In any other election, under different circumstances, actor Sunny Deol’s victory from Punjab’s Gurdaspur constituency could have been safely assumed. The constituency, which is just about 10 km from the international border, is tailor-made for the actor whose defining screen persona is of a fearless patriot who vanquished Pakistan in many battles, sometimes single-handedly, sometimes as leader of a company of the Indian army.
The BJP, which has paradropped him into Gurdaspur, is contesting the 2019 election on nationalism, security and terrorism. Theoretically, these issues should have been central to the lives of people in this border town with a history of recent terror attacks — Pathankot is part of the constituency. And its electorate should have been gung-ho about the prospects of sending a hero with established on-screen machismo to parliament.
Unfortunately for the BJP, even in a made-to-win constituency, in spite of the presence of a star who fits the caste-community equations — Deol is a Jat Sikh — and the boasts and claims of cross-border strikes, the party is struggling in Gurdaspur. And Deol is being made to fight for every vote by the Congress.
Gurdaspur, quintessentially, sums up Punjab’s mood for you. This year, it is decidedly pro-Congress, anti-war and has very little time for rhetoric on Balakot and surgical strikes — like the BJP candidate himself who candidly admitted on TV that he didn’t know anything about them.
Why Punjab is voting for Congress
Former Punjab chief minister and Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal has a favourite campaign line: ‘Jo Angreza ne nahin kitta, jo Mughalan ne nahin kitta, wo zulm Congress kar ditta (Congress committed atrocities even the Mughals and the British spared us). He then recounts the 1966 trifurcation of Punjab, Operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots as blots on the Congress.
Yet, the Congress has been a force to reckon with in Punjab. In 1984, it was the only state where the Congress won a respectable number of seats in all of north India. And in 2017, it bucked the nationwide trend and elected the Congress in assembly polls.
The Congress has managed to survive and become the dominant party because of two reasons: popularity of its leader Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP’s over-reliance on the Akalis, whose political fate decides the fortune of its ally too.
In 2017, the Congress ran its campaign with the tagline, ‘Punjab da Captain.’ In 2019, Captain is still the face of the party and, perhaps, the only Congress leader who doesn’t need the Gandhis to swing an election.
Singh has run a steady government over the past two years and has countered the BJP’s ‘nationalism’ pitch by projecting himself as a bigger patriot and supporter of the Indian security forces, whose cross-border strikes and air raids he has publicly hailed. By deploying his own army background, he has effectively neutralised the BJP’s slogans and emotive calls for a safer India.
The Akalis, simultaneously, have disintegrated. In the 2017 elections, the SAD-BJP won just 15 seats in the 117-member state assembly. Its vote share fell by 9.43% to just a fourth of the total electorate. Since then, the Akali Dal has seen many divisions and dissenters, leading to formation of rival groups.
The decline of the Akalis has coincided with the implosion of the AAP, which had won 20 seats in the Assembly polls with 23.80% votes. This vote is now up for grabs as the AAP has been reduced to a rump with its candidate being in the race only in Sangrur. By most accounts, a majority of this vote will shift to the Congress, giving it more political ballast in this round of elections.
Riots vs Sacrilege
Pushed in a corner, the SAD-BJP alliance is trying its best to remind Punjab’s voters of the 1984 riots that followed former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Analysts in Punjab believe this is a ploy to divert attention from incidents of sacrilege towards Guru Granth Sahib that took place under the previous Akali government. In 2015, the sacred book of the Sikhs was desecrated in several places, leading to several protests. Many within the community hold the Akali government responsible for the incidents. Since memories of the sacrilege are still fresh, the SAD-BJP is hoping that by raking up 1984, it will get a weapon to counter attack the Congress.
The Congress, too, is playing the same game. It is consistently reminding voters in Punjab of the incident and the alleged complicity of the Akalis in it. To press home the point, Rahul Gandhi is scheduled to address a public meeting in Bargari. On October 12, 2015, the first incident of desecration was reported from Bargari in Faridkot district. The next morning, two Sikhs were killed in police firing on protesters.
Who will win this ‘riots vs sacrilege’ battle would be known only on May 23.
Oblivious of all this, on the campaign trail Deol is keeping it simple. He doesn’t talk about Pakistan, nationalism, terror, 1984, sacrilege or terror. Every morning and evening, his caravan zips through the constituency. When it stops, Deol emerges from his vehicle and regales the crowds with speeches that are laced with dialogue from his films. His favourite is “ye dhai kilo ka haath jab uthta hai, tab aadmi uthta nahin uth jaata hai (when I raise this heavy fist, the victim doesn’t get up but dies) from the film Damini — and his promises are only about development and justice.
On the border, Deol is the hero of the act. And Modi, the man occupying centre-stage and delivering punchlines everywhere else — is cast just as an extra. That’s basically Punjab for you.