Former Indian Ambassador to UN for parliament seat in Amritsar

They’ve earlier feted the likes of Vinod Khanna and Navjot Sidhu. One was the superstar of the 1970s and 1980s; the other put to good use his quick wit and cricketing celebrity to build an enviable career on TV.

Navjot Sidhu,celebrity battle,Gurdaspur

Matinee idols are easily idolised in small towns across the country; the border districts of Gurdaspur and Amritsar are no exception. They’ve earlier feted the likes of Vinod Khanna and Navjot Sidhu. One was the superstar of the 1970s and 1980s; the other put to good use his quick wit and cricketing celebrity to build an enviable career on TV.

In a sense, history is repeating itself in Gurdaspur. Can Sunny Deol fill the vacuum caused by Khanna’s death? The latter was his father Dharmendra’s peer in Bollywood. He’s equally fondly remembered in the constituency that elected him four times between 1998 and 2014.

Just as he campaigned for his wife, Hema Malini, in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, Dharmendra has canvassed for his son in Gurdaspur. If they pull it off, the Deols will emulate filmdom’s Dutts who, too, had three in the family making it to Parliament: Nargis, Sunil Dutt and their daughter, Priya. To counter the on-screen machismo of the father-son team that galvanises a section of boisterous, young voters, the Congress fielded its most charismatic face, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Her May 14 Pathankot roadshow for sitting MP, Sunil Jhakhar, was a runaway hit.

Such spectacles can’t be game changers. But they invigorate disheartened party workers. By most accounts, local Congressmen got the badly-needed morale boosting from the crowds Priyanka Gandhi drew in the traditionally pro-BJP town of traders. The tide had turned also in the 2017 assembly polls when they chose the Congress’s first-time bidder, Amit Vij. In that backdrop, the party’s hopes soared when the crowds roared to endorse Priyanka’s exhortations to choose a neta (leader) over an abhineta (actor).

The rival pitch for the seat is guided by interesting narratives. To take the sheen off Deol’s promises, the Congress rewinds to recall Dharmendra’s forgettable stint as an MP from Bikaner; the BJP responds by showcasing Khanna’s blue-chip record as evidence that actors can be serious politicians. To channelise Khanna’s legacy in its favour, the saffron party made the late actor’s wife, Kavita, praise Deol while sharing the stage with BJP chief, Amit Shah, at a meeting.

So much so, that Deol’s election office in Pathankot is in the bungalow associated with Khanna. A portrait of the late actor adorns the living room of “Syal House” where the actor often camped. His bedroom there is used now by visiting party leaders. When I went calling, I found a clutch of party workers in a huddle there with the BJP MP from Sikar, Sumedhanand Saraswati. For some reason, the place lacked the buzz, the electric air one associates with elections.

Deol himself stays at a farmhouse near Gurdaspur; his campaign is controlled from Delhi through select interfaces. That could be his way of making up for the lack of the BJP-Akali combine’s legislative presence in the constituency where they’ve just two MLAs compared to the Congress’s seven.

No surprises then that Jhakhar’s hopes ride on the influence of party legislators, three of whom are ministers. They all are under strict instructions from chief minister, Amarinder Singh, to ensure the Congress’s lead in their assembly segments. After Priyanka Gandhi’s push, the strategy is to mobilise voters through sarpanchs and panchayats under the party’s control. A roadblock in their way could be the creeping anti-incumbency against the MLAs and the government. Quite illustrative of that were the discordant voices heard at Fatehgarh Churian against Tripat Rajinder Singh Bawja, who is a minister.

“He passes this road each time he is here but hasn’t cared to have it relaid,” a dairy owner complained. Sounding more perceptive was a farmer, who commutes between the two districts: “The Congress’s prospects in Gurdarpur are similar to the BJP’s in Amritsar…”. His allusion was to the perceived uphill climbs of Jhakar and the BJP’s Hardeep Puri in Gurdaspur and Amritsar respectively. The former’s worries are over his adversary’s celebrity status, the latter is troubled by his scant familiarity with the local political milieu.

Hardeep Puri, former ambassador to UN, turned to politician and union minister for urban development,  is far more qualified than his opponent, the sitting Congress MP, Gurjeet Singh Aujla. His experience in urban affairs will help him serve better the constituency that’s home to the Golden Temple.

In the harsh universe of electoral politics, he’s handicapped by his sub-caste that had the mandate only once—in the 1998 win of Daya Singh Sodhi. Otherwise, Amritsar’s representatives were mostly from the Jat Sikh and Hindu Khatri communities.

Puri has sought to buttress his bid with strong, supportive campaigners: Amit Shah, Smriti Irani, Sunny Deol, Gautam Gambhir and Hans Raj Hans, who’s well known for his Sufi songs in Punjab.For his part, Aujla, like Jhakhar, won the seat in a bypoll. He has had no force-multiplication coming except a rally by Amarinder Singh midway through Amritsar and Khadoor Sahab. His trump card is his palpable ground connect in the seat where his party has eight MLAs. The sole Akali MLA from the area is Bikram Majithia who promised Puri a big lead from Majithia before heading to Bhatinda — where his sister Harsimrat Kaur Badal is a candidate. That won’t help Puri. Like the BJP’s former state minister, Anil Joshi, in the city area, Majithia has clout in the countryside. Having his undivided attention would’ve been a boon for Puri.

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