It could be an idyllic setting with golden wheat fields stretching out on both sides of the road but for the summer heat beating down and the sudden roar of several dozen Royal Enfield motorcycles. The bikers are part of the roadshow that the Congress candidate from Anandpur Sahib Lok Sabha constituency, Manish Tewari, is taking out with his supporters. Halting for a brief moment outside a palatial ‘marriage palace’, ubiquitous in this Doaba heartland, home to cash-rich Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), the convoy waits for nearby villagers to join in.
Tewari is among the four candidates of mainstream political parties taking part in the elections from Anandpur Sahib. The other three being sitting MP seeking re-election, Prem Singh Chandumajra from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Bir Devinder Singh from SAD (Taksali), Vikram Singh Sodhi from BSP and Narinder Singh Shergill from AAP. The constituency, known as Ropar since 1967, was re-named Anandpur Sahib after the de-limitation came into effect in 2009 general elections. The constituency stretches from the Shivalik foothills bordering Himachal Pradesh to the NRI heartland of Doaba. Essentially, there are nine assembly segments which form part of Anandpur Sahib Lok Sabha constituency. These are Garhshankar, Banga, Nawanshahar, Balachaur, Anandpur Sahib, Ropar, Chamkaur Sahib, Kharar, and Mohali.
The issues concerning the voters here are as diverse as the constituency itself with the major chunk of urban voters concerned with trade issues while the farmers want a solution to the agrarian fiscal distress. Unemployment and lack of job avenues is a universal binding factor across the spectrum of the constituency. Given the importance of Anandpur Sahib in Sikh history and the association of adjoining Chamkaur Sahib with the martial traditions of the Khalsa Panth, the constituency has always been a traditional Sikh seat. It is not surprising that the Akali Dal and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal get fulsome praise in the town for having got the Virsat-e-Khalsa, a Sikh heritage museum, constructed and which draws massive crowds.
Anandpur Sahib is home to Gurdwara Kesgarh Sahib, one of the five Takhts of Sikhism and the birthplace of Khalsa Panth, founded by the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh. It has been the scene of battles fought with Mughal forces by the Khalsa army led by Guru Gobind Singh and is dotted with numerous Gurdwaras, each having a significant historical significance in Sikh annals. Chamkaur Sahib, around 16 km from here, is another political and religiously significant assembly constituency as that is the place where the Guru fought two battles with Mughals and where his two elder sons – Baba Ajit Singh and Baba Jujhar Singh – attained martyrdom.
Thus, it is not surprising that no non-Sikh MP has been elected from this parliamentary constituency ever since its inception 52 years back. Manish Tewari appears to be aiming to change this trend. Apart from the usual Congress and SAD candidates who returned to Parliament from Anandpur Sahib, the hardline Panthic thread running through it can be gauged from the fact that it also elected Bimal Kaur Khalsa, wife of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassin, Beant Singh, on the ticket of Simranjit Singh Mann’s SAD (Amritsar).
Tewari, whose roadshow has, meanwhile, moved ahead after being joined by a number of women villagers at the marriage palace is nonchalant about the outsider tag being given to him. “It is nonsensical and childish. Is the current MP, Prem Singh Chandumajra, from Anandpur Sahib? He is from Patiala. I am from Chandigarh. Is that nearer or Patiala? These are non-issues. The real issue is of development,” he says in a media interaction after his roadshow. Tewari is more sensitive to outsider tag because he had been elected MP from Ludhiana in 2009 but did not contest in 2014 leading to the then Anandpur Sahib MP, Ravneet Singh Bittu to shift to Ludhiana from where he won.
The Congress candidate was the first to have completed road shows in all nine assembly segments. SAD (Taksali) candidate Bir Devinder Singh, meanwhile, says. “I wish to represent the macro issues concerning the state, the biggest being revival of the agrarian economy of the state. Getting central funds for the state and addressing Centre-state relations is also a major task,” he said talking about his priorities. Anandpur Sahib had seen major support for AAP in the 2014 polls with its candidate polling more than 3 lakh votes. The party had beaten others with big leads in Chamkaur Sahib, Mohali, and Nawanshahar segments. However, the sentiment voiced by some local residents is that a repeat performance by AAP was not expected this time from its candidate Narinder Singh Shergill. A progressive farmer, Shergill is also one of the chief financiers of AAP in Punjab and had also contested assembly polls from Mohali in 2017.
“He has been visiting the area but the enthusiasm of youths and the wave in AAP’s favor, which was evident in 2014 is not being seen this time. The youth used to go around on their own carrying AAP flags on their motorbikes back then,” says Deepinder Singh of Bharatgarh who runs a heritage hotel in the area. Shergill was more or less incommunicado as several attempts to reach out to him failed. Neither did he respond to phone calls nor did he answer text messages. Even a word put in with senior party functionaries, including chairman of the campaign committee, Aman Arora, failed to get him to talk.
The sitting MP, Chandumajra and his wife have been very active in the constituency, visiting far-flung areas to combat the anti-incumbency factor. He has also been holding meetings with disgruntled party members and trying to woo them back into his campaign.
“He always promised us funds but never delivered. Whenever we called him as chief guest for our functions, he came and made several announcements but later he either did not deliver on them or was found short on the contribution of funds,” said Dr Daulat Ram of village Behrampur Bet. The fourth major participant in the poll is Vikram Singh Sodhi, a former international polo player, who is contesting as a BSP candidate under the umbrella of the Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA). Sodhi, whose family has lineage in Anandpur Sahib going back more than 300 years, has his campaign refrain focussed on the “loot” of the established political players for the past several decades and the issues concerning the local area including lack of medical facilities and deteriorating educational standards of government institutions.