Punjab Polls: In Doaba, Congress Faces Tough Challenge from SAD, AAP
The ruling Congress faces a daunting task as it looks to retain its electoral tally in the Dalit-dominated Doaba region of Punjab where it confronts the twin challenges of the SAD’s well-oiled machinery and the AAP’s growing popularity particularly among the youth. Though many in the region express their liking for Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, the first Dalit to hold the post in the state, calling him ”apna banda” (our man), not much groundswell for his party was visible.
The BJP, which traditionally enjoys support in a few urban pockets, and the SAD are making all-out efforts to reap dividends in the fertile Doaba region in the February 20 polls. The AAP, which broke the monotonicity of the Punjab politics oscillating between the Congress and the SAD, is being seen as a harbinger of change by the youth in the region.
The Doaba region, spanning across four districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala, has 23 Assembly seats in the 117-member House. Malwa (69 seats) and Majha (25) account for the rest. In the last Assembly elections in 2017, the Congress had won 15 seats in Doaba, the SAD, in alliance with the BJP, got five, and the AAP managed just two.
With the aim to further strengthen its standing among the Dalit community, which constitutes more than 31 per cent of the state’s electorate, the Congress leadership announced Channi as its chief ministerial face, despite strong claims of its state unit chief and popular leader Navjot Singh Sidhu. People in the region are, however, divided on whether the Congress’ move will yield desired results.
At Dera Sach Khand Ballan, a socio-religious organisation of the Ravidasia who are in large numbers in the region, in the Adampur constituency, aged people and sevaks can be seen listening to Channi’s speeches and interviews on mobile phones, but travelling inside the nearby villages, people indicate they prefer the ’elephant’ (poll symbol of the BSP). The election schedule of Punjab was changed from February 14 as it was clashing with Ravidas Jayanti, signifying the influence of the community.
Avtar Singh of Ballan village, who is in his late 70s, says, ”Our family has traditionally voted for the Akalis, and this time, they are contesting in alliance with the BSP, so we would vote on elephant symbol.” Fellow villager Darshan Pal, however, fondly talks about Channi. ”See, this time, our own man is also in the fray and we have to keep that fact in mind,” he added. All those sitting with him acknowledge this, and in unison, recall several announcements made by Channi for the Dera as well.
The Dera has a sizeable influence in the region in which Dalits comprise more than 33 per cent of the population and are mostly Ravidasias. ”Navi sarkar” (new dispensation) and ”aitki badlav” (change this time) now feature prominently in the interactions here, especially among youngsters. Goldy, a second-year student of a nearby college who came to deliver tea to his grandfather Avtar Singh and his friends, says, ”Aitaki navi sarkar (this time, new government),” in an apparent reference to the AAP.
To this, several people agreed that there is a mood in the villages to opt for a new party this time. Sitting among them, Harpreet Singh, an Akali worker, says, ”Broom (AAP’s election symbol) is flying in the air but doesn’t have sarpanches and workers on the ground who will bring votes.” Dedicated workers and supporters of the SAD-BSP combine could be seen in villages of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts. Many of them are former sarpanches and block chairpersons, an important aspect that helps bring in votes for a party. While Channi’s name, being a fellow Ravidasia, surfaces prominently in interactions in the villages, the youth are quite vocal in their support for the AAP.
The issue of employment opportunities also features prominently in this NRI belt of Punjab. Sarabjit Singh Sandhu of Rurka Kalan village in Hoshiarpur, whose elder son lives abroad, sums it up, ”Here, people prefer passports over birth certificates and Aadhaar cards so that they can go abroad as there are no jobs.” Sandhu says his younger son, who is in his final year of graduation, is also keen on going abroad as there are not many employment opportunities here. Moving towards main cities from villages of Doaba region, the BJP started featuring both in hoardings and interactions especially in the Assembly segments of Jalandhar city, where the RSS has a sizeable influence.
Local BJP leaders are confident of the party’s contestants, especially K D Bhandari in Jalandhar North, Mohinder Bhagat in Jalandhar West, Manoranjan Kalia in Jalandhar Central and former Union minister Vijay Sampla in Phagwara, putting up a strong show in the elections as the party aims to regain its lost ground after the entire farm laws episode.
Note: This news piece was originally published in news18.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights objectives.