It’s the battle among Sikhs to choose the ‘Sardar’ of Punjab, the state with a debt burden of at least Rs 2.82 lakh crore at the end of the current government’s tenure.
Based on caste considerations, all four major political parties in the state vying for the February 20 polls for the 117-member Assembly have fielded Sikh gentlemen — right from the ‘maharaja’ to the billionaire businessman with interests in hotels, resorts, media, agriculture and to the ‘entertainer’ to the common man, a former handball player who is commonly seen on cricket pitch and hockey turf during campaigning.
Two-time Chief Minister and Captain Amarinder Singh, the scion of erstwhile Patiala, 80, is politically matured among the four chief ministerial faces.
He’s seen as the nationalist widely respected leader of the BJP-led alliance. His fledgling Punjab Lok Congress (PLC) is contesting the polls in alliance with the BJP, which had earlier played second fiddle to its former ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and SAD (Sanyukt), an Akali Dal rebel.
In the 2019 parliamentary polls, Capt Amarinder Singh steered his former party the Congress to a victory in his ruling Punjab in eight out of 13 Lok Sabha seats despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave across the country.
He’s contesting from his stronghold Patiala (Urban), the seat that he has won for four consecutive terms since 2002 when he first contested.
At a public meeting, Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Sunday had a special praise for Capt Amarinder Singh that he always rose above partisan considerations when it came to the issues concerning national security.
He said when he became the Home Minister in 2019, he felt quite concerned about the security along the Punjab border. “But once I spoke to Capt Amarinder, I felt relaxed,” he recalled at his rally in Patiala town.
Among the race for the chief minister is former Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, 59, the man known for micro poll management for his now own controlled century old party, SAD.
A billionaire businessman himself with interests in hotels, resorts, media, agriculture and other investments and known for corporate style functioning, Sukhbir Badal, whose party is in alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), surely knows how to set the ball rolling and hit back the political rivals with surprises.
Having led the party to an unprecedented second consecutive term in Punjab in 2012, Sukhbir Badal, whose father Parkash Singh Badal, 94, the country’s oldest candidate in the fray for the sixth consecutive term, is trying hard to save the ‘sinking ship’ after party’s humiliating defeat in the 2017 Assembly polls.
Also, for the first time SAD is testing waters after severing its ties with the BJP with which it joined hands in 1997 during the state polls and remained its oldest ally for 23 years.
SAD patriarch Badal, a founding member of the NDA, who before parting ways had always referred to ties as ‘nau-maas da rishta’ (nail-and-flesh ties).
His son Sukhbir Badal, the Ferozepur Lok Sabha member, is contesting from his stronghold Jalalabad for the fourth time.
Ending months of suspense and leaving belligerent Navjot Singh Sidhu sulking, party leader Rahul Gandhi on February 6 announced incumbent Charanjit Singh Channi as the party’s chief ministerial face.
Political observers believe the decision of the Congress to go to the polls in the state, which is witnessing a five-cornered contest, under the leadership of three-time legislator Channi, the state’s first Dalit Chief Minister, is to woo the Dalit Sikh votes that constitutes 32 per cent Scheduled Caste population in the state, the country’s largest.
In 2017, the Congress won 41 per cent of the Dalit votes and 34 seats in the state are reserved.
Former handball player, Channi is leading the party and fielded him from two seats — his bastion Chamkaur Sahib that he won three times and his new battlefield Bhadaur.
Channi, who entered politics at the age of 20, replaced Capt Amarinder on September 19, 2021, as a stopgap Chief Minister. He’s been the first non-Jat Sikh since 1977 in the state.
Channi, 58, is testing the political waters in Bhadaur constituency for the first time where he’s touring extensively.
He won the Chamkaur Sahib seat in Ropar district thrice in a row. Both are reserved assembly constituencies. He has been given the second seat to counter the growing influence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Malwa region by consolidating the scheduled caste votes.
To reinforce his image as a people’s chief minister, Channi is commonly seen playing cricket with youngsters and card games with village elders in campaigns.
For AAP that is banking on ‘Hun ek mauka Kejriwal nu’ (now one chance to Kejriwal) — arguably one of the biggest advertisement blitz campaigns — comedian-turned-politician and two-time MP, Bhagwant Mann, is the newly anointed chief minister’s face of AAP.
In the 2017 Assembly elections, AAP had made inroads among Jat Sikhs by emerging as the second largest party with 20 seats, 18 of them in the Malwa region. However, it failed to make a mark in Majha and Doaba regions.
Mann held his fort despite Modi wave across the country in 2019 by retaining the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat for the second time in a row.
“The fight is not to save some political families but to save Punjab, the farmers, the agriculture, the industry and the youth. Owing to lack of employment and better education infrastructure, our youth is moving abroad,” said Mann in his folksy style in his recent campaign in Dhuri town from where he’s in the fray.
Formerly a popular comedian-actor, Mann, known for his trademark ‘basanti’ turban, a colour associated with Shaheed Bhagat Singh, has had his fair share of controversies in recent years, especially linked to his drinking habit.
Except Channi, all others — Capt Amarinder Singh, Sukhbir Badal and Bhagwant Mann — are Jat Sikhs who are estimated to be 20 per cent and have overwhelmingly ruled the state politics.
The counting of ballots on March 10 will reveal that a non-Jat Sikh or a Jat Sikh will dominate the political landscape.
In the 2017 Punjab Assembly polls, the Congress won 77 seats in the 117-member House, while the SAD-BJP alliance could win only 18 seats. The AAP emerged as the second-largest party with 20 seats.