Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race

Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race

Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race
Photo Credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP
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It was being seen as a semi-final, an acid test for the main contenders before the Punjab assembly elections next year. But the Khadoor Sahib assembly bypoll is now turning out to be a damp squib, with two of the three major parties pulling out of the contest.

While the outcome of the February 13 by-election would not have necessarily served as a bellweather for next year’s state elections, the emergence of a virtual one-horse race has killed the possibility of a cracking contest in what was once the hotbed of militancy.

The Aam Aadmi Party had declared well in advance that it would not contest the election. The party has not contested a single bypoll since its surprise victory in four Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 general elections. Instead, it has devoted itself to meticulously preparing for the 2017 Punjab polls.

The Congress, the state’s main opposition party, was toying with idea of fielding a candidate in Khadoor Sahib till the eleventh hour. But the party, currently in resurgence mode since former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh took charge of its state unit, eventually decided to pull out.

Although there are seven Independents in the fray, a candidate fielded by coalition partners – the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – should saunter to victory virtually unopposed.

Divided house

The by-election was necessitated by the resignation of the Congress legislator Ramanjit Singh Sikki in October. His decision was prompted by a series of incidents of the Sikh holy book being desecrated as torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found at several places. There were widespread protests and in one incident, two protesters were killed in police firing. Sikki had resigned to demand the arrest of the culprits and action against police personnel who had opened fire on protesters.

The Congress has now cited the same grounds for not fielding a candidate in the bypoll. Party leaders tried to convince Sikki to contest, but his reluctance and the absence of a strong alternative candidate forced the decision to pull out. There was even a suggestion that one of those injured in the police firing last October could be made a candidate, but the proposal was shot down.

The party remains split over the final decision. Some leaders, including former MP and a member of the national executive of the party, Jagmeet Singh Brar, said the party was “running away” from the contest and said the decision was a “fraud”. Some feel the move will demoralise party workers, while others think it was for the best as the Congress was almost sure to lose the by-election – a result that would have cast a shadow on its prospects in the assembly elections next year.

A major factor in the decision not to field a candidate was apparently advice from Prashant Kishor, the political strategist who engineered the Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar last year and is now an advisor to chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Although the Congress is yet to entrust him with its 2017 campaign in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh has been in touch with Kishor in his “personal capacity”. Kishor is said to have conducted a study and advised Amarinder against contesting the bypoll. Kishor is believed to have already commissioned a team to study the Congress’ prospects in the next assembly elections and to prepare a strategy for the party.

With a virtual walkover on the cards for the Khadoor Sahib bypoll, the only remaining point of interest is the voter turnout. Congress’ Sikki has asked voters to boycott the election, while AAP seems indifferent. For the Akali Dal, which is facing anti-incumbency, a low turnout would be a setback. With this in mind, it has entrusted every group of five villages to a minister or legislator for the purpose of reeling in voters. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party meanwhile will be hoping that many voters hit the None Of The Above button.

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