On February 13, Khadoor Sahib will elect an MLA who will serve for hardly a year before Punjab goes to polls. That is the way one section of the Congress would like to view it as it urges the leadership to ignore the bypoll and focus instead on the larger battle. The Aam Aadmi Party has already opted out. The other section in the Congress, however, would rather not give the Shiromani Akali Dal a walkover, especially with the high symbolism involved.
The assembly seat is a segment of Khadoor Sahib Lok Sabha constituency in the border district of Tarn Taran. Three reasons make the bypoll a prestige battle for the Akalis. Khadoor Sahib is frequently identified with a panthic character. Out of the nine segments of the Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress won only three in the 2012 assembly polls, and Khadoor Sahib was one of them. Third, the Congress MLA has resigned for panthic reasons.
Ramanjit Singh Sikki stepped down last October to protest against the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Bargari and the government’s inability to bring the guilty to book. Clear that they could not afford to lose the seat now, the Akalis took up the battle immediately. As early as November, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal went on a sangat darshan tour through the constituency and allocated Rs 35 crore for various civic projects there. Apart from identity politics, the Akalis are also worried about a defeat being interpreted as a sign of anti-incumbency.
A defeat for the Congress, on the other hand, could reflect poorly on new state party chief Capt Amarinder Singh, considering that it is a seat the Congress holds. But it is Amarinder’s political strategist, Prashant Kishor, who has suggested that the party ignore the inconsequential bypoll and concentrate on 2017 instead, a source in their camp said. The other camp is worried about opting out being interpreted as running away. The central leadership is yet to decide.
Sikki is keen to recontest. Known as a “potato king” for his cultivation and cold stores, he is an Amarinder loyalist who quit as MLA without consulting then AICC chief Partap Bajwa. Sikki has not been talking in public of late. “He will contest if the high command wants him to,” said his aide Rana Gurjit. Last time, Sikki won by barely 3,000 votes.
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The Akali candidate is Ravinder Singh Brahmpura, a choice that could reopen old rivalries. Ravinder is the son of Ranjit Brahmpura, the sitting MP from Khadoor Sahib. In the 2012 assembly elections, Sikki had defeated the father, whom the SAD fielded for the Lok Sabha two years later.
Ravinder Brahmpura said he had been looking forward to a contest with the AAP and the Congress. “But it seems both parties have chickened out,” he said. “I will win. People are sick of Sikki, who has not kept in touch with them. He tried to win brownie points by playing the Sikh card and resigning. But it has worked against him.”
AAP is widely seen as a strong challenger to the Congress and the SAD-BJP in 2017. Its decision to stay out should come as a relief to both sides, but it still leaves other potential spoilers in the fray. Two AAP rebels, Bhai Baldeep Singh and Sumail Singh Sidhu, have announced that they will contest as independents. Yogendra Yadav’s splinter group Swaraj Lehar is behind Bhai Baldeep.
AAP state convener Sucha Singh Chotepur said they could not afford to spend so much on an election for the sake of being in the assembly for only a few months. “Our party has neither the money nor the energy to be wasted on this election. We are prepared for 2017 even if they announce the polls today,” he said.