Election 2014: Why Ambika Soni may win despite the 'outsider' tag

Rajendra Khatry April 18, 2014 15:40:51 IST
Election 2014: Why Ambika Soni may win despite the 'outsider' tag

Chandigarh: Never having won an election in the past, 71-year-old Ambika Sonia is a bit of an odd ball in this election. The Congress leader has been close to the Gandhi family and in the power circle of the Congress for decades. But despite being handpicked by Indira Gandhi way back in 1969 and having handled important ministerial and party assignments, she lacks a support base of her own.

Perhaps, she is trying to amend that weakness by contesting a Lok Sabha election and is the Congress candidate from the reserved constituency of Anandpur Sahib.

With strong anti-incumbency against the Congress across the country, Soni probably chose the wrong time to enter the electoral fray. But her opponents - Prem Singh Chandumajra of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Himmat Singh Shergill - make her rather task a bit easier.

Election 2014 Why Ambika Soni may win despite the outsider tag

Soni is confident of victory thanks to a weak opposition. AFP

Prem Singh Chandumajra has a poor track record in this constituency having lost three elections in a row: two assembly polls in 2007 and 2012, and the parliamentary election in 2009. Supreme Court lawyer Shergill is a political novice. Other candidates, including CPM’s Balbir Singh Jadala and Punjabi folk singer KS Makhan, from the BSP, are not likely to trouble her much. Anandpur Sahib goes to polls on 30 April.

To field a national heavyweight against the SAD-BJP alliance candidate was a well-thought out decision of the Congress high command. The move seems to have paid off . Before the selection of candidates, the Congress seemed to be directionless and on weaker ground against the ruling combine. But the presence of bigwigs seems to have turned the tide in the party’s favour and political pundits say the Congress could win 7 or more seats of the 13 Parliamentary seats in the state. Ambika Soni was picked for the Anandpur Sahib seat despite the demands to re-nominate present MP Ravneet Singh Bittu.

In a constituency affected by the narcotics trade and high unemployment, Soni’s first big challenge is to counter the charge that she is an outsider. The SAD is projecting her someone who has never been in touch with the people of Punjab or their problems.

"I have always cared for this region," she said, adding, "When I was the Union minister, I released more than Rs 180 crore for the tercentenary celebrations of installation of Guru Granth Sahib in Anandpur Sahib."

"I also gave funds for the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Memorial at Khatkar Kalan (Nawanshahar). In fact, my efforts were also instrumental in the formation of the Anandpur Sahib parliamentary constituency. Anybody who claims I am an outsider is only fooling voters," she said.

The intensity of the contest in this constituency can be gauged from the level to which both sides dragged the campaign using unparliamentary language and making personal attacks. After Chandumajra referred to Soni as a 'buddhi aurat’ (old woman), the Congress hit back quickly. Former chief minister and senior Congress leader Rajhinder Kaur Bhattal retorted by calling Chandumajra a "dacoit and thief". Bhattal later denied making any such statement, but the SAD moved the Election Commission of India against him.

The Anandpur Sahib parliamentary constituency is spread over the Hoshiarpur, Nawashahar, Ropar and SAS Nagar (Mohali) districts. This forms part of the Malwa and Doaba belts of Punjab, close to the state’s capital Chandigarh. The constituency came into existence in 2009 after delimitation.

Predominantly a backward constituency in the foothills of the Himalayas it is religiously important as one of the five Takhts of the Sikh community, Shri Keshgarh Sahib is situated here. It is this historical venue where Khalsa Panth was established by the tenth and the Last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

A total of 15, 64, 721 voters are expected to exercise their franchise in the Anandpur Sahib. The Kharar assembly segment of the Anandpur Sahib constituency has the maximum number of voters-2.02 lakh, followed by Mohali with two lakh voters. There are 28 per cent voters from scheduled castes people, 23 percent Jat Sikhs, 20 percent Sainis, 8 percent Gujjars, 6.6 percent Brahmins and 3.3 percent Rajputs.

Apart from unemployment and narcotics, a lack of water for irrigation and presence of wild animals that destroy the fields are among key issues for the electorate. Illegal mining of sand and gravel is also a big issue for local residents. They are wary of the 'goonda tax' being imposed on them by the sand mafia. Local residents  whose livelihood is dependent on quarrying and transporting minerals feel threatened as a result. These people expect the political leaders contesting the poll to take action against such illegal activities.

According to the Punjab Industries Minister, Madan Mohan Mittal, MLA from Nangal in the Anandpur Sahib constituency, he had removed the illegal check points, but the sand crushers were paying 'royalty' to the extortionists in the region to be able to carry on their illegal trade.

Chandumajra blames the former Union Minister for Environment Jayanti Natarajan for not giving environment clearance for mining which led to illegal quarries coming into existence. However, the general perception of voters in the constituency is that the SAD has allowed the sand mafia to exist in lieu for huge sums of money.

Riding on the Modi wave and the fact that the SAD-BJP combine is in power in Punjab, Chandumajra is promising all round development of the constituency. He has also promised to bring more industry to the region so that they ensure generation of adequate employment.

The candidate has also promised farmers to sort out the irrigation water shortage and check the menace of wild animals. In comparison to the Congress and the SAD, the AAP and the BSP campaigns in the constituency have been low key. BSP candidate, K S Makhan, a Punjabi singer has not even toured the entire constituency. AAP candidate Himmat Singh Shergill’s campaign has not taken off yet for lack of funds. However, with plenty of time still left for the poll in Punjab, rival parties are confident of putting up a good show.

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