Although a Lok Sabha by-poll where the winner would hardly have a year on his hands to deliver to his electorate, the results on the Jalandhar seat have sent certain strong signals on Punjab’s evolving political matrix ahead of the all important 2024 polls.

The results declared on May 13 for this by-poll were easily overshadowed by those in the southern state of Karnataka that saw the return of the Congress in a thumping manner. But nevertheless the outcome here is quite consequential in the context of Punjab.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Sushil Kumar Rinku romped home with a winning margin of 58,691 over Congress candidate Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary. The seat had been a Congress bastion since 1999. The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) – Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) joint candidate Dr Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi and Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal were at the third and the fourth place.

The by-poll had been necessitated by the passing away of the Congress MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary and the party had fielded his wife Karamjit Kaur Chaudhary.

Coming to the signals emanating from this result, the first one is of the AAP strengthening its foothold in the state. It is firmly ensuring that the days of bipolar political battles between the traditional powerhouses of the Congress and the Akalis are now a thing of the past.

Although the AAP had announced its arrival in style in the 2014 parliamentary polls when it had won four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats at the height of the ‘Modi wave’, the subsequent wrangling within the party had led this tally to decline to a mere one seat of Sangrur that was won by the sitting Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann in 2019.

This seat too was lost by the party in the by-poll that had followed the AAP’s stupendous performance of winning 92 of the 117 seats in the assembly polls held last year. It came as a rude shock when the by-poll was won by Simranjit Singh Mann of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), who is known for his radical leanings.

At the national level, the party had no member in the Lok Sabha following the Sangrur debacle and despite it getting the status of a national party following an impressive show in the recently held Gujarat polls. In Rinku’s victory the party made a re-entry in the Lok Sabha. Rinku incidentally is an import from the Congress who had joined the AAP ranks hardly a month ahead of these polls to be fielded as its face.

In terms of break up, the party was a winner in seven of the nine assembly constituencies that make up the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat. It led in Kartarpur, Jalandhar West, Adampur, Phillaur, Jalandhar Cantt., Nakodar and Shahkot.

Surprisingly, in the remaining two Assembly constituencies of Jalandhar North and Jalandhar Central it was the BJP in the driving seat. The saffron party despite coming at the third position and its candidate having lost his deposit is being seen as a major gainer of this political battle. Incidentally, the party candidate Atwal was an import from the party’s former ally Akali Dal. Observers feel that these elections have signalled the arrival of the BJP in the state.

In the Assembly polls held last year the party had fared poorly where it could reportedly muster only 6.6% of the total votes and 54 of its 73 candidates had lost their deposits. The party has been persistently working towards coming out of the shadow of the Akali Dal after the alliance between the two was called off by the latter during the farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws.

It has been on the lookout for credible faces, particularly Sikhs and has succeeded to a large extent. Sources on the ground reveal that its meticulous planning and poll management was clearly visible during the Jalandhar by-poll.

It is pretty clear that the party will be contesting far more, if not all the 13 Lok Sabha seats next year. Earlier its participation was confined to only three seats of Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar while the Akalis contested the remaining.

“The results are much to the linking of the BJP. It knew it was nowhere in the race but came up with an impressive performance. The Congress’ loss in its traditional bastion helps its ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ narrative. The marginalisation of Akalis is also something it has been aiming at. For them the game is on in Punjab,” pointed an observer.

There is a lot of anger among the BJP ranks over the manner in which the Akalis had broken their alliance with the party after having defended the very same controversial farm laws for four months.

It is the Congress that will have a lot of thinking to do and go back to the drawing board following these results. It has lost despite fielding Chaudhary’s wife aiming to cash in on his good reputation and sympathy. Its leadership went into the battle united after the Bharat Jodo Yatra undertaken by senior party leader Rahul Gandhi last year. It was while participating in this Yatra that Chaudhary had passed away.

Observers say that the message given by the electorate to the party is that the anti-incumbency against the grand old party is still not forgotten. It squandered the lead in the five constituencies of Phillaur, Shahkot, Jalandhar North, Jalandhar Cantt. and Adampur that are represented by its sitting MLAs.

It continues to be a sad story for SAD that has failed to revive. The alliance with the BSP did not help and once again proves that the Dalits in Punjab are not a monolith. Despite the passing away of the party patriarch Parkash Singh Badal in the middle of the campaign, the party that has always positioned itself as a ‘panthic’ force failed to get any sympathy votes.

Observers point out that the combined votes of the Akalis and the BJP candidate amount to a little less than the winning number polled by the AAP candidate. There are speculations rife about the possibility of the two former allies joining hands once again in the near future. The two had been together since 1996 till the time of the farmers’ agitation.

Another buzz is about the possibility of Manpreet Badal returning back to the party fold. Manpreet had left the Akalis to first form his own party, move to the Congress and then join the BJP recently. Observers say that there are sharp divisions within the party ranks on both these issues.

“It needs to be kept in mind that it will be the BJP that will be calling the shots if the two ever unite again. The saffron party would not settle for the smaller share of the pie it was content with earlier,” pointed an observer.

Meanwhile, the AAP is claiming Rinku’s victory as a stamp of approval by the masses for its policies. Senior party and Punjab’s finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema said that by electing Rinku the people of Jalandhar have approved the works of the AAP government led by Bhagwant Mann in the last one year. “People voted on the basis of Mohalla Clinics, Schools of Eminence, 300 units of free electricity and corruption free governance provided by the AAP government,” he said.

Rinku added, “Although I have been elected for a short period, AAP’s roadmap for the constituency will be both for my current term and the longer term. We are going to work while keeping the next five years in mind."

Observers say that the implementation of 300 free units of power sop that came after the Sangrur defeat has gone down well with the people. “My bimonthly bill that used to be around Rs 4000 is zero at present. Why should I not vote for the AAP,” was the comment made by a Punjab resident to this reporter.

Some people are also pointing at the charge sheets filed in Bargari sacrilege cases and police firing case in Kotkapura as another factor responsible for the AAP’s victory saying that there is some seriousness visible in taking these cases to the logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, just a couple of days after the Jalandhar victory the Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission approved a hike in power charges for the year on Monday. Bhagwant Mann was quick to tweet, “The government will bear the cost of the increase in electricity rates. It will not be a burden on the common people.”

The Opposition came up with an instant attack. Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring said the AAP is cheating people in the name of 'change' and emptying the pockets of consumers by increasing electricity prices when electricity consumption increases even before summer.

Referring to the official notice, the state Congress president said that it is surprising to see that for domestic consumers there is a 70p increase in consumption of 0-100 units, an increase of 80p in consumption of 101-300 units and 45p in consumption of more than 300 units.

He said that the party leadership exposed AAP's failures, fake claims and fake guarantees on various platforms during the Jalandhar campaign but the AAP succeeded in ‘intimidating the voters and forcing them to vote in their favour’. Speaking in support of taxpayers, Waring asked if paying tax is a crime in Punjab.

He said that Bhagwant Mann had claimed that ‘free electricity’ would continue but surprisingly it did not benefit the taxpayers. Now they will also pay taxes and pay expensive bills. This is not the 'change' they voted for.

On the other hand SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal accused the AAP of mastering the ‘politics of lies and deception’ by invoking the power hike across all categories of consumers immediately after winning the Jalandhar parliamentary by-poll.

He said, “The AAP contested the Jalandhar by-poll by showcasing its 300 units free power scheme. Even that has been effectively dismantled with today’s power hike. Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s contention that the Punjab government will subsidise consumers for the additional cost borne by them while availing the 300 unit free scheme by paying the same to Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) is an eye wash. The government already owes Rs 20,400 crore to PSPCL and is in no position to take on an additional burden.”

Asking the chief minister to release subsidy due to PSPCL by downsizing the Rs 750 crore advertising budget and curbing corruption, Sukhbir Badal said, “PSPCL is in dire need of money as it is unable to even spare money for routine repairs of transformers and grids. This is bound to have an adverse impact on farmers and the agriculture economy in the forthcoming paddy transplantation season.”

The signs are that the battle for the 2024 parliamentary seats is going to be a high pitched affair. The political situation in the state remains very fluid. It remains to be seen what permutations and combinations emerge over the next 11 months.