Vinod Khanna, the man who played villain in many a Bollywood film, took to spirtuality off-screen at the height of his career, became an Osho-follower and wore orange robes and rudrakhsa beads. By the time he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was difficult to think of him as that hulk on screen who kidnapped women with the worst intentions. He represented Gurdaspur in the Lok Sabha four times (1998, 1999, 2004 and 2014). Perhaps the biggest controversy in his years as MP of this border district was the building of a bridge on the river Beas. Exit Khanna, and real life villainy has taken centre stage. Sex, sleaze, personal attacks have been the top themes in the campaign for the October 11 by-election, all guns blazing, as a new cast of characters battle to win the seat that fell vacant after Khanna succumbed to cancer in April this year.
The main candidates in the fray are Swaran Salaria of the BJP (in alliance with Shiromani Akali Dal), Sunil Jakhar of the Congress and the Aam Admi party’s Major General Suresh Khajuria (retired).
Salaria, a rich Mumbai-based businessman, owns one of the biggest security forms in the country, several hotels and is in the aviation business. But he is mainly known for setting up the Chintpurni Medical College in Pathankot, which was refused approval by the Medical Council of India, but continued to admit students, between 2011-2016, creating much heartburn among students and parents. Jakhar is the Punjab Pradesh Congress president, and the son of the late Congress strongman Balram Jakhar. He lost in Abohar, the family fiefdom, in the 2017 Punjab Assembly election. Khajuria is an ex-Gorkha Rifles man who has been associated with AAP in Gurdaspur since 2012.
The election came at the six-month milestone of the new Congress government. There should have been much to talk about: what the Congress has achieved in six months, promises it has kept and those it is still to keep, most significantly the farm loan waivers it has announced but not yet notified.
On the border with Pakistan, Gurdaspur was witness to a terrorist attack in July 2015; it was along this part of the border that terrorists infiltrated into the country and attacked the Pathankot Air Force base in January 2016
Significantly, this is also the first election since the numbers cast a gloom over the economy, showing up the GST as having derailed small businesses and demonestisation as a failure in its primary mission of tracking down black money. The election could have been a dipstick test for how these issues play out among voters.
But Gurdaspur never really got a chance.
Everything took a back seat after SAD’s Gurdaspur honcho for at least two decades, Sucha Singh Langah, was booked in a rape case on the complaint of a woman who said the former minister had been sexually exploiting her for several years in return for a government job.
Though Langah lost two Assembly elections – 2017 and 2012 – from Dera Baba Nanak, he remained powerful and connected enough to continue as the SAD district president, as well as the party’s point man for Salaria’s campaign. He questioned the timing of the allegation and evaded arrest for several days, finally to surrender in a Gurdaspur court. SAD jettisoned him swiftly from all party posts, as did the SGPC, of which he was a member. He was also summarily excommunicated by the Akal Takht, and is now in police custody after surrendering to a court in Gurdaspur.
Meanwhile, a video purportedly made by the complainant of her and Langah, in support of her allegation, went viral
Hardly had the dust settled over Langah, it was Salaria’s turn, with the surfacing of a rape complaint against him lodged by a Mumbai woman in 2014. The police had closed the investigation, but the complainant approached the Mumbai High Court; Sakaria got a stay, and the next hearing is on October 30.
The Congress in Punjab went to town with this, demanding Salaria’s disqualification on the ground that he hid the facts in his affidavit. Photographs surfaced of Salaria and the woman, and were widely shared on social media. Underlining the differences within, Partap Singh Bajwa, the local Congress strongman sulked through most of the campaign because his wife did not get the ticket, joining it in only in the last few days. He is believed to have since worked hard and believes Jakhar will win by a huge margin.
The BJP had started off by dragging in Jakhar’s Swiss wife and his own origins close to the Rajasthan border, to label him an “outsider”, but quickly found itself on the defensive over the sex and sleaze that shrouded its own campaign.
AAP did not seem as if it was in the campaign at all, though its candidate has made heroic efforts on the ground to keep it going, despite a crippling lack of funds and no ground level workers. National level leaders of the three main parties studiously stayed away from the election, leaving it to their regional bosses. State BJP chief and Union Minister Vijay Sampla and Sukhbir Badal were out in full force for Salaria, though former Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal stayed away entirely. Amarinder wrapped up the Congress campaign on Monday with a rally. Bhagwant Mann and Sukhpal Khaira turned out for Khajuria.
Sadly, through the sex, sleaze and videos, Vinod Khanna seemed all but forgotten. He found no place in the BJP’s campaign. His wife Kavita Khanna, who had wanted the ticket, stayed out of the campaign after participating in one rally BJP-SAD rally.