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BJP looks to rebuild its Amritsar bond

By Vinod Sharma
May 27, 2024 12:57 AM IST

What makes Amritsar difficult for the Bharatiya Janata Party?

What makes Amritsar difficult for the Bharatiya Janata Party? The city that’s home to the Golden Temple has made it a habit of rejecting some of the best talent the party has had on offer since 2014.

BJP candidate from Amritsar seat, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, with external affairs minister S Jaishankar in the city on May 10. (ANI)
BJP candidate from Amritsar seat, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, with external affairs minister S Jaishankar in the city on May 10. (ANI)

The late Arun Jaitley, arguably, the BJP’s most gifted parliamentarian, legal mind and political strategist in Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister failed to pass muster in Amritsar even in the wave election that swept his party to power. He rose to be the finance minister in the new government at the Centre.

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The winner then was Capt. Amarinder Singh who became the Congress’s deputy leader in Parliament’s Lower House Jaitley couldn’t enter. More interested in his party’s captaincy in Punjab, the scion of the Patiala royalty quit the Lok Sabha midway through to return to state politics. He became chief minister in 2017.

The Captain’s exit necessitated the by-election won by a Congress dark horse, Gurjeet Aujla, the incumbent trying now for a third term. In 2019 Aujla defeated another accomplished BJP nominee, Hardeep Singh Puri. A former diplomat, Puri is now a minister of considerable gravitas in Delhi.

Not surprising that on the eve of another election, many Ambarsarias ask in half-zest whether not getting their mandate was a ‘blessing in disguise’ for BJP leaders. They introspect as much whether the “smart” choices they made were plain stupid, more so because the Captain, their 2014 darling, not only deserted them but has since joined the BJP.

The quandary gnaws. Despite figuring in a list of 27 (potential) smart cities the Centre cherry-picked in 2016, Amritsar has scant signs of the infrastructure it requires to make the grade. The irony is only compounded by the fact that Hardeep Puri, the suitor they spurned five years ago, holds the urban affairs portfolio in Modi’s second regime.

“Had he been our MP, imagine the kind of attention we’d have received as a historical city,” asked Dharampal, a local teacher associated with the BJP. He’s convinced Amritsar was second time unlucky in 2019.

The retrospective wisdom is correctly harboured. Had he won, Jaitley, a foodie who loved feting friends in Delhi over delicacies flown in from Amritsar, would’ve been a greater godsend for the city known for its culinary delights and potential for religious tourism. Besides, it’s a round-the-year destination of thousands of people from across India for the colourful Beating Retreat ceremony at the India-Pak Attari-Wagah border.

One can safely assume Amritsar would’ve gone with Jaitley but for the Captain’s last minute candidature. Currently aligned with the BJP after a bitter parting with the Congress, he was a late entrant in the contest at Sonia Gandhi’s personal intervention. That made the election difficult for the BJP leader.

What tilted the scales in the Congress’s favour was Amarinder Singh’s royal charisma and the word attributed to the Sikh clergy: “Sikhan da maharaja Harmandar di nagri to harna nahi chahida (the Sikh Maharaja shouldn’t be defeated in the city of Harmandar Sahab (Golden Temple)).” At work simultaneously was palpable sympathy for the then sitting BJP MP, Navjot Sidhu who, many felt, was wrongly discarded to adjust Jaitley.

Also hailing from Patiala, the former cricketer made things worse by going into a sulk and keeping away from the campaign. The city hung up on the Patiala duo, Jaitley’s love for Amritsar stayed unrequited.

Decent man in a difficult fight

Albeit for other reasons, history may get repeated in the constituency where again the BJP has fielded a debutante celeb: former Indian envoy to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu. The superannuated (Foreign Service) officer with a stellar record is also the grandson of Teja Singh Samundri, an iconic figure of the gurdwara reform movement of the 1920s that forced the British to hand over control of major Sikh shrines to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committe (SGPC).

In a telegram to Baba Kharak Singh, the then SGPC president, Mahatma Gandhi had written: “First battle for India’s freedom won. Congratulations.” Now that’s no ordinary legacy or lineage for a person seeking popular endorsement.

If not the village folks, Sandhu’s curriculum vitae does make the better informed city electorate stop in their tracks to take note. As a local industrialist Sanjeev Kandhari explained: “Family ties apart, Sandhu is an honest, learned man for whom I’m inclined to vote to ensure a better future for Amritsar and a stable (BJP) regime at the Centre.”

The counterview propounded by his rivals such as the Congress’s Aujla is, the former diplomat contesting under the BJP flag hasn’t been true to his family legacy which met with the Mahatma’s praise. For his part, the former Ambassador--who goes around campaigning with a Sandhu-Samundari surname-- negates such propaganda with the averment: the Akali Dal-driven SGPC of today isn’t the embodiment of values for which is grandfather fought.

Closer to the reality that lies in the middle is the stock public response to Sandhu’s prospects: “a decent man in a difficult fight.” The anger against the BJP in the Punjab countryside has impeded his outreach in the constituency’s four rural segments: Attari, Rajasansi, Majitha and Ajnala. Even in Amritsar’s five urban seats, he faces strong competition from a former BJP MLA and state minister, Anil Joshi who is in the fray on the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) ticket.

“Joshi’s popular. The votes he gets will be out of Sandhu’s kitty,” forecast a shopkeeper in the marketplace of Majitha. He felt the defection of a close aide of SAD strongman Bikram Majitha to the Aam Aadmi Party, would somewhat hurt Joshi’s prospects in the segment where he’d have otherwise done much better.

There are fears also of internal sabotage in the AAP and the Congress camps where important local players are working against their candidates--- state minister Kuldip Singh Dhaliwal and Aujla. On paper, the fight’s quadrangular between the Congress-AAP-SAD-BJP. The BJP’s “weak” challenge, however, makes city-based journalists perceive the contest triangular.

Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi have already done separate road shows in favour of their candidates. Strangely, Amarinder Singh hasn’t canvassed for the BJP. “He’s stated to be unwell,” informed an aide of Sandhu. The only significant BJP arrival from Delhi has been of external affairs minister Jaishankar. Also slated to join the campaign is BJP president JP Nadda.

Residents predict a party and personality based vote. The Ram temple isn’t a major factor with the Hindus in the manner the Potemkin village-type sprucing up of approach roads to the Golden Temple hadn’t fetched the SAD any extra electoral heft in previous elections.

In fact, the Akali-bid to claim credit for the beatification had angered the Sikh fellowship (sangat). They considered it all to have been achieved not by human effort but the “will and blessings” of the fourth Guru, Ramdas (1534-1581) who had founded and built Amritsar.

The question that nevertheless begs an answer is: can Sandhu rebuild with Amritsar his party’s bond that broke in 2014? The jury’s out still. The climb ahead is steeper.

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