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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Explained: Who is Sunil Jakhar, surprise candidate to replace Amarinder Singh as Punjab CM?

The 67-year-old former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president is a straight-talking politician not prone to making tall promises.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh |
Updated: September 19, 2021 12:55:17 pm
Capt Amarinder Singh (L) with newly appointed PPCC president Navjot Sidhu (C) and Ex PPCC president Sunil Jakhar (R) at Punjab Congress Bhawan in Chandigarh. (Express File photo by Jasbir Malhi)

A reluctant politician. That is how Sunil Kumar Jakhar was branded when he entered the poll fray in Punjab in the 2002 assembly elections. In his late 40s at that time, he made people sit up and take notice, for he neither dressed like a career politician in crisp white kurta-pyjama nor spoke like one. His brusque speeches devoid of tall promises and bluster endeared him to the voters. And it did not hurt that he was tall and handsome.

Three-time MLA from Abohar

It came as no surprise when this newbie fought and won the election from his family’s pocket borough of Abohar in 2002. It’s a feat he repeated in 2007 and 2012. “I realise that even if not hardworking, an elected politician can make a difference to the common man by the virtue of his reach,” he used to tell media persons, adding, “There is so much to do in the villages, they have so many small issues that need a helping hand.”

He was elected a Lok Sabha MP from Gurdaspur in the 2017 bypoll necessitated by the death of Vinod Khanna. But the last four years were not electorally kind to Jakhar, who suffered a surprise upset in the 2017 assembly polls when he was beaten by BJP’s Atul Narang, a local councillor.

He picked himself up when he was made the chief of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee in 2017. Two years on, he was fielded against BJP’s Sunny Deol from Gurdaspur in the Lok Sabha election. As expected, Sunny the star won prompting many in the Congress to say that Jakhar was a mere lamb to the slaughter.

From 2012 to 2017, Jakhar was leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly.

A man of numbers

A trait that distinguishes Jakhar is his propensity to trot out figures. “He is a chalta-phirta data bank,” says a local leader, alluding to Jakhar’s habit of inserting numbers about Punjab and its fields even in a banal conversation.

A farmer by profession, Jakhar grows kinnows in his sprawling farm and often tells you in wonder how what he sells for so little at home costs him so much in Delhi. The Congressman says he was among the first to sound the party about the agitation brewing against the proposed farm bills in June and worries that if left unaddressed, it could have larger implications for Punjab.

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Supporter of Amarinder Singh

A staunch supporter of Amarinder during his first term, Jakhar would openly come out in his defence when people accused him of being aloof, saying the CM was “brilliant.” Jakhar himself is known for being easily approachable, picking up the phone as early as 6 in the morning and opening his government residence to his constituents.

Even during the current rebellion in the state, the then Punjab Congress president remained largely neutral, losing his cool only at a stormy meeting called soon after the high court ruling quashing Punjab police probe into Kotkapura firing in April. Jakhar, furious at the loss of face to the party, is said to have even offered to quit.

Known as a straight-talking politician, he was at his candid best during the installation function of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the PPCC chief in July. Slamming the party’s tendency to appease sulking leaders, he asked, “Ki oh Congress de phuppad ne.” In a no-holds-barred speech, he slammed those who he said had been trying to broker a deal with AAP and BJP, and articulated the problem of too much bureaucracy. “Party workers should feel it is their government, not of the babus.”

More recently, he had griped how the party was unable to publicise its “remarkable achievements” such as hiking the old-age pensions due to its internal squabbles. “Imagine a sum of Rs 3000 will go into the accounts of a poor couple every month, and we are talking of 26 lakh beneficiaries. Steps like these won Delhi for AAP, yet here no one is talking about it,” he had griped.

A private person, close ties with Gandhi family

The younger son of late Balram Jakhar, who was the longest-serving Lok Sabha Speaker from 1980 to 1989, Jakhar was born at the family’s ancestral home at Panjkosi village in Ferozepur district of Punjab bordering Rajasthan.

A deeply private person, little is known about Jakhar’s family except that his wife is of Swiss origin. The couple is friendly with Rahul Gandhi.

Like former chief minister Amarinder Singh, the Jakhars have enjoyed a close relationship with the Gandhis. When he wrote an article on the state of Punjab in The Indian Express in 2008, he was delighted that Sonia had read it.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Priyanka Gandhi had specially come down to Gurdaspur where he was pitted against BJP candidate actor Sunny Deol. It was during her campaign that Capt had remarked that Jakhar could be the next chief minister. Jakhar on his part shrugged it off as hyperbole. “How can a non-turbaned person become the CM of Punjab? Wasn’t a Sikh CM an implicit promise when Punjab was carved out?” he said back then.

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