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Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll is acid test for Congress, BJP

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The Gurdaspur seat was held by SAD-BJP alliance and the bypoll is a test of popularity for the ruling parties in the Centre and the state.

The Lok Sabha bypoll in Gurdaspur, Punjab, scheduled for 11 October is a three-cornered contest involving the BJP, Congress and AAP but the stakes are seen to be higher for the ruling parties at the Centre and in the state.

The seat was held by the SAD-BJP alliance and the bypoll was necessitated following the demise of Bollywood actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna in April.

For the Congress that came to power in Punjab with a thumping majority this year, this is its first big test to know if the electorate is still with it. The party has fielded state unit chief Sunil Jakhar, whose home turf is Abohar. The son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, Sunil is known for his honesty, forthrightness and an intellectual bent.

This election is important for Jakhar’s political career as well. He remained leader of the opposition for several years during the SAD-BJP rule. However, he lost Abohar in the assembly polls. Although appointed party chief, his real contribution lay in his gravitas, making assembly debates meaningful.

What goes against Jakhar — and is something the opposition is harping on — is the tag of being an outsider. He has never contested an election in Gurdaspur, which is a key seat in the Majha region. The electorate is used to voting for the same person again and again and familiarity is a big factor.

Adding to Jakhar’s woes is infighting in the Congress. The Bajwa family, led by Partap Singh, former party chief and Gurdaspur MP who is now a Rajya Sabha member, dominates some important pockets. His brother Fatehjung Singh Bajwa is the MLA of Qadian, the family home turf. This seat was held by Partap’s wife Charanjit Kaur in the last assembly and he wanted the Lok Sabha ticket for her. It will not be easy for chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to rein in Bajwa, his bête noire, and make him work for Jakhar. Bajwa and his wife were absent when Jakhar filed his nomination papers Thursday.

Also read: Gurdaspur bypoll a challenge for CM Amarinder Singh

The SAD-BJP alliance has fielded Swaran Salaria, a moneybags — he has assets worth over Rs 570 crore — who has been entrenched in Gurdaspur politics for many years. He was chosen over Kavita Khanna, Vinod Khanna’s widow.

Salaria is from Chauhan village in the Bhoa assembly segment and is a well-known face in Gurdaspur. He had been waiting in the wings since 2009 when Khanna was chosen over him. He had joined the Congress in protest, but returned to the BJP. He was again hopeful of getting the ticket in 2014, but despite the strong backing of yoga guru Ramdev, he didn’t make the cut.

Salaria openly protested against the decision and announced he would contest as an independent candidate. However, the party managed to placate him. Salaria is a member of BJP’s national executive committee and served as the head of the Punjab State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Salaria runs a medical college and hospital in Pathankot, besides owning a security agency. He was mired in controversy in Mumbai in 2014 when a woman levelled allegations of rape against him, saying he had been living with her for over two decades after promising to marry her. The matter was later resolved.

Making the contest a three-cornered one is Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Maj. Gen. Suresh Khajuria (retd). AAP had come a cropper in the assembly polls in Gurdaspur. Congress won seven of the nine assembly seats that make up the Lok Sabha constituency, while two went to SAD-BJP alliance.

Currently the main opposition party in the assembly, AAP has not been able to revive the attention it received in the run-up to the assembly polls. Khajuria belongs to Pathankot and served in the Army for 40 years. He was the party’s chief in Gurdaspur.

Gurdaspur used to be a Congress stronghold with two names, Prabodh Chandra and Sukhbans Kaur, dominating local politics for over three decades. BJP’s Vinod Khanna, however, proved to be Sukhbans Kaur’s nemesis in 1998. He brought her 20-year hold over the seat to an end.

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