The election frenzy is at its peak. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is claiming a wave in its favour, there is one constituency where it will find the going tough - Amritsar, where it has fielded Union Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri to take on sitting Member of Parliament Gurjeet Singh Aujla.
The diplomat-turned-politician wasn't the party's first choice. The BJP's Punjab wing wanted actress Poonam Dhillon whereas the party's leadership in New Delhi was keen to field senior advocate and activist H.S. Phoolka, who refused. Puri is a Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh. His tenure ends in November 2020.
Amritsar had grabbed national headlines in the 2014 General Elections when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley lost to Congress' Captain Amarinder Singh with over one lakh votes in spite of a strong wave in favour of the BJP in North India. In the 2017 bypolls, which were called after Amarinder Singh quit to become Punjab Chief Minister, his confidant G.S. Aujla won the seat with more than 1.7 lakh votes.
Traditionally, Amritsar has been a Congress bastion, but the BJP was able to take the seat in 2004 after cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu defeated Congress stalwart and six-time MP Raghunandan Lal Bhatia. Sidhu went on to win this seat three times. In 2014, he was denied the ticket.
Can Puri do what Jaitley couldn't? It is difficult to say. But one thing is clear - wresting Amritsar from the Congress will be an uphill task for the BJP. Here is why:
- The Congress is in power in Punjab; eight out of nine MLAs in the constituency are from the Congress
- The only SAD MLA is Bikramjit Singh Majithia, whose sister Harsimrat Badal and brother-in-law Sukhbir Badal are SAD candidates from Bathinda and Ferozepur, respectively. He is busy campaigning for his close kin
- Gulzar Singh Ranike, the region's tallest Dalit leader, is SAD's candidate from Faridkot. One cannot expect him to help Puri
- The SAD has suffered a split with stalwarts Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Sewa Singh Sekhwan and Rattan Singh Ajnala (with massive influence in Amritsar's rural belt) forming a new party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Taksali)
- The BJP's Amritsar unit is a divided house. Former state minister Anil Joshi and the party's state chief, Shwait Malik (both are from Amritsar), don't see eye to eye.
- Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has positioned himself as a nationalist.
- Sidhu, who left the BJP on a bitter note, is an MLA from Amritsar Central
- Puri has less than a month for campaigning.
However, not all is lost for Puri. Here are the things that may help him.
- Puri is a turbaned Sikh and can switch from English to Punjabi with ease. However, he is an urban Sikh and the constituency is dominated by Jat Sikhs. To win, he will have to rely on urban Hindu voters and the SAD's Panthic votes.
- His image of being sensitive to the 1984 riot victims is a bonus.
- There is a strong nationalist sentiment, especially in border areas.
- Unlike 2014, when the SAD-BJP combine was facing anti-incumbency, this time, the sentiment is building up against the Congress MLAs
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi's image can work in favour of Puri
- Bollywood star Sunny Deol is contesting from the neighbouring Gurdaspur district
- Puri has friends across party lines (including some Congress leaders in Punjab and Amritsar).
- The Congress is not a united house. Various sitting MLAs are not happy with Aujla
- Amritsar is going to polls in the last phase. A sense that the Modi-led NDA is winning might work in Puri's favour
- With friends like former MP Harinder Khalsa and H.S. Phoolka agreeing to help him, Puri can build a new team in a short time.