A Tale Of Many Worlds: The Close Contest In Anandpur Sahib 

A Tale Of Many Worlds: The Close Contest In Anandpur Sahib 

by Tushar Gupta - Thursday, May 16, 2019 11:02 AM IST
A Tale Of Many Worlds: The Close Contest In Anandpur Sahib Parkash Singh Badal and Narendra Modi (PMO) 
  • The constituency, today, is an amalgamation of information technology, spirituality, modern agriculture and trade.

    With the strong Modi sentiment in some regions, Akali stronghold in others, and underlying anger against the state government of Congress, the incumbent Akali MP Chandumajra is expected to retain his seat.

The Anandpur Sahib constituency of Punjab, which came into existence in 2008 after the delimitation of parliamentary and assembly constituencies, is a lot of worlds fused into one.

Stretching from Sahibzada Ajit Singh Nagar (Mohali) to Nangal (situated in the vicinity of the Bhakra Nangal Dam) in the north and Jalandhar in the west, the story of the constituency is one of extreme variation and versatility in terms of infrastructure, education and employment prospects, connectivity, and economy. The constituency, today, witnesses an amalgamation of the contemporary world of information technology, spirituality rooted in the elaborate history of Sikhism, modern agricultural practices, and trade. However, the political leadership has not been able to fulfil the aspirations of its electorate in this region.

Strictly in terms of geography, the constituency has many advantages. One, it is linked to the state capital of Chandigarh, helping tourism prospects in Anandpur Sahib and Kiratpur Sahib. Two, being in the vicinity of Ludhiana and Jalandhar, the two major industrial hubs of the state, the constituency, overall, forms an integral hub in the trade network.

Anandpur Sahib, Kiratpur Sahib, Garhshankar, and many more places of worship add to the prospects of religious tourism, but only to an extent. Mohali and Kharar, bordering Chandigarh, host an elaborate information technology (IT) park that hosts hundreds of small and medium enterprises in the service industry, apart from other industries and trades. However, even with the presence of an international airport, the IT Park in Mohali cannot be compared to those in Gurgaon, Noida, or Bangalore in terms of the companies present or employment numbers generated.

The Diluted Modi Factor

Even with the Modi tsunami that swept through in 2014 across India, the constituency of Anandpur Sahib saw a stiff clash. Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Himmat Singh Shergill stood third with 28.14 per cent of the vote share, Congress’ (INC) Ambika Soni was second with a vote share of 29.77 per cent, and Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) Prem Singh Chandumajra stood first with a vote share of 31.94 per cent and defeated Soni by a mere vote margin of 23,697.

The Modi tsunami transformed into a meek rivulet here in 2014, surging only enough to get SAD through. Given the alliance with SAD, the Bharatiya Janata Party did not field a candidate here in 2009 and 2014, nor it has this time. For the Modi factor to work here, it will have to pass through the filter of SAD which is not only battling the aftereffects of a decade in the state government but also trying to win back the voters who professed their loyalties to the AAP.

The 2017 state elections delivered a rude shock to the SAD-BJP alliance. While Congress claimed a comfortable majority in the state, of the nine Vidhan Sabha segments within the constituency, five went to INC and three to AAP, with SAD only being able to take one. However, with the AAP reduced to a laughing stock within the state, INC and SAD-BJP are now facing off in a close contest, with each trying to take over the vote share of the AAP. Also, INC is striving to carry the momentum from the 2017 state elections while the SAD-BJP alliance is banking on Modi to sail their incumbent MP, Chandumajra, through.

Interestingly, since 2009, Congress has tried a new candidate each time during the Lok Sabha elections. While in 2009, Ravneet Singh Bittu won, 2014 saw Ambika Soni losing, and 2019 is witnessing a ‘relative outsider’, Manish Tewari, trying to make a mark.

SAD-BJP have gone with Chandumajra, who commands strong loyalty in the agricultural belt, quite like his other SAD contemporaries.

AAP’s Narinder Singh Shergill, who last contested and lost from Mohali during the 2017 state elections, is a forgettable figure in the scheme of things.

Between 2014 and 2019, residents across the constituency have had their tryst with the AAP, have been audience to the two years of the state government under INC, and have seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiate an array of reforms. The political ambiguity of 2014 has ceased to exist, and the residents would now factor in the performance of the government in the centre and the state to make their voting choice.

Same Reforms, Different Stories

What makes the constituency of Anandpur Sahib complex, however, is that the impact of any reform is not homogeneous. While the Goods and Services Tax (GST) may have been a cakewalk for the service industry in Mohali and Kharar, the same GST has met a negative response from small and medium traders in Anandpur Sahib, Rupnagar, and elsewhere. While the urban population of Mohali and Kharar did not see their businesses getting disrupted due to demonetisation, the agricultural belt of Balachaur and Nawanshahr felt the pain of it.

Falling Short on Multiple Fronts: Anandpur Sahib

Nowhere is the disappointment against the sitting MP and state government as apparent as outside the holy shrine of Anandpur Sahib. One of the most sacred places for Sikhs, the shrine is located in the foothills of the Shivalik ranges. This is where in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh Guru, founded the Khalsa Panth against the rising atrocities unleashed by the then Mughal king, Aurangzeb.

Today, the entrance to the shrine is encompassed by a large market, trading in goods and religious artefacts made locally. Speaking to Swarajya, one of the shopkeepers here spoke about how nothing has been done for the development of the city around the shrine.

"There is so much history about the place, ensuring visitors come every week, month, and year after year, and yet, none of the state governments has done anything for this city. Even today, Anandpur Sahib has no proper railway link. We hoped for the SAD-BJP government to do something, but they spent 10 years making promises. The current government under the INC has no funds. All this hurts trade here. A lot of traders have now left. Some have gone to Amritsar, some in other parts of Punjab. The Sikh community of today is not justifying the sacrifices of their ancestors here," he finishes sadly.

Amarjot Singh, one of the other traders outside the shrine, spoke how demonetisation and GST devastated his business. "For almost two months after demonetisation, the production of goods had to be stopped because there was no cash to pay off the labourers. You can buy ration and food on credit, but for how long? Eventually, things were stabilising, but then GST came along. Today, even after more than two years of demonetisation, I am struggling to get my shop here and agriculture business back on track. The GST and demonetisation programmes have killed the small and medium business owner," he adds.

Upon asking if the local MP, Chandumajra, had been of any help, he added. "Honestly, we have not seen the MP here after the elections. There is anger against him and the party, and that is why no one voted for them in 2017, but now the Congress party has got a new leader (referring to Manish Tewari). He says he'll address our concerns, but they all say that. They have been singing the same tune or years," Amarjot finished.

There is also the problem of forced digitisation. Another shopkeeper in the same market, speaking to Swarajya, discussed how the government was forcing them to opt for digital payment methods. "Sir, there is no proper internet facility here. They have given us these card machines, but the network is down all the time. Even if their intention is good, most of these villagers do not understand the process. It is all too time-consuming." Upon our visit to the only nearby ATM, common to the market and the shrine, we discovered that it had been out of cash for an entire week.

Traversing through the market, we came across traders that shared the concern against the forced digitisation and hurried implementation of the GST. However, there were a few exceptions.

In a candid conversation with Swarajya, Balwant Singh, aged 73, spoke highly of GST and demonetisation. “As long as it is for the greater good of the nation, we do not mind a disruption. Yes, there were some issues with GST in the beginning, but they all stand resolved now. At my age, if one can fill their GST returns on a computer, what excuse do these young traders have?”

Balwant Singh further spoke about what the city residents had been demanding for years. “I have spent my entire life here since the country got independence. There is nothing I have not seen, from the years after the independence to those of insurgency and militancy in the late 1980s. The national elections are all about electing a Prime Minister,” he adds.

“I can vote for Tewari, he seems to be a good leader, but I do not want Rahul Gandhi as my prime minister. Modi has initiated reforms that are good for the entire nation. Be it Chandumajra (referring to the sitting MP) or Tewari, or any other party candidate. They are all observers. We are electing a PM here, and me and my family like Modi for the work he has done,” he concludes.

Upon asking if they were impressed by Rahul Gandhi’s promise of giving citizens Rs. 72,000 a year, he, and his son, both spoke about the promises made by the INC before coming to power in 2017.

“Firstly, there is the question of implementation. There is no way he can implement such an expensive scheme. Even when INC was fighting elections in the state, they made similar promises. Young boys and girls were asked to fill forms, give their details, and they were told that once their government comes to power, they’ll be given jobs, smartphones, and a sustained income. They won a thumping majority, it has been two years, and nothing has been done. Rahul Gandhi is making empty promises; he can’t and won’t deliver. Our support for Modi is unconditional”.

Manjinder Singh, aged 68, in a conversation with Swarajya, spoke about some recent developments in Anandpur Sahib. “The SAD-BJP government commissioned the ‘Virasat-e-Khalsa’ in 1999, and it was finally inaugurated in 2011, but tourism has not picked up as most were hoping to. Traders, for years, anticipated an increasing footfall around the shrine because of the museum, hoped for more sales and revenues, but they all have been disappointed so far. There has been an increase, but it is not sufficient,” he adds.

Located a kilometre away from the Anandpur Sahib shrine, the Virasat-e-Khalsa is no less than an architectural masterpiece. The entrance to the museum is free, and one can see long queues outside the counter where passes are issued (even for free entry). However, there is also the option of buying a pass for a hundred rupees if one does not wish to join the queue. Against the hour that is spent getting a free-pass, a paid one can be bought in a few seconds. Clearly, the paid pass has no takers, and thus, there is little revenue for the government to realise from the museum.

The museum has made it to the Limca Book of World Records, has hosted dignitaries and ambassadors from around the globe, and hosts the 550-years of Sikh history, right up to Partition for one to go through. By the end of 2019, the museum would have seen a lifetime footfall of above 10 million.

Sukhjinder Kaur, aged 59, and one of the residents of the city, spoke about how lack of industry and education in the region added to the economic drain from Punjab.

"Earlier, in the 1990s, people left Punjab because they or their relatives had suffered during the militancy. Some left after watching their brothers, uncles, and cousins disappear or being taken away by the authorities, but today, people from this region leave because of no industry or education options. Look around; there is no university. All big universities are in either Jalandhar or Chandigarh. Young people need opportunities, and no state or central government has done anything to aid the growth of industry here."

Upon asking about her views on the current leadership in the centre and the state, she said, "Chandumajra has not come here often, but we will vote for him because of Modi. He is doing some good work for the nation, and he is also getting the Kartarpur Corridor ready, so my vote is for him. Captain made a lot of promises, but now he says that his government has no money. Modi should continue for another term, and hopefully, he can help the state get back on its feet. Modi and Amarinder can work wonders together for the state."

Karanjit Singh, aged 40, and Ajeetpal Singh, aged 42, residents of Anandpur Sahib and owners of a consultancy service for people wanting to pursue higher education abroad, in a conversation with Swarajya, discussed what could get the city going. "We hope that tourism increases, but we need proper connectivity. They should get a proper railway link. The expressway to Chandigarh has been built, but one has to pay Rs. 250 as toll (verified figure), and already, the road is starting to fall apart".

They further added, “Recently, a jatha (a religious parade, taken on foot, propagating the teachings of Sikhism) had to march from Anandpur Sahib to Garhshankar (45 kilometres away), but the road was broken. Even after repeated requests to the local authorities, nothing was done to repair the road, and ultimately, the members of the jatha themselves repaired the road. There is no sustained focus on connectivity, be it for tourism or otherwise,”.

Speaking about the unnoticed economic drain of the state, they added, “the people here are not without resources. Poverty is not an issue here. The home of the Guru (referring to the Anandpur Shrine) is always open for anyone who wants two meals, but people need work. Each time a person moves out of Punjab, there is a warranted investment of at least Rs. 20 lakh”.

“Thousands and thousands have left Punjab, in the past few years, so imagine the kind of economic drain that the state has witnessed, and what if that money had been invested here. The new generation does not want to stay here, because of lack of opportunities. The ones who cannot move abroad move to Chandigarh or Delhi and drive a cab, work with some delivery or courier service. We fear that a generation later, we would need labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to take over the lands for cultivation because no one would be left, as you can see already there are so many of them”.

It is a common practice, amongst the farmers with more significant landholdings in Punjab, to employ labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to overlook their farms while their families are engaged in other businesses, or are settled in Canada or Australia.

Mixed Bag: Nawanshahr, Rupnagar, and Balachaur

Merely 70-kilometres away from the state capital, Balachaur is an important agricultural region of the state. While the city is dominated by mainly Hindus pursuing business, the rural population has a majority of Sikh farmers.

Interacting with Swarajya, a farmer from one of the villages spoke about the outsider factor that may work against Tewari. “For us, he is an outsider. He does not understand our problems, and he is a Hindu,” he tells me.

Upon asking about Chandumajra, he replies, “Our vote is for SAD-BJP. We have always voted for them. Badal Saab ne bahut kita hai kisaana layee (Parkash Singh Badal has done a lot for the farmers)“. As evident from history, the SAD-BJP alliance has always found a dependable ally in the farmers of the region.

The story is the same in the Nawanshahr region where Chandumajra, commands strong loyalty. Having recently been linked via a direct railway line to Amritsar, the Nawanshahr region is expected to back Chandumajra for another term.

Speaking to Swarajya, one of the traders from Rupnagar (formerly known as Ropar) spoke about his strong affiliation to the Congress and Captain Amarinder Singh. “Most people here back Chandumajra, but it is because of the party. Our grievances are against the GST that was forced upon us. For most traders, it as good as formal loot,” he says.

One of the other farmers in the region hailed Modi for the recently launched Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PMKSN) programme where each farmer with a landholding smaller than 2 hectares is directly transferred Rs. 6,000 on an annual basis.

“A lot of big farmers (referring to farmers with landholdings greater than 2 hectares) were unhappy about PMKSN because they were left out, but more than them, it’s farmers like me who need the scheme. They anyway have their other businesses to fall back on.”

Upon asking if the amount was sufficient, he answered, “No, a credit of Rs. 2,000 every four months does not make a huge difference, but it covers the interest on the loan I have taken, and I manage to save some money. Something is better than nothing, and hopefully, more reforms will be taken to boost agriculture in our region. Ours is one of the most fertile lands in the world, so we expect the next government to go big on organic farming, procurement, and price support.”.

Swarajya further emphasised if the prospect of receiving Rs. 6,000 a month under INC’s promised NYAY programme against getting the same amount a year made any difference to the voters here, and he answered, “Who knows when that money shall arrive if it will even arrive. I heard people in Nawanshahr filled forms for jobs and smartphones before Captain Amarinder Singh came to power, and after two years, they say they have no money. We are not gullible to fall for the same gimmick again,” he says.

One of the many farmers in Balachaur region and a beneficiary of the PMKSN programme also lauded Modi for the scheme. “It covers my interest, and leaves me with some savings,” he begins. An ardent follower of primetime debates, he told Swarajya how Tewari, for most in the village, was an outsider. “Saade pind da vote Badal Saab te Modi layee (our village vote goes to Badal and Modi)”, he finishes.

Kharar: Law, Order, and an Infrastructural Boom

When the residents of Kharar go out to vote on 19 May, the recent incident of a senior drug inspector being shot dead would be at the back of their minds. Posted with the Drug and Food Chemical Laboratory, Neha Shorie, in her early 30s, was shot dead point-blank by a resident of Morinda in her office in Kharar.

As per local media reports, he held a grudge against Shorie because the latter had confiscated his drug licence after recovering intoxicant drugs from his medicine store a decade ago. The accused was nabbed by people nearby as he tried to escape.

The law and order situation in Kharar, which borders Mohali and Chandigarh, and is home to many private universities in the region, has been relatively alright in the past few years. However, what has transformed the region since 2014 is the infrastructural boom led by real estate developers. Even if Chandumajra were to himself take a detour through Kharar, he would have trouble navigating initially for the region has seen a complete overhaul, led by the induction of lavish real estate projects, residential and commercial areas.

The region is now a part of the integral road network that encompasses the state capital. Bypassing Chandigarh, National Highway 5, now forms the backbone of all investments in Kharar in the commercial and residential realm.

Tewari will have to find a way to counter the popularity of Modi which has witnessed a surge since the NDA government’s intense action against Pakistan. Tewari, in his campaign, has stressed on creating jobs for people in this region, but as the development in Mohali shows, the rhetoric will not help him go too far.

Mohali (SAS Nagar): Aiming to be the Silicon City of Punjab

If there is one region in Punjab that can cater to the formal employment prospects of the entire state, along with that of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, it is Mohali.

In the last 10 years, the city has gone from being a little town on the outskirts of Chandigarh, famous for the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) Stadium to a bustling city powered by real estate expansion. The more enormous developments, however, have come in the last five years, with enhanced connectivity via state and national highways. The presence of an international airport has added to the investment prospects.

Speaking to Swarajya, Ambika Kapoor, a senior human resources manager with an IT firm in Mohali, addressed the Congress rhetoric of jobs. “The availability of jobs depends on which side of the table is one sitting. There are hundreds of service companies in Mohali. Some have only five employees and are recent while some have gone from five to five hundred in the last few years. The nature of the IT industry has changed, but even today, you shall not find HRs not looking for recruitments. It is the skill development where the actual gap is, not the jobs. The ones who are willing to learn, and there are a majority of those, bag the jobs, while the rest complain of the firms being unfair, of the government not doing anything”.

Addressing the concerns pertaining to GST and demonetisation, she further added, “Any employee, in any company in India, in their first month gets a bank kit, a debit card, and a cheque book. Some even manage a credit card in the same month. The urban population here depends on digital payments, so demonetisation wasn’t much of a shocker for us. GST, however, took some nights of our finance teams, but it is sorted now. A few training sessions with the senior management and all GST concerns were addressed”.

A CEO of a leading IT firm in Mohali elaborated upon the prospects of jobs, infrastructure development, and growth in the region. “Our company went from two floors and a hundred employees in 2015 to five floors, over four-hundred employees, and expansion in other service areas, so not sure where the talk of the economy slowing down stems for. The success story is being replicated across many other companies in Mohali”, he adds.

Addressing other concerns, he says, “the international airport will add to the connectivity of the region. Infosys is already setting up a big campus here. Hero Group has made a massive real estate investment, and other companies are following as well. The next five years are critical, and hence, the voting preferences will be dictated by what a government can deliver, not a candidate alone, so all this job creation rhetoric is pointless. MPs do not create jobs, entrepreneurs do, and we have been helped with a business-friendly atmosphere in the last five years, so our preferences are clear,” he finishes.

The fate of the state, in the next five years, shall be closely linked to the growth of Mohali. Bordering Patiala, Chandigarh, and Rupnagar, the city is set to become a lobbying point for the aspiring youth of Punjab for a quality of life that they have always desired. Also, the infrastructural boom that has been on the rise in the last two years should add to the investment prospects. Already, the city is home to one of the most prominent private universities in north India, one of India’s leading research institutes, and the Indian School of Business, a renowned management school.

Divided By Reforms, United By AAP

Even though the reforms have been received differently across the constituency, there is one aspect where the residents offer a united response, the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal.

In 2014, AAP’s Himmat Singh Shergill debuted with an impressive 28 per cent vote share in the constituency and was significant in cutting through the vote share of both the INC and SAD-BJP. In the 2017 state elections, AAP had three MLAs-from Garhshankar, Kharar, and Rupnagar.

Speaking to the residents of Kharar, Swarajya learned how the AAP MLA had discarded his responsibilities after the state elections, citing lack of majority in the state legislative assembly. “They are nowhere to be seen,” a resident says, questioning if the party was ever serious about helping Punjab evade the political collusion of SAD-BJP and the INC.

In Anandpur Sahib, Balachaur, and Mohali, the residents have been far less forgiving for the AAP. While some merely laughed off the prospect of an AAP candidate winning an election, many cited the questionable gimmicks of Arvind Kejriwal as a reason for the downfall of the party. “They could have won 6-8 seats from Punjab alone in this election had they been a little sincere in their work,” another resident says. For now, it seems that AAP has no more of the good old Punjabi generosity to cash upon. “They are now without any existence or value,” another resident remarks, dismissing the party.

Manish Tewari: An Outsider, Yes and No

The SAD-BJP has used the ‘outsider’ tag to target Manish Tewari, but this tagging will not help the alliance. In Mohali, Kharar, and Rupnagar region, Tewari holds well because of a robust urban voter base, a vote share diversion from the AAP, and the negative sentiment against Akalis, prevailing since their fall of 2017.

However, what also works for Tewari in some regions is his ancestral connect to Ludhiana, from where he was an MP between 2009 and 2014, and his parental connect to Chandigarh. Though there have been multiple reports of Tewari being unhappy about contesting from Anandpur Sahib constituency and a sentiment of rebellion against the party candidate, the former minister of information and broadcasting has risen to the challenge.

In his campaign across Mohali and Kharar, an area bordering Chandigarh, he shall also be helped by the popularity of three-time MP and former minister of railways, Pawan Kumar Bansal. Bansal, who is contesting against BJP’s Kirron Kher in Chandigarh, garnered some early momentum in the campaign, and will undoubtedly add weight to the Tewari camp.

What shall work for Chandumajra, on the other side, is the Modi-factor. Even though diluted by the SAD-BJP alliance, Modi’s reforms on the policy front, his stern conduct against Pakistan, and the impression of stability offered by the NDA government shall collectively add thrust to the campaign of this incumbent MP.

History shows that the constituency has voted for the party and not the candidate, and therefore, Chandumajra holds an edge over Tewari in this close contest.

With the strong Modi sentiment in some regions, Akali stronghold in others, and underlying anger against the state government of INC, Chandumajra is expected to retain his seat. Tewari, on the other hand, if at all manages to pull off a victory, it would be nothing short of exceptional. Like 2014, Anandpur Sahib is all set for a close contest with advantage SAD-BJP.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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