Patiala, one of the most prominent constituencies of Punjab is witnessing a four cornered electoral battle. For the Congress it is Dr. Dharamvira Gandhi, a heart specialist, banking on the power of his personal connect. Pitched against him is Dr. Balbir Singh, an eye specialist, and Punjab’s current health minister. He has the backing of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Also in the fray is Preneet Kaur, a former Minister of State for External Affairs. She is now contesting on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket. She hails from the royal family and has the power of its influence on the locals. The fourth prominent candidate in the field is N. K. Sharma of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Badal. He is known for the power of his business acumen.

As all the four sweat it out in the sweltering heat of the Malwa region of the state, Dr.. Gandhi is the most talked about person among the masses. He is said to be a man who has a superb personal connection with the locals.

They also talk about his performance as the AAP Member of Parliament from the seat. He had won from Patiala in 2014 at the height of the ‘Modi wave’ defeating Preneet Kaur.

“He is known for offering affordable and often free medical advice to the people. Everyone knows where he lives and people have been coming to him from the entire region,” Gurpreet Singh, a resident of Bahadurgarh area said.

Dr. Gandhi’s popularity can be gauged from the fact that people in the far flung villages approach him with their medical test reports even at the height of campaign, and he does not disappoint them. He is quick to engage with them, and prescribe the medicines as needed.

Sources said that Dr. Gandhi has been hand picked as a candidate by senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. He had accompanied the latter during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He also has a reputation of optimum utilisation of his Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds.

He used MPLAD funds for upgrading government schools, and aiding Panchayats that shunned the caste-based discrimination around cremation grounds. He is also credited with improving community infrastructure in the villages during his tenure as the AAP MP between 2014 to 2019.

After parting ways with the AAP he had contested the 2019 polls from his own Nawan Punjab Party unsuccessfully. He is also credited with the laying of double railway tracks between Ambala and Bathinda alongside electrification and opening of a passport office in Patiala.

Dr. Gandhi is also talking about decriminalisation of use of traditional herbal drugs like opium and poppy husk to tackle the menace of synthetic drugs. He also wants a strong regional party in Punjab.

“The 2024 elections are for a very important cause. These are being fought to save democracy, secularism and pluralism alongside to counter communal divide, religious polarisation and economic disparity,” Dr. Gandhi told this reporter in a late night interaction at his residence in Patiala.

Dr. Balbir Singh, the AAP candidate is also well grounded. He is the sitting MLA from Patiala 2 constituency that covers the rural periphery of this city. However, he carries the baggage of the anti-incumbency against the state government under Bhagwant Mann.

At the same time, he has to his advantage the public appreciation for the AAP providing free electricity and opening Mohalla clinics even as the people complain of these clinics providing just basic medicines.

“Balbir has done a good job. The people expect radical changes to take place overnight which does not happen in a large democracy like India,” a retired lady teacher from a government college said.

Interestingly, Dr. Singh was among those managing Dr. Gandhi’s poll office in 2014. Despite being political rivals the two health professionals talk about each other with respect.

Another thing that goes in Dr. Singh’s favour is that the AAP candidates had won in all the nine constituencies falling in the Patiala Lok Sabha constituency in the 2022 Assembly polls.

“It was necessary for the AAP and the Congress to contest against each other in Punjab. If this was not the case the Congress would have to bear the anti-incumbency burden alongside the AAP and the beneficiaries would have been other candidates,” senior political observer Jaspal Dhillon said.

Ironically, Preneet Kaur is being seen as ‘the right candidate in the wrong party’. She has always been ‘royal’ in her personal capacity striking a personal chord with the electorate over the last several decades. But switching over to the BJP is turning out to be her ‘Achilles heel’.

She has been bearing the brunt of the farmers’ anger in the rural areas. The BJP is not liked much even in the urban areas as small traders are also not happy with the party, as they continue to bear the cascading impact of the demonetisation and what they term the “shoddy implementation of the goods and services tax (GST)”.

The people are now questioning Kaur's decision to jump the fence to the saffron fold after her husband and former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh did the same. “She would have won hands down if she continued with the Congress and had contested on the party ticket,” is a common refrain.

In her campaign Kaur is attacking the AAP government in the state for not fulfilling the promise made to the people. She is seeking votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Addressing the people of Sanaur on Monday, Kaur said, “Whenever AAP workers or leaders come to ask for votes for the Lok Sabha elections, then all the women should ask them to first release their dues of 26 months which is Rs 26,000." Trying to win over the farmers she said, "All the demands of the farmers are legitimate and every possible effort will be made to fulfil them.”

"Based on this relationship and belief, my confidence is high that you will make me win in the Lok Sabha elections and I will be having an opportunity to solve all the major problems of Patiala and get big packages for new development works from Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Kaur added.

The Akalis have played a political move having fielded a Hindu candidate on this seat. Observers feel this will damage the BJP prospects in the constituency that has a substantial Hindu population.

Sharma has been quietly working in the constituency focusing mainly on areas outside Patiala city. The former MLA from Dera Bassi, he has his own pockets of influence. His close association with Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal is another advantage that he enjoys.

Observers say that the Akalis parting ways with the BJP during the height of the farmers’ movement is proving to be damaging for both across Punjab.

While the battle is on, Patiala is looking at solutions to specific problems. Among them are the misery caused by the flooding of the Ghaggar river every year in the rural areas.

Then there is the drug menace. The people in the city are seeking solutions to the problems coming from cattle rearing inside the city limits. The people also want employment above all.

They feel that lack of employment is responsible for the deteriorating law and order situation with the crime graph going up. Issues pertaining to agriculture at national level persist even as the people point towards the failure of the state government to bring about the much promised agriculture policy.

There are hardly any posters and hoardings to be seen. And a segment of voters say they are disillusioned with all the parties. “They come behaving like lambs when they need votes only to forget voters later. They shamelessly seek the support of Godmen running various Deras,” Amarjit Singh, an e-rickshaw driver from the core of Patiala city, summed up the general mood.