Barely three days after the Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government in Punjab marked its 100 days, the Sangrur bypoll outcome has come as a sobering reminder that a record poll sweep can be followed by a humiliating electoral defeat.
Sangrur, the pocket borough of Chief Minister Mann, had catapulted him into the political stage by electing him with a record margin of over 2 lakh votes in the 2014 general elections. Mann had got re-elected from Sangrur in 2019 Lok Sabha polls by over 1 lakh votes. The bypoll was necessitated when he resigned from the seat after taking over as the CM on March 16.
The defeat of the AAP candidate Gurmel Singh at the hands of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president, Simranjit Singh Mann, with a margin of 5,822 votes in a neck-and-neck contest — which comes at a time when the Mann government is seen to have acted against the corrupt — is a wake-up call for the AAP dispensation. The AAP’s leaders have been facing the charge of being “inaccessible”, which used to be once the bugbear of the previous Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government.
Evidently, the ruling party seems to have failed to neutralise the public anger against the killing of popular Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moosewala, even as it fielded a relatively unknown candidate in a fiercely-contested five-cornered battle in Sangrur.
The AAP was certainly not expecting to lose to the SAD(A), which has not won a single election since 1999, when Simranjit won from the Sangrur parliamentary seat. The AAP, on the other hand, had bagged all the nine Assembly seats in this constituency four months ago. It had also deployed its top brass for campaigning, with both party supremo and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and CM Mann hitting the Sangrur trail ahead of the election.
A former IPS officer, the SAD(A) chief had resigned from his job in 1984 in protest against Operation Blue Star. A two-time MP, Simranjit was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1989 when he was in jail. He has been seeking a UN-monitored inquiry into the killing of Moosewala, who was gunned down on May 29, days after his security was withdrawn by the Mann government. Although the singer had contested the Assembly poll from Mansa on the Congress ticket, it was no secret that he had decided to support Simranjit in the Sangrur bypoll — a point that the latter highlighted in his electioneering and campaign ads.
Mann, who has been in political wilderness for years and was often dismissed as a relic of militancy who continued to harp on ‘’a separate State”, sprang back into the spotlight when a “Sarbat Khalsa” meeting called by him against the sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 got a significant public response. He gained further traction during the 2020-21 farmers’ agitation when “influencers” like late Deep Sidhu aligned with him. The bids mounted by some ruling quarters to paint the farm stir as “anti-national” gave ammunition to leaders like Simranjit, who have spent a lifetime highlighting the alleged ‘’excesses’’ of the central dispensation against the minorities.
In the run-up to the Sangrur bypoll, Mann said his win would be a “victory of the secular people and minorities against the ultra-right parties such as BJP, AAP, and Congress”. The AAP candidate, Gurmel Singh, a sarpanch, could not deal with such growing rage or match the rhetoric of his rival. As the AAP failed to address the anger among voters due to the inaccessibility of local leaders, its choice of nominees for the Rajya Sabha also led to some rumblings as it did not include anyone from the Malwa region that gave the AAP 66 of its total 92-seat haul in the Assembly elections.
With the Sangrur bypoll coming close on the heels of the AAP’s Assembly poll landslide, it was contested hotly by other parties, including the BJP. While the Congress fielded Dalvir Goldy, who had contested against Bhagwant Mann from Dhuri in the Assembly poll, the BJP nominated Kewal Dhillon, an industrialist and former Congress legislator, in the fray, with the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) giving its ticket to Kamaldeep Kaur, sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana, a death row convict in the ex-CM Beant Singh assassination case.
Several political experts view the AAP’s defeat in Sangrur as “cautionary”. “Though a downer for the AAP government, which came to power with an unprecedented mandate of 92 seats, it will ensure that they work diligently for the rest of their term,” said Dr GS Sekhon, a political observer.
The AAP government has witnessed an eventful 100 days, with incidents such as an attack on the Punjab Police’s intelligence headquarters in Mohali pointing to the nexus between criminals and terror elements in other countries. It also underlined the tenuous law and order situation in a border state with a neighbour known to foment trouble. The April clash in Patiala between two radical groups was the first indication that the state needed a better intelligence. Then came the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack on the intelligence headquarters in Mohali. Of late, Opposition leaders, including Amritsar MP Gurjeet Aujla and Harpartap S Ajnala, have been complaining of getting threatening calls from overseas.
Addressing the Assembly Saturday, the CM promised to strengthen law and order with zero tolerance for gangsters, and to undertake security reforms such as a witness protection bill and high-security prisons. It was for the first time that the Assembly proceedings were beamed live.
Earlier, the AAP government had suffered a huge embarrassment when it sent a large police contingent to Delhi to arrest BJP leader Tajinderpal Singh Bagga for an allegedly offensive post against Kejriwal, only to have him rescued by their Delhi counterparts.
Buoyed by its resounding Assembly poll triumph, the AAP government came down heavily against corruption, launching a WhatsApp number, and arresting its own minister in recent weeks. Earlier this week, it arrested an IAS officer on the basis of a complaint received on the CM’s WhatsApp number, with the complainant recording the officer on his pen camera. It has arrested 47 persons for corruption so far, whose effects are being felt on the ground, especially in government offices.
The Mann administration has also taken various other people-friendly measures such as resuming the government bus services from the state to the Delhi international airport at a much lower fare than that charged by private operators. Moving to fulfil its other poll promises, it is all set to launch the scheme for free power up to 300 units from July 1. It has also keenly sought to free thousands of acres of shamlat (common) land which had been illegally encroached across the state.
While farmers have been protesting over various reasons, the AAP government has taken the initiative of giving the minimum support price (MSP) for “moong”, which can be grown in the interval between wheat harvest and rice plantation. It has also sought to promote less water-intensive direct seeding of rice by offering a benefit of Rs 1500 an acre.
The rolling out of a slew of such measures might have injected complacency into the AAP leadership that the party will have a smooth sailing in the bypoll on CM Mann’s turf. However, the results proved again that any can party can take the voters for granted only at its own peril.