Ground Reports

A Day With A Politician: At Amb. Taranjit Singh Sandhu's Campaign In Amritsar

  • How this diplomat-turned-politician is trying to regain Amritsar for the BJP.

Sharan SettyMay 28, 2024, 09:48 PM | Updated 09:48 PM IST
Amb. Taranjit Singh Sandhu recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).

Amb. Taranjit Singh Sandhu recently retired from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been making repeated attempts to make inroads into Punjab, the challenges so far have outweighed the achievements.

However, in the last 18 months, large number of leaders from various parties and popular figures from other walks of life have sought to join the BJP in the state.

As a four-way contest is underway in Amritsar, we spent a day with Amb. Sandhu in his campaign trail and asked him a few questions on the way —

Taranjit Sandhu flag off auto rickshaw on election campaign at Samundri House

Sandhu waving flag in front of auto rickshaw

Sandhu addressing people at an establishment that got burnt.

Establishment that got burnt

Sandhu addressing a public gathering

Public Gathering at Greenfield

Sandhu carrying out a Jeep show

Sandhu along with his associates at Gurudwara

Public gathering at Ranjit Avenue C Block

Hoardings carrying images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Taranjit Sandhu

Sandhu addressing a public meeting

Sandhu interacting with media persons at his home

Sandhu meeting his supporters at his residence

Arriving in Amritsar

At the Samundri House in Amritsar's upscale Green Avenue, Amb. Taranjit Singh Sandhu's family members, well-wishers and supporters gather early in the morning to proceed with the day's plan.

They have to start early, given the soaring temperatures in the region. Sandhu begins his day by meeting his constituents, stakeholders and party men. A major part of his day is spent canvassing important citizen groups who hold the key to votes in some pockets of the Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency.

Soon after breakfast, Sandhu meets with his media managers on the first floor of the house where two chairs, a green background and a video camera are readily set up.

His media men don't have it easy either, as journalists place unusual demands —

"Can we record this inside the premises of the Golden Temple? I want to be the first one to do it."

"Can he give a befitting reply to K-groups and anti-national elements?"

Journalists await his arrival, as Sandhu takes the spiral staircase to meet his first interviewer. The questions are predictable -- his transition from diplomacy to politics, life in Washington, his Amritsari roots, why the Western media is biased and whether the BJP stands a chance at winning in Amritsar.

Patiently, he answers all the questions, one by one. As soon as he's done with the interviews, there's a convoy of SUVs waiting for him outside. They'll set out for the rest of the day, and would only return later in the night, around midnight.

The House of Samundris

Sandhu's family has a history with Amritsar. His grandfather, Sardar Teja Singh Samundri was a freedom fighter who led the Gurudwara Reform Movement.

To date, he is the person apart from the Sikh gurus after whom a building complex in the Golden Temple is named. He died while serving his prison sentence in Lahore jail in 1926. For this reason, the Samundris have a good reputation among the locals in Amritsar.

His father, Sardar Bishen Singh Samundri was a bit of a legend himself when he was serving as the principal of Khalsa College in the city. Later on, he became the first vice chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University.

His mother is also an academic who has pursued her doctorate in the United States. In the Majha region of Punjab, the Samundris have earned a name for themselves for their contribution to education and the overall welfare of Punjabi society.

Sandhu is a retired diplomat who served as the 28th Ambassador of India to the United States, among other portfolios that he held in a career spanning nearly four decades.

In 1988, he cleared the civil services exam and joined the Indian Foreign Service. He is credited for the opening of an Indian embassy in Ukraine, which was helpful in pulling out thousands of Indian students, many from Punjab, who were studying there when Russia invaded the country.

But Amritsar is a difficult constituency, as the Akali Dal, Congress, AAP and the BJP are headed for a four-way contest in the state. Some big names like Arun Jaitley had contested previously from Amritsar, but unsuccessfully. This time around, of the nine assemblies in Amritsar, none of them are represented by the BJP — making this even more difficult for Sandhu and the BJP.

Yet, he is confident of pulling through victorious, given his family's ties to the city, PM Modi's welfare schemes and a general feeling of exhaustion among the voters with the traditional parties that represented them.

Home Gatherings, 'Private Meetings' And Satsangs

Amb. Sandhu likes to be on time and is trying his best to keep the campaign as professional as possible.

"I want to carry forward the principles and discipline I imbibed as a foreign services officer. This field (politics) is also not very different — after all, we are public servants", he says, as he gets inside a Fortuner waiting for him outside his residence.

Before he left, he flagged off the auto-rickshaws that were canvassing in support of him. Loudspeakers mounted announced slogans in support of him and Khalsa.

As he was about to reach his next destination, his team alerted him about the latest development — a fire broke in a commercial establishment nearby. Rushing to the spot, he assures full support to the owners of the establishment and asks some of his men to assist the team in any required manner.

At Greenfield, he addresses a gathering of about two hundred people waiting to hear from him.

According to the locals, garbage disposal, unemployment, depleting law and order, and drug abuse are the biggest issues troubling them.

When it gets hot in the afternoon, Sandhu holds meetings at home with various stakeholders, requesting them for support in the elections. A good portion of his day is spent either trying to woo stakeholders or meet farmers, community leaders and local representatives outside the city in some of the rural pockets of the constituency.

"These 'home meetings' and 'private engagements' are crucial to his campaign", says his family member who did not want to be named. 'Jagrans' provide another opportunity for the candidate to be seen among the potential voters in the constituency, as it has a certain religious fervour to it.

The BJP has deputed a few experienced campaign managers and party workers to help Sandhu run the campaign more effectively.

"The current MP (Gurjeet Singh Aujla) has done very little to develop the city. Issues that were relevant fifty years ago are still relevant now, be it safety, cleanliness, crackdown against the drug menace. Nothing has changed in Punjab, which is why most of our youth are leaving their families to settle abroad. Look at the amount of senior citizens who are left in a lurk because their children do not want to come back to India", says Khazan Singh, a resident of Ranjit Avenue in Amritsar.

Counting On Silent Voters

At every public gathering, Amb. Sandhu speaks about his family's history and his service as an IFS officer. He mentions how Amritsar has great potential to set an example to other cities since it is located close to a strategic border with Pakistan.

Instead of having to depend on trade with Pakistan, he says that the cargo aviation utility is underwhelming.

"Less than 20 per cent of the cargo aviation capacity is currently being utilised. Imagine how our farmers will benefit if we export our produce to other countries. I will push for this when I'm elected as a Member of Parliament", he says, as the audience applauds.

Sandhu has produced a vision document for Amritsar, keeping it's heritage and culture in mind. He wants to expand the aviation routes to different parts of the country and the world.

Further, he hopes to get the Americans to set up a consulate in Amritsar since many Punjabis have to travel to Delhi to get their visas.

Apart from the above, his goal remains to make Amritsar safe for women, free of drugs, create more employment opportunities for the youth.

While most pollsters and Punjab-watchers are of the view that Amritsar may prove to be too daunting a challenge for both Sandhu and the BJP, both the candidate and the party are leaving no stone unturned in preparation for 1 June, when the city, and the state, vote. And then we all wait for 4 June.

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