GURDASPUR, the Lok Sabha seat in Punjab that fell vacant following the death of actor Vinod Khanna, votes Wednesday in a bypoll that has been marked by allegations of rape against two prominent political leaders, one of them a candidate.
On September 29, the Gurdaspur district-in-charge of the Shiromani Akali Dal, Sucha Singh Langah, was booked by police for rape, extortion, cheating and criminal intimidation. This was after a woman had accused Langah of repeatedly raping her since 2009 and cheating her. The SAD threw Langah out while the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee (SGPC) too stripped Langah of his membership and official positions.
The allegations against Langah were followed by the circulation of a video clip on WhatsApp, purportedly showing the SAD leader with the woman. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party used the clip to campaign against the SAD-BJP alliance.
Then came rape allegations against the BJP candidate for the bypoll, Swaran Salaria. Old photographs of Salaria with a woman were circulated on social media, with the Congress and AAP accusing Salaria of having hidden the fact that a case pertaining to rape allegations against him was still under judicial process and that he had not declared this in his affidavit while filing his nomination. The BJP stressed that the rape charge had been proven false at the investigation stage itself, in 2014.
Until these two sets of allegations, the campaign had started as a routine one, a three-sided contest between the Congress, the BJP and AAP. The BJP pitch was the alleged “outsider” status of the Congress candidate, Sunil Jakhar, who is also the president of the state unit of the party.
The BJP’s Salaria, a leading businessman, is based in Mumbai. The SAD-BJP’s contention is that Jakhar belongs to Abohar district of southern Punjab and has no connection with Gurdaspur in the far north, while Salaria is a “son of the soil”, having been born and grown up in a village in the constituency. Salaria got the BJP ticket amid stiff opposition from Kavita Khanna, wife of Vinod Khanna. The actor had represented the seat four times.
In a contest now focused largely on the conduct of the removed Akali leader and the BJP candidate, the AAP candidate, retired Major General Suresh Khajuria, has been the one raising local issues in his public meetings. AAP is contesting amid a severe financial crunch in Punjab and a depleting ground-level cadre, with six of its local leaders having switched camps. Arvind Kejriwal, too, has stayed away from the campaign.
In what has been described to be an acid test for the Congress government’s first six months in Punjab, the SAD-BJP has raised the issue of a “half-hearted” farm loan waiver by the Capt Amarinder Singh government and its failure to take concrete steps to address the problems of farmer suicides and unemployment.