived with his family as a refugee from Gah in the Chakwal district of Pakistan's West Punjab during Partition in 1947, is high not only because he is a Sikh. He is also seen as a man of immense integrity who is devoted to the country, has given India a global reputation in several ways, including the nuclear deal, and has ensured significant and sustained economic growth. The fact that he and his wife are devout Sikhs considerably helps his case.

So when Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee President Avtar Singh Makkar accused Manmohan Singh in late April of 'not being a true Sikh', he touched off a furore across the state and elsewhere.

The SGPC's Delhi faction issued a strong statement accusing Makkar of not reading his history right and pointing out that it was this prime minister, that too a Congressman, who had not only given special grants to the riot victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, but also announced that the government would construct a highway in honour of Guru Gobind Singh from Talwandi Sabo in Punjab to Nanded in Maharashtra.

The next day, Makkar was forced to apologise for his comments and withdraw his anti-Manmohan Singh criticism.

Clearly, Punjab is one of the few states in the country where the past sits astride the present. That is perhaps why the Congress party's decision, albeit 25 years too late, to drop Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar -- both accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which more than 2,000 Sikhs are believed to have been killed -- is believed to have gone down very well in the state.

Both Kumar and Tytler may have won national elections since 1984 and been exonerated by several judicial commissions, but the fact remains that with their axing from the 2009 elections, a large section of the Sikh population will now be able to justify to themselves why they are voting against the Shiromani Akali Dal and for the Congress party.

Some believe the Congress would have gained even more seats, but for the refusal by the Dera Sacha Sauda, a local religious organisation, to openly come out in support of one party or another. Having issued a call that Punjab should vote according to its 'conscience' or 'local consensus,' observers believe the SAD will gain by at least two seats.

As for the past being accountable, Youth Congress leader Ravnit Singh Bittu's candidature from Anandpur Sahib is another interesting case. Bittu is the grandson of Beant Singh, a former chief minister who was held responsible by human rights organisations for having scores of Punjab militants being killed in 'encounters' during his regime.

But Bittu's star is clearly high on the horizon, what with the fact that his candidacy is being supported by Rahul Gandhi. Rahul, in fact, is coming to Anandpur Sahib to rally for Bittu on May 9 against Daljit Singh Cheema, an ayurvedic doctor.

It is in Anandpur Sahib that Rahul Gandhi's pet 'youth vs age' thesis will be directly tested, observers say.

Local observers say the Akalis are likely to win Bhatinda, Faridkot, Sangrur, Khadoor Sahib and Jalandhar, while the border constituencies of Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Amritsar are expected to go to the Congress.

Prabhjot Singh, chief of bureau of The Tribune newspaper, pointed out that people in the border areas had begun to feel vulnerable since the Taliban attack in the Manawan police academy across the border in Pakistan on the outskirts of Lahore a few weeks ago.

"If the Taliban can come to Lahore, which is only 25 km away from Amritsar, then people are worried that they may even cross the border into Punjab. The people will vote for the party which can provide a strong Centre," Singh said.

In fact, pro-Centre security concerns as well as film star and sitting BJP MP from Gurdaspur Vinod Khanna's attitude could mean that he could lose this contest to the sitting MLA from Pathankot, Pratap Singh Bajwa.

Locals complain that Khanna, who has won this seat 3 times, was in Mumbai far more than in Gurdaspur and has done little for the state.

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Jyoti Malhotra