Akali-BJP alliance under pressure (Poll Curtainraiser - Punjab)

May 12th, 2009 - 2:53 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Chandigarh, May 12 (IANS) Two days of rallies by top national leaders in Punjab may have generated renewed voters’ interest in Lok Sabha elections but whether it will affect Wednesday’s poll for nine parliamentary seats remains to be seen. The main political parties in the fray - the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance and the opposition Congress - are keeping their fingers crossed.
The pressure is more on the Akali-BJP alliance for which the election is a test of their two years of governance. What is also at stake is their prestige to repeat the performance of the 2004 general elections.

In the previous parliamentary poll, the alliance had won 11 out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state. At that time, a Congress government was in power in the state.

Though no one is giving even an outside chance to the alliance to win 11 seats this time, the Akalis, led by their new and youngest-ever president Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is also deputy chief minister of Punjab, have left no stone unturned.

The successful rally by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which the BJP and the Akalis are important components, in Ludhiana Sunday has given a boost to the state leadership but it is unclear to what extent that will convert into votes.

BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, president Rajnath Singh, eight chief ministers and top leaders of NDA allies attended the rally.

The Congress followed that up Monday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staying put in Punjab for the entire day and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally with him in Amritsar.

These rallies by national leaders took the focus of the Punjab election away from the Bathinda parliamentary seat.

Bathinda, which went to polls with three other Lok Sabha constituencies, dominated political proceedings till its election was held May 7.

The stakes were high on the Bathinda seat as Punjab’s biggest political families - the Badals (ruling Akali Dal led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal) and the erstwhile Patiala royals (of the Congress led by former chief minister Amarinder Singh).

Sukhbir Badal’s wife Harsimrat Kaur was pitted against Amarinder Singh’s son Raninder Singh for this seat.

The first phase of polling last week saw high voting percentage at 73.5 percent. Bathinda recorded nearly 79 percent voting.

Among the nine seats that go to polls Wednesday, the high-profile election is for the Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Ludhiana and Jalandhar seats. In all, 139 candidates are in fray for these nine seats.

In Amritsar constituency, cricketer-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu is seeking re-election for the third time on a BJP ticket. Pitted against him is former popular mayor of the holy city, Om Prakash Soni of the Congress.

Sidhu, who won the seat for the first time in the 2004 general elections, had a victory margin of nearly 110,000 votes against Congress stalwart Raghunandan Lal Bhatia.

Forced to resign his Lok Sabha seat following his conviction in a culpable homicide case by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Sidhu got re-elected from this seat in February 2007.

The chirpy Sidhu faces a tough contest from Soni this time and given his love-hate relationship with Akali Dal leaders, especially Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia, things are not going to be easy for him.

In the adjoining Gurdaspur seat, one of the most backward areas of Punjab that borders Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, actor Vinod Khanna of the BJP faces a tough contest from former minister Pratap Singh Bajwa. Khanna won the Gurdaspur seat in 1998, 1999 and 2004.

In the new constituency of Khadoor Sahib, billionaire industrialist and Congress candidate Rana Gurjit Singh faces Rattan Singh Ajnala of the Akali Dal. Rana is the sitting MP from Jalandhar but the seat was reserved following delimitation.

In Jalandhar, the Akali Dal has fielded Sufi and Bhangra-pop singer Hans Raj Hans against Mohinder Singh Kaypee of the Congress. Hans is unlikely to sing his way to parliament with ease.

In neighbouring Hoshiarpur (reserved) seat, former MP Santosh Chaudhary of the Congress is contesting against former bureaucrat Som Prakash of the BJP.

Another high-profile election in Punjab is for the Ludhiana seat where national spokesman of the Congress, Manish Tewari, fights it out with G.S. Galib of the Akali Dal. Galib joined the Akalis only recently after being with the Congress for nearly five decades.

Deputy Speaker of the outgoing Lok Sabha, Charanjit Singh Atwal of the Akali Dal, is in a new seat, Fatehgarh Sahib (reserved), but faces old colleague Sukhdev Singh Libra. Libra, who cross-voted in the July 22 vote of confidence in favour of the Manmohan Singh government, has been fielded by the Congress.

In the 2004 general elections, 61.6 percent of Punjab’s electorate had voted. This time, there are over 16.8 million voters and polling is expected to be higher.

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