Away from the ‘over hyped’ Assembly polls in the southern state of Karnataka, there is an equally high pitched political battle being fought in the heart of the Doaba region of one of the most politically volatile states of Punjab. It is the battle for the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat that is going in for a by-poll following the death of its Congress representative Santokh Singh Chaudhary. Chaudhary died during the Bharat Jodo Yatra undertaken by senior party leader Rahul Gandhi last year.

In normal circumstances there is hardly any weightage given to by-polls by political pundits and observers but this time around things are different. This is despite the fact that the winning candidate will have less than a year on hand to deliver and establish himself or herself on the political map of the state.

Despite this the political parties are all out to win this seat that has emerged as the most prized possession in the prevailing circumstances.

There are several reasons why this by-poll has become such a high profile affair. First, the timing of the by-poll is such that its result will reverberate right up to the Lok Sabha polls expected to be held in less than a year down the line.

Second, this is a high stake battle for all the political parties in fray for different reasons that will be discussed subsequently. Third, Doaba with its high convergence of Dalit votes sends out strong signals to the community voters outside.

Then there are reasons related to the other developments that the state has witnessed in the recent past that make these polls interesting.

Before one gets into the routine high decibel campaign run by the parties till Monday, it needs to be understood where these forces stand as of now on the political matrix of Punjab and why it is very important for them to come up with a good show at this point of time.

For the Congress, this seat has been one of its traditional bastions in the state. The party has not lost this seat since 1999. Santokh Chaudhary had emerged victorious as party candidate in both 2014 and 2019. This time around the party has fielded Chaudhary’s wife Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary expecting to ride on a sympathy wave as well as the reputation that Santokh Chaudhary enjoyed with the masses.

A victory here is necessary for the party as this is the first political test being faced by the party after the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Yatra had got a good response in the state and had laid the foundation for reviving the morale of the party’s grassroots workers after the drubbing it had received in the state assembly polls last year.

The party’s tally had fallen drastically from 77 seats that had brought it to power in 2017 to just 18 last year. The dismal performance had seen the ouster of cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu as the party’s state unit chief to be replaced by Amarinder Singh Raja Warring.

This is also the litmus test for Warring who has to ensure a victory to set the tempo for the Lok Sabha polls next year. Warring has been leading the party’s campaign aggressively. The party has also seen Sidhu campaign for the party candidate after his release from prison last month.

The Jalandhar by-poll is exceptionally important for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the state where it had romped home winning 92 of the total 117 Assembly seats in a landslide victory a little more than a year ago.

But it had received a jolt when the Sangrur parliamentary seat that was represented by its sitting Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann was won by Simranjit Singh Mann of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar). Simranjit Singh Mann’s victory on a seat that was held by the AAP since 2014 had stunned everyone.

A successive loss in a Parliamentary by-poll is something that the party wants to avoid as it might be construed as a statement by the people on its governance in the state. It needs to be underlined that the AAP now has the status of a national party after its reasonable show in the recent Gujarat Assembly polls and is now aiming to expand its footprints on the national political map of India.

It has fielded Sushil Kumar Rinku, an import from the Congress, drawing barbs from Warring who had retorted, “What surprises me is that the AAP that made the government in Punjab with 92 MLAs, doesn’t have even a single candidate to fight the Jalandhar by-poll? Also, why is the party forced to buy tainted leaders of other parties by hook or by crook, it once boasted about being an honest party of like-minded people?”

Nevertheless the party is fighting this election with all its might with its national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal making multiple appearances for the campaign.

For the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) (Badal) that is contesting this by-poll in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) it is yet another effort to revive itself and return to the centre stage of Punjab’s polity.

This traditional powerhouse of Punjab that is the oldest regional force in the country has been pushed to the margins of electoral politics ever since it lost the 2017 Assembly polls. It needs to be pointed out that the party recently lost its patriarch and towering leader Parkash Singh Badal who was Chief Minister of the state on five occasions.

It remains to be seen whether it manages to get any sympathy from the voters. It has fielded Dr Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi who is the sitting MLA from Banga. The party currently has two MPs from Punjab in its present state unit chief Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal.

It had contested the last Parliamentary polls in 2019 in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that also has two MPs from the state. Interestingly, the party retains control over institutions like Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and the Akal Takht. But at the same time former SGPC chief Bibi Jagir Kaur extending support to the BJP has come as a shocker to the Akali fold.

For the BJP, these polls come as an opportunity to dispel the notion that the saffron party does not enjoy large public support in the state. Ever since its alliance with the Akalis came to an end, it has been trying to import credible faces from the other parties, particularly the Sikhs.

It has achieved its goal to some extent with the likes of former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh joining its ranks. The party is continuing with its efforts to expand its base in Punjab.

This time around it has fielded Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal who is the son of a former senior Akali leader Charanjit Singh Atwal. Both the father and son have recently joined the saffron force. Incidentally, Charanjit Singh Atwal had unsuccessfully contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on Jalandhar seat on an Akali ticket.

The SAD (Amritsar) has fielded Gurjant Singh Kattu on the seat. It will be interesting to see how much support he manages after the party representative’s victory in Sangrur parliamentary by-poll last year.

One cannot talk about Doaba without getting into the caste aspect of the region. Punjab has the highest number of Dalits in the country in terms of the percentage of the population. This figure stands at around 32 per cent. The same goes up to around 40 per cent and even more in some parts of Doaba.

Observers say that in Jalandhar Lok Sabha constituency Dalit voters account for around 38 per cent of the electorate. But then it also needs to be understood that unlike certain other parts of the country Dalits are not a monolith but are sharply divided in context of castes and sub castes.

This phenomenon had its bearings on the last Assembly polls when the Congress narrative of having projected a Dalit chief minister in Charanjit Singh Channi had not worked across Punjab at all. This time one of the questions hounding the AAP is its reported promise of having a Dalit deputy chief minister that was made ahead of the 2017 Assembly polls.

It might be said that promises are made to be broken and forgotten but they have a different connotation in politics.

It is the Ravidassia community among the Dalits in the Doaba region that dominates in terms of numbers as they account for almost 27 per cent of the total electorate.

But observers point out that there are divisions here too between those who migrated from Sialkot region of Pakistan at the time of partition and those who have been traditional residents of Doaba.

Another interesting aspect of the Jalandhar by-poll is that it is being held at a time when the radical narratives have also surfaced. First it was the entire drama around the manhunt that was launched for nabbing the self styled radical preacher Amritpal Singh and his subsequent arrest or ‘surrender’.

Then came the reported development of the Supreme Court refusing to commute the death penalty of Balwant Singh Rajoana to life imprisonment. Rajoana is convicted in the former chief minister Beant Singh’s assassination case.

The Court has asked the Home Ministry to take further decision on his mercy plea when it is deemed necessary. And on Sunday it was the killing of Khalistan Commando Force chief and designated terrorist Paramjit Singh Panjwar that made headlines.

The Akalis were the most vocal on Rajoana as they attacked the central government for doing a U-turn on Rajoana and accused the BJP of adopting double standards on this issue. The party even pointed at the possible ‘tactical understanding’ between the BJP and the AAP that was now coming in the way of release of the Bandi Singhs (those imprisoned for acts during the days of militancy in the state).

Senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia said, “The central government has hurt the sentiments of the Sikh community. It first undertook to commute the death sentence of Bhai Rajoana to life in 2019 in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji and then went back on its word by refusing to decide on the mercy petition filed on Bhai Rajoana’s behalf by the Shiromani Committee in March, 2012. This has caused untold pain to Nanak Naam Leva Sangat worldwide.”

Asking the BJP to make its stand clear on the issue, Majithia said the former Punjab BJP in-charge Gajendra Shekhawat had signed a form seeking the release of Rajoana while paying his obeisance at Takht Damdama Sahib.

“The Sikh community was already feeling that it was being discriminated because it was a minority following the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists (in Gujarat), but the manner in which the Centre tried to link the release of Bhai Rajoana with national security in a previous affidavit had hurt it even further. Sikhs have made the most sacrifices for the country’s freedom and even now are guarding the nation’s border. The community feels the Bhai Rajoana’s release will help the process of reconciliation and the centre should respect this sentiment instead of opposing it,” Majithia added.

In its campaign the Congress has attacked the AAP government in the state for non performance and also the BJP government in the Centre for ignoring the aspirations of the people. Warring has stated that both the AAP and the BJP concentrated specifically on self-promotion and branding while deliberately ignoring the demands of the voters.

He said that progress, development and public welfare was never the priority of both the parties and they only misled voters with their ‘fake guarantees and illusory promises’ to grab power.

While addressing a public rally in the last leg of the campaign, he said, “The AAP betrayed the women of the state with its false promise of giving Rs 1000 per month, better healthcare and other promises. The BJP deceived the voters with its ‘Jumlas’ of Rs 15 lakh to every citizen, cheaper petrol, diesel and LPG cylinders along with false claims of eliminating corruption and terrorism.”

He said it was the arrogance of the BJP leadership that forced the farmers to leave their houses and sit on the roads on the Delhi border for more than a year for their rights. Higher taxes, unplanned goods and services tax (GST), demonetiSation, rising inflation and other such anti-people decisions added to the woes of the citizens of the country.

He said, “The last more than one year of the AAP’s rule has been disastrous for Punjab and its people. Whether it is about Rs 1000 for women per month, eliminating the drug menace, securing justice in the sacrilege cases, quelling the sand mafia, offering better health care infrastructure and better education system, the party failed drastically on all the fronts and disappointed each and every voter who voted for it.”

The Akalis too have attacked the AAP on non performance. But most interestingly, the party is playing up its alliance with the BSP. Sukhbir has announced that the SAD- BSP alliance would field a BSP candidate from Banga assembly constituency following the victory of Dr Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi in the by- poll.

Claiming that the SAD- BSP alliance was an alliance of minds and hearts, Sukhbir said, “Workers of both parties are working seamlessly to ensure the victory of Dr Sukhi in the forthcoming by-poll. We are also convinced that this alliance has a long way to go and will be fruitful for both parties. Both parties are fully committed to this alliance.”

The AAP leadership tried to woo the voters claiming that Punjab has reached new heights of development in the last one year. Addressing the people during a road show, Kejriwal said that as compared to what the previous SAD-BJP and Congress governments did in 75 years, the Mann government has done more work in just one year.

Besides providing jobs to the youth, Kejriwal patted the AAP regime under Bhagwant Mann for giving free power, setting up Mohalla clinics and developing 'Schools of Eminence' built for better education of children.

Making an emotional appeal to the people of Jalandhar, Bhagwant Mann said that the AAP has 92 MLAs in Punjab, 62 MLAs in Delhi and two in Goa. The party has 10 MPs in the Rajya Sabha but not a single representative in the Lok Sabha.

“You have a chance to create history by electing the AAP candidate. If the AAP candidate wins this election from Jalandhar, then along with the AAP, Jalandhar's name will also be written in history,” he said.

The BJP, meanwhile, continued training its guns on the AAP government mainly on the law and order scenario. Senior leader Captain Amarinder Singh while expressing grave concern over the deteriorating law and order situation in the state had recently said in a rally that if the situation continued like this, nobody will come to invest in Punjab which will badly hit the state’s economy.

The former chief minister pointed out how murders were taking place in Punjab with criminals having no fear of law while the dreaded gangsters were ruling the roost from the jails and even giving interviews to the media.

He said the youth were already migrating out of the country as they do not see any future here. Making a fervent appeal to the people to vote for the BJP candidate, he said, the party (the BJP) had proved its capabilities both at the domestic and the international fronts.

Recently it was the union jal shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat’s meeting with a group of top industrialists of Jalandhar that drew attention. The meeting took place at the residence of BJP’s national spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill where the industrialists gave feedback about the present industrial scenario in Punjab.

The industrialists apprised Shekhawat about various problems being faced by them under the AAP regime and told the minister that no heed is being paid by the present dispensation in Punjab to resolve genuine issues concerning industry because of which they are facing huge losses.

The results of Jalandhar by-poll will provide enough to the political observers to interpret and analyse in context of the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls and the future of the political parties operating in the state.