The clash of titans in the holy city of Amritsar between a battle-scarred veteran fighting for his political survival and a high-profile leader going through a baptism by fire is all set to go to the wire in the April 30 Lok Sabha elections in Punjab.
Cynosure of all eyes, Amritsar is witness to an extra- ordinary battle of ballot in which 72-year-old Capt Amarinder Singh of the Congress is taking on BJP's Arun Jaitley, 11 years younger to him. For Jaitley, who is fighting his maiden direct election and is tipped for a bigger role in Delhi if his party is voted to power, may not have anticipated a tough contest that Amritsar has turned out to be against the backdrop of anti- incumbency due to seven years SAD-BJP government's rule and the "performance" of outgoing MP Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Even the Congress which is facing a major anti-incumbency nation-wide must be elated about reports that its position was not all that bad in Punjab where the fielding of the former Chief Minister here and several other top leaders elsewhere has turned out to be a shot in its arm. However, it is not just a high-stakes game for Jaitley and Singh but a prestige fight for Punjab's ruling Badal family on whose electoral management skills the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha chose this constituency for his election debut. The ruling SAD has thrown its entire weight behind Jaitley with Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal personally evincing interest in his poll campaign. He even predicted that Jaitley would be deputy Prime Minister in the Narendra Modi government, much to the embarrassment of the BJP leader who shrugged off the comments saying it reflected Badal's affection for him.
For Amarinder, a victory here will reassert his supremacy in the Congress as he can stage a comeback in the party after being ousted as its head in the state following two successive defeats in the Assembly elections in 2007 and 2012. Amarinder, who was not very keen on entering the battle, could not turn down Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's request to take on Jaitley, an eminent Delhi-based lawyer and a BJP strategist close to Modi.
Ever since the campaign began, the two are locked in a no-holds-barred barbs against each other, with Amarinder even sniping at Jaitley buying a house in the holy city. The election has turned out to be a fight for the legacy as to why is the real son of the soil -- a non-resident Punjabi or an erstwhile royal from Patiala. Amarinder calls Jaitley an "outsider", a "pseudo Punjabi" and "good for nothing" lawyer who will return to the Capital after the elections. However, Jaitley is not pulling any punches though his attacks are more subtle. In this big clash, while local issues have been relegated to the background those that have emerged include the opening of cross-border trade, making Amritsar a world-class tourist destination and an industrial hub.
Sikhs constitute 65% of the voters in Amritsar. Hindus make up the remaining 35% and are concentrated in the urban pocket.
Akalis have a strong presence among the Jat Sikh farmers in rural areas in Amritsar region. Amarinder, a Sikh himself, is banking upon his community. He is targeting the aspirational Punjabi talking of developing Amritsar as a tourist hub, fighting rampant drug addiction and addressing problems of farmers having land in the tricky border area.
However, Akalis are projecting Jaitley as a local boy, as a possible deputy PM or a finance minister after the polls. He is someone who could bring prosperity to not just Amritsar but the whole of Punjab, Akalis claim. Amarinder is banking on the anti-incumbency factor. The Akalis have been in power for seven years and this is said to be a drag on Jaitley.
An old resident of the Holy city says, Amarinder has better understanding of the region's agrarian society and economy rather than Jaitley who depends upon Akalis to figure out what works with the rural folks.
Voters in Amritsar are upset with the state government burdening them with property tax. However, Jaitley explains that it was the Amarinder government which had first signed MoU with the Centre on property tax as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Amarinder is also fighting a war against Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia who is campaign incharge of Jaitley.
Ever since his candidature had been announced, Amarinder had launched an offensive against Majithia accusing him of "criminalisation of politics". He also takes on Majithia for "monopolising" sand business.
Amarinder assures the voters that the next Congress government in Punjab would de-regulate sand quarrying.
Accusing the Badal family and Bikram Singh Majithia of "patronising" drug trade, Amarinder cites example of Maqboolpura in Amritsar which is known as a village of 'chitti chunni' (white dupattas) symbolizing widowhood with about 90% men dead due to drug addiction.
"Majithia is behind drug addiction and drug trading," Amarinder alleges.
However, Majithia says, "These are politically motivated statements. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has already dismissed the petition filed by Congress leaders against me. "On the contrary the recovery of drugs under the SAD-BJP government is the highest," he alleges.
However, Badal blames the Centre for the rise in drug smuggling in Punjab and claims the state government had initiated stringent measures to curb drug smuggling. It's a tough battle for Jaitley who is ace strategist in BJP. He tries hard selling his dream plan to end Amritsar's woes, including unemployment, broken roads, lack of proper street lights, traffic jams and dealing with the drug menace.
Jaitley's decision to buy a house in Amritsar is to drive home the point that he is here to stay after the polls. The BJP stalwart delivers his speech in chaste Punjabi and doesn't forget to mention that Amritsar was the home of his maternal grandparents.
Aiding Jaitley is his wife Sangeeta, whose parents belong to Amritsar, and daughter Sonali.To boost Jaitley's campaign, dozens of friends and well wishers from Delhi have descended to help out as. Making the outcome of contest more difficult to predict is the presence of AAP candidate Daljit Singh, an 80-year-old eminent eye surgeon who pioneered lens implant surgery in North India.
Singh may not win but he will cut into vote share of the two main contestants. Amarinder also rakes up the issue of Punjab farmers being allegedly forcibly evicted in Kutch region of Gujarat. "Jaitley owes an answer to this. He has been a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat for the past 14 years," he said.
Jaitley responds by saying that Narendra Modi had already stated that no Punjab farmer in Kutch will be evicted. Both the Congress and BJP have had their share of success in the seat with Congress' RL Bhatia winning the seat five times from 1980.
BJP has won it four times. Sidhu held the seat from 2004, but the victory margin of the cricketer-turned-politician at the last hustings was just 6,868 votes. Out of the four rural assembly seats in Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency, three are represented by the SAD. There are five Assembly segments in the urban areas, out of which three are with the SAD-BJP and two with the Congress.
The total electors in Amritsar seat are 17.90 lakh, including 8.48 lakh women and 37,268 first time voters.