There is something new about this election in Tarn Taran. For the first time in its electoral history,a registered political party has put up a Hindu candidate in this constituency that lies at Amritsars edge. Here,Dharambir Agnihotri of the Congress takes on the official Akali candidate as well as the Akali rebel.
During the dark times of terrorism in Punjab,Tarn Taran was called the capital of Khalistan. Some of the most dreaded terrorists belonged to this belt. In electoral terms,Tarn Taran has defied the ritual oscillation between the Congress and SAD that is largely the Punjab story. It has always had an Akali MLA,except in 1977 and then again in 1992,when the election was boycotted by the SAD and the Congresss Dilbagh Singh was elected unopposed.
The Congress claims credit for giving the ticket to Agnihotri. The message from the Congress is that we are a non-communal party, says Surinder Singh Shahi,chairperson of the Congress election committee of Tarn Taran district.
But stop to listen to the aam aadmi in Tarn Taran,and it is easy to ignore the newness of Agnihotris candidature,or its self-conscious departure from the past. Quite simply,on the Tarn Taran street,there is little or no emphasis on the religion of the Congress candidate.
The fight is close,everyone agrees. In the last assembly election,it is pointed out,Agnihotri gave a tough fight in an adjoining constituency to Akali stalwart Ranjit Singh Brahmpura. After delimitation,many of the villages of that constituency have moved into Tarn Taran.
In the run-up to voting on January 30,the talk is about development. The phenomenon of rising aspirations has not left Tarn Taran untouched. Yes,some things have happened in the name of development, says Jaspal Singh Randhawa,but no government has done us any favour. Everything must move with the times. We are,after all,in the computer age.
As in other parts of Punjab,there is talk about the governments welfare schemes and a fraught and furious debate about their delivery. Everything,be it atta,dal or shagun,is for the strong, shop-owner Partap Singh says. The strong is a euphemism for the landed and the rich,the Jats,as well as the relatives and supporters of the ruling party.
But for Tarn Taran,most of all,the problem is the spreading grip of drug addiction over its young a story running across Punjab. An entire generation has been destroyed, says Amrit Singh,young and unemployed,a self-confessed addict. I am a Jat but I have no dignity left. At times I am reduced to begging for the stuff. In this region,there is an addict in every house.
The rise in petty crime,especially in rural areas,is attributed to youngsters desperate to feed their addiction.
The Tarn Taran story is repeated in the Hindu Batala town,about 55 km away,where for the first time in recent memory,a Sikh candidate,Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal,has been fielded by the SAD-BJP combine after the seat passed from the BJP into the Akali kitty. In Batala as in Tarn Taran,conversations on the street seldom linger on the religion of the SAD-BJP candidate.
In perhaps the first election in post-terrorism Punjab in which the shadow of that lost decade is conspicuous by its absence,in villages and towns,the talking points are: increasing dhakkeshahi or the forceful takeover of all public spaces and institutions,and even the notion of development by the ruling party; the congealed oscillation and rivalry between Congress and SAD and,increasingly,factions within them; family rule; the lengthening distance of leaders from peoples concerns; and,last but not least,the drug menace.
The days when the religious card had either monopoly or incendiary charge in what was euphemistically termed Punjabs religio-politics are over. Panth in danger is a slogan that is seen to be overplayed,says Jaspal Singh Randhawa,the tyre-dealer in Tarn Taran. Of course,the panth is likely to be in danger once again should the SAD lose this election. There is satire,not dread,in his tone.