A one-time protege has emerged as a serious contender against Union minister Preneet Kaur of Congress as she eyes a fourth straight term from this seat where she has in past beaten heavyweight political opponents fielded by the rival Shiromani Akali Dal.
In the fray against her this time as a SAD candidate is her former aide Deepinder Singh Dhillon, who turned rebel ahead of the 2012 Assembly polls after being denied a Congress ticket from the Dera Bassi seat. In the past three Lok Sabha elections, Preneet, the Union minister of state for external affairs, has trounced three SAD stalwarts from here -- Kanwaljit Singh, Prem Singh Chandumajra and Surjit Singh Rakhra.
Despite pitting heavyweights against her, the Akalis have failed to reduce even their candidates' margins of defeat against Kaur, which grew to cross one lakh votes in the 2009 elections, when she trounced Chandumajra. The 69-year-old Kaur, wife of Patiala royal Amarinder Singh, is striving to defend her family's bastion here even as her husband focuses on winning the Amritsar seat on a Congress ticket against BJP's Arun Jaitley. For his part, 53-year-old Dhillon can count on his strong support base in the Dera Bassi and Rajpura areas as he looks to inflict an electoral defeat on his former mentor.
Seen as a non-controversial personality, Dhillon enjoys a good rapport with Congress and Akalis units in this area. He would also hope that the absence of Preneet's husband and Sadhu Singh Dharamsot -- the local MLAs for Patiala city and Nabha, respectively, who are busy campaigning in their Lok Sabha seats -- would work to his advantage in the fight against Kaur. Dharamsot is contesting from Fatehgarh Sahib. Dhillon is seen as being a candidate who can make the going difficult for Preneet given that he knows the 'ins and outs' of the Congress party in Punjab and could manage to bring in more Congress members into the SAD fold. Besides, he has strong backing of state revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, who brought him into SAD.
Dhillon claims that "she (Preneet) has remained MP for 15 years but has not done anything for the constituency... She failed to bring any major projects." Adding a twist to the contest for the Patiala seat is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) with pundits saying that the fledgling outfit may be in a position to affect the vote shares of both Congress and the SAD-BJP alliance. AAP has fielded noted cardiologist Dharamvira Gandhi (63) for the seat. Gandhi is also well known as a social activist in this part of the Malwa region of Punjab.
A good showing by AAP in the urban centres will set the alarm bells ringing for Congress while a strong performance in the rural areas could pose problems for SAD-BJP. "It's a fight of political ideologies rather than of political parties and leaders," says Gandhi, adding that, "Corrupt practices of politicians have reduced people to vote banks... My democratic and secular credentials are most important for me and my supporters." Much before his foray into mainstream politics, Gandhi had been working with issues concerning migrant labourers, Dalits and poor farmers in the past four decades.
Patiala, an education and agro-machine industry hub, has remained a stronghold of Congress for the past 15 years. Poor civic amenities are among the most pressing issues that can influence the voting here and now a blame game seems to be underway between Congress and SAD over the lopsided development in Patiala. Apart from amenities, other election issues include Ghaggar river floods, poor infrastructure, unemployment and drug addiction. Preneet has charged that "everything we try to bring to our constituency is shifted to Bathinda by the (Parkash) Badal government". Chief Minister Badal's daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur is seeking re-election from the Bathinda Lok Sabha seat.
The Patiala Lok Sabha seat, which is made up of nine assembly segments, has a total of 15,73,687 voters of which 7,44,221 are women. Voting here will be held along with the rest of the seats in Punjab on April 30.