Punjab’s heartland, ironically, lies at its borders, a bitter legacy of Partition nearly 75 years ago. The historical Majha region, which includes the border districts of Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarn Taran, is also the ‘cradle’ of Sikhism. It is also electorally sensitive, sending 25 legislators to the 117-member state assembly.
There are two other divisions—the NRI belt of Doaba between rivers Beas and Satlej, and the Malwa south of the river Sutlej, but they are not as prosperous or culturally vibrant as the Majha region. But politicians from this region are becoming a headache for all five major political parties in Punjab ahead of the assembly election in February next year. Gurdaspur and Pathankot are Hindu dominated areas, along with the urban areas of Amritsar; rural Amritsar and Tarn Taran are dominated by the Panthic and Mazhabi Sikh voters.
Traditionally, the regional affinity goes beyond the Radcliffe Line, as the areas of Lahore and Seikhupura in Pakistan also have a similar culture, food and language dialects. This reflects in the politics of the region as well. The famous Kartarpur Corridor, which connects Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur with the resting place of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, opens up in the region. Most of the cross-border illegal/ terror-related activity like dropping of weapons through drones, drug trafficking etc. also happens in this region. Lack of development in the border areas, polarisation in the farmers’ agitation, the faltering economy, large-scale conversion of Dalit Sikhs by evangelical churches, abrogation of 370 and CAA, these are some of the concerns topping the agenda for political parties here. A look at how the parties plan to take on the challenge:
Three of the four rebel ministers, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa (Fatehgarh Churian, Gurdaspur), Sukjinder Randhawa (Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur) and Sukhbinder Sarkaria (Raja Sansi, Amritsar) along with chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s bete noire, Navjot Singh Sidhu (Amritsar East, Amritsar), come from the region (during the earlier happy days, the first three leaders were often referred to the as Majha Brigade of the Captain). The space vacated by these three leaders in the chief minister’s camp has been quickly taken over by Rajya Sabha MP, Pratap Singh Bajwa and his brother Fateh Jang Bajwa (Qadian, Gurdaspur). In the last assembly polls, the Congress swept the region, winning 22 out of 25 seats. The chief minister has already transferred Tript Rajinder Bajwa’s nephew from Hoshiarpur, where he was district police chief, to the less important Punjab Armed Police HQ in Jalandhar. Meanwhile, the state agencies have also reinitiated the investigation into several scams related to spurious seeds and illicit liquor. Last year, 127 people had died consuming moonshine in the region. The names of many of these rebel ministers and legislators have cropped up in these scams. The buzz is that in the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle, Amarinder is likely to drop two of these ministers and replace them with Raj Kumar Verka (Amritsar West, Amritsar) and Fateh Jung Bajwa.
Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)+ BSP
For SAD president Sukhbir Badal, brother-in-law Bikramjit Singh Majithia (Majitha, Amritsar) is now his most trusted lieutenant while sister Praneet Kaur and her husband Adesh Pratap Kairon (Patti, Tarn Taran) are sulking. Kairon (grandson of former chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon) is very keen to field his wife from Khemkaran in Tarn Taran district but Sukhbir has already declared that party oldtimer Virsa Singh Valtoha will be the party candidate there. Badal managed to bring back to the fold former MP Rattan Singh Ajnala and his two-time MLA son Amarpal Singh Bony last year. He is also trying to win over ex-MP from Khadoor Sahib (in Tarn Taran district) Ranjit Singh Brahmpura and his son Ravinder Brahmpura. The SAD has handed over Amritsar Central, Amritsar North, Pathankot, Sujanpur and Bhoa to the BSP. But it also inducted former BJP MLA Anil Joshi (Amritsar North) and prominent BJP leader Raj Kumar Gupta from Sujanpur. This has already created fissures among the new partners. The BSP still doesn’t have a clear strategy in place to contest their quota of seats.
Aam Aadmi Party
In August last week, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal travelled to Gurdaspur to induct former Akali Dal leader Sewa Singh Sekhwan. In 2017, AAP was hoping to make a major dent in this region along with a few districts of Malwa to get within striking range of forming a government. Their two leaders, Sucha Singh Chhotepur and comedian turned politician Gurpreet Singh Warriach worked hard to build the cadre. The party was also hoping for a groundswell, but it failed to attract the upper caste Hindu and Dalit vote and couldn’t open their account despite the hype. In all 25 seats, AAP candidates came a distant third. Now, with both Gurpreet and Sucha Singh out of the party, AAP is still working out an election strategy.
The Majha region is the BJP stronghold in the state. In its former alliance with SAD, it used to contest 8 out of 25 seats in the region and was equally dominating in 9 others, where it used to transfer their votes to ally SAD. Party state unit chief Ashwani Sharma comes from Pathankot. With the anti-incumbency against the Congress MLAs, failure of AAP to pick up in the region, and the internal dissent in the Akali Dal, the BJP strongly believes it can do well in the region. The farmers’ agitation has had an impact in some pockets of the region, but largely in Amritsar's rural areas and in Tarn Taran district.
The BJP has sacked two-time MLA and former minister Anil Joshi (Amritsar North) but has not been able to find an alternative after Navjot Sidhu’s exit. The cricketer turned neta, was three-time Lok Sabha MP from Amritsar and later was nominated as a Rajya Sabha MP. His wife Navjot Kaur used to be BJP’s MLA from Amritsar East, which Sidhu himself represents.
Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic)
The major chunk of the rebellion in the Akali Dal happened in the Majha unit. Senior leaders like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Sewa Singh Sekhwan and Rattan Singh Ajnala along with their sons walked out, first to form Akali Dal (Taksali) and later merged their entity with the Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa camp to form SAD (Democratic). AAP has already managed to take Sekhwan; Ajnala along with his son returned to Sukhbir’s faction of SAD. Ageing Brahmpura too is looking for a fair deal to either return to SAD or join AAP. The deferring of the SGPC polls, ongoing farmers’ agitation and no clear direction for the party has already resulted in miscarriage even before the outfit could face an electoral battle test.