Dealing a severe blow to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president, Simranjit Singh Mann, emerged as the victor Sunday in the crucial bypoll in the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency, the bastion of Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, defeating AAP candidate Gurmail Singh in a neck-and-neck fight.
The bypoll was necessitated when the incumbent Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann resigned from the seat after becoming the CM in March following the AAP’s landslide victory in the state Assembly elections. It was considered to be the first test of the fledgling Mann-led AAP government’s popularity.
Pushed to the margins of Punjab’s mainstream politics for over two-and-half decades, the 77-year-old pro-Khalistan leader and ex-IPS officer Simranjit Singh Mann’s stunning win is likely to boost the Panthic politics in the border state.
In its campaign for the Sangrur bypoll, the Sukhbir Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) had also played the Panthic card and fielded Kamaldeep Kaur, sister of Balwant Singh Rajoana, the ex-CM Beant Singh’s assassination convict lodged in jail, while making the release of the Sikh prisoners its plank. The principal Opposition Congress also campaigned vigorously for its candidate in the Sangrur fray. However, it was Mann who eventually won the race.
Significantly, an effort was mounted in the run-up to the Sangrur bypoll to get various SAD factions united with Sukhbir even visiting Mann’s house to persuade him to withdraw in favour of Kamaldeep’s candidature, but the SAD (Amritsar) chief turned it down and went ahead with his campaign.
It used to be said in Punjab political circles that Mann would contest all parliamentary and Assembly polls only to get defeated. A two-time Lok Sabha MP, he had last won from the Sangrur parliamentary constituency in 1999.
According to the Lok Sabha website, “Mann remained in jail from 1984 to 1989 for the devolution of powers to the Sikhs and although elected to 9th Lok Sabha, did not take oath. He was elected to 13th Lok Sabha from 1999 to 2004 and remained Member, Consultative Committee, Ministry of External Affairs. He was committed to the protection of social, cultural, civil, economic, and political rights as enshrined in the UN charter. Protection of human rights and rights of minority were his special interests as MP.”
Although he has been a pro-Khalistan leader, Mann had focused on constructing cow shelters during his term as an MP during 1999-2004. He was then also declared “outstanding parliamentarian” by the Lok Sabha Speaker. He is a relative of former CM Captain Amarinder Singh.
Mann had resigned from the IPS in 1984 in protest against the Operation Blue Star. He jumped into active politics and won his first election from Tarn Taran parliamentary constituency in 1989 when he was in jail.
He has been arrested or detained about 30 times but he has never been convicted for any crime so far. He was charged, among other things, with a conspiracy to assassinate former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Despite his repeated defeats for more than two decades, Mann somehow managed to keep his party’s organisation intact across the state, which is especially strong in Sangrur. Notably, the SAD (Amritsar) is the only mainstream party in Punjab that has all along been demanding Khalistan. Dal Khalsa and some other separatist parties, who used to contest elections, no longer believe in the electoral system.
The killing of popular Punjabi singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu Moosewala last month seemed to have generated sympathy for Mann’s candidature as Moosewala had committed his support to him and even promised to campaign for him in Sangrur. In his campaign speeches, Mann used to highlight this point, telling people that Moosewala would have campaigned for him if he was not killed.
The SAD (Amritsar) had fielded 86 candidates for the February 20 Assembly polls, failing to win a single seat although it managed to boost its vote share.
From a high of winning six of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab in 1989, to being reduced to a vote share of 0.03%, even lower than
NOTA’s 0.7%, in the 2017 Assembly polls, Mann’s party polled 2.49% votes in the 2022 Assembly elections.
Apart from the AAP, Mann’s Sangrur triumph is a setback for the SAD (Badal) too. With the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh community’s apex elected religious body, due for polls for some time now, the SAD (Amritsar) could pose a challenge to the SAD (Badal)’s dominance in the SGPC, given that Mann has been looking to wrest it from Badals’ control for a very long time.