If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah’s ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India) campaign has hit a wall in any state, it is definitely Punjab.
The unprecedented victory of the Congress, by over 1.93 lakh votes, over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat by-election, the result of which was declared on Sunday, has certainly put another spanner in the BJP bandwagon’s wheel.
The Congress, which achieved an emphatic win in the February Punjab assembly elections and returned to power after a gap of 10 years, has again shown — through its big win in Gurdaspur — that it can counter the BJP’s political offensive.
After the assembly and now Gurdaspur loss, the BJP might try to get away by saying that it is a smaller player in an alliance with the dominant Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab but it will not cut much ice.
The BJP had won the Gurdaspur seat in 2014 general election by a big margin of over 1.36 lakh votes. Veteran actor Vinod Khanna, who remained the MP from this seat four times, won the last election.
The by-election, necessitated by Khanna’s death in April due to cancer, was not only a test for the Modi government, which has been in office for over three years, but also the nearly seven-month-old Congress government in Punjab led by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.
Amarinder Singh, who bet on Punjab Congress President Sunil Jakhar — a rank outsider — in Gurdaspur, much to the annoyance of Congress leader from Gurdaspur district and Rajya Sabha MP Pratap Singh Bajwa, saw that the Congress candidate sailed through comfortably in the bypoll.
Jakhar, a soft-spoken and suave politician who is son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, had to rely heavily on Congress legislators, leadership and workers in Gurdaspur and Pathankot districts to pull off the win.
The BJP, on the other hand, chose Mumbai-based millionaire businessman Swarn Salaria as its candidate, ignoring the claim of Khanna’s widow Kavita Khanna, who worked in the constituency during Khanna’s absence.
Salaria, who has a controversial past, could not woo the voters even in the name of Prime Minister Modi or with his claim to being a “local” in Gurdaspur.
The Aam Aadmi Party, the main opposition party in the Punjab assembly, ended up with much embarrassment as its candidate Major General S.K. Khajuria (retd) lost his security deposit.
The BJP will soon have to figure out whether it would want to continue playing second fiddle to the Akalis in Punjab or strengthen its own base. Its present state leadership certainly needs an overhaul — given the fact that none of the leaders have a statewide appeal.