Jaitley versus Captain: Hard fight, harder to call

Amarinder at Jallianwala Bagh on Sunday.express archive Amarinder at Jallianwala Bagh on Sunday. express archive

Conventional wisdom goes for a toss in the prestigious Amritsar parliamentary constituency which is set for a clash of titans. Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, a close lieutenant of Narendra Modi, is pitted against former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, titular maharaja of Patiala. The constituency, famous for the Golden Temple and its gourmet Punjabi food, is roughly 60 per cent urban and 40 per cent rural, with a Sikh population of some 63 per cent.

The Hindu residents of this essentially trading city would normally be viewed as stereotypical BJP supporters but a surprisingly large number are not backing the lotus. In the Majitha rural assembly constituency, on the other hand, there are plenty of Jaitley supporters among the sturdy Jat Sikh peasantry, though his opponent is the Jat Mahasabha chief.

Another surprise is that the 72-year-old Amarinder Singh, a campaign veteran, displays far less stamina than the novice Jaitley, 61, who is fighting a direct grassroots battle for the first time. The BJP candidate is on his feet from early morning till late night; the maharaja, more relaxed, does not normally meet people before lunchtime. There are huge billboards of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Modi in Amritsar but there is no sign of any Modi wave. On the other hand, there is a discernible anti-establishment mood against the state Akali Dal government.

The stakes are high for the Akalis, the Congress and the BJP. The Captain needs a victory to reassert his supremacy in the Congress which snatched away his position as state party chief. Besides, it is a longstanding grudge match with the Akalis in which the Badals have won the last two rounds. Not only did the Akalis win the last two assembly elections but Amarinder’s son Raninder Singh was roundly defeated by Badal’s daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur in the Bhatinda parliamentary constituency in 2009.

How prestigious is the Amritsar seat can be gauged from the fact that Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has personally addressed three large rallies in Amritsar ‘s rural hinterland and he will visit once more on April 16. For Jaitley, caught in the middle of this old rivalry, it is a chance to prove he can be popularly elected and not just parachuted to the Rajya Sabha.

The Akalis invited Jaitley to contest when the Congress was a divided house, before Sonia Gandhi mooted Amarinder’s name. But, even then, Amritsar was not a walkover. Outgoing BJP MP cricket commentator Navjot Singh Sidhu narrowly won in 2009 by 6000 votes. He lost Amritsar city by some 50,000 votes, his losses in the urban areas were offset by Akali votes from the four rural assembly constituencies. Sidhu’s relationship with the Akalis has soured steadily and his replacement was inevitable. He has so far refused to visit the constituency.

Amarinder began as a reluctant candidate. He took a week to come to Amritsar and 10 days to start his campaign. But now he has entered into the spirit of the battle, hitting out at his opponent in strong language, calling him an “outsider’’, a “pseudo Punjabi’’ and a “good-for-nothing lawyer.’’

“I’ll take him nice and proper’’, he assured this correspondent. Amarinder’s foulest abuse is reserved for Bikramjit Majithia, the young and feisty state revenue minister and Akali MLA from rural Majitha. He is deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s brother-in-law. At a local rural rally last Saturday, Amarinder joked with his audience that Majithia has complained to the Election Commission because he described him as a monkey. “What else should I call a monkey?’’ , he proclaims. He vows he will hang Majithia upside down when he comes to power.

Majithia, too, does not hold back the vitriol. He points out that the Captain in the last two years has attended the Punjab Assembly only thrice while Jaitley has been voted the best parliamentarian of the year and has a 99 per cent record of attendance. He claims that the laidback Amarinder does not begin his day till noon and is inaccessible to his MLAs and party workers. “I am not panicky that does not mean that I am laid back’’, says the maharajah, who has time to do his writing on history of the first world war at night.

Expectedly, Jaitely refrains from these “tu tu mein mein” exchanges. He says he wants to take the debate to a higher plain and speaks earnestly about the need for developing Amritsar, a border trading centre which has fallen on bad times. He talks passionately of the prospect of developing Amritsar as a pilgrimage-tourist hub, building infrastructure, stepping up border trade, helping bring down the high degree of unemployment among the youth and wiping out the drug menace.

Jaitley does not merely focus on rallies but has been systematically meeting small groups of professionals, traders and various citizens forums daily. By the end of the campaign he hopes to have covered all 65 city wards. Jaitley is optimistic that he will turn around the anti-incumbency mood of the city by personal contact and by offering workable schemes which can be implemented by the Centre. His popular daily campaign diary blog talks about national and constituency level issues.

The only time his blog could be interpreted as personal is when in rebutting Rahul Gandhi’s remarks about Modi’s marriage he referred to “the hypocrisy of certain senior Congress members who are in illicit relationships and yet parade their wives for photo opportunities during nominations.’’ This seemed a dig at the captain whose wife Preneet Kaur turned up in Amritsar with their son Raninder on the day Amarinder filed his nomination, but both have not been seen since. Aroosa Alam, a Pakistani media personality, who has been Amarainder ‘s long time companion is also missing from the campaign scene.

But it is not Amarinder’s personal life which is a campaign issue here. The voters of Amritsar are angry with the state government for burdening them with taxes, particularly a property tax which was imposed last year. Jaitley is hard pressed to explain that it was Amarinder Singh’s government which had first signed the MoU with the central government on property tax as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Making the outcome of the contest more difficult to predict is the presence of AAP candidate Dr Daljit Singh, an 80-year-old well-respected eye surgeon who pioneered lens implant surgery and performed thousands of free operations for the poor in the region. Though the AAP organizational strength is weak, the doctor enjoys enormous personal popularity and is the only local man in the fray.

Singh may not win but he will cut into the vote share of the two main contestants. “`We will have touched a nerve of Amritsar’’ assures his son Dr Ravjit Singh.

To boost Jaitley’s campaign, dozens of friends and well-wishers from Delhi have descended to help out, as well as his extended family. Well-heeled lawyers have taken time out from their flourishing practices to tour the slums campaigning on behalf of Jaitley. The BJP leader believes his campaign is slowly picking up and gaining momentum. Big names like Narendra Modi and Baba Ram Dev will soon visit the constituency as will some of Jaitley’s cricketer friends.

A veteran of past campaigns says the outcome of the Amritsar campaign has always been uncertain till the very end. Things can turn upside down in the last week. Which is why the victor of Amritsar is hard to predict. But one thing is clear, the captain has had to abandon his maharajah like lifestyle.