In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Aam Aadmi Party had made a strong bid to win Ludhiana, otherwise known as Punjab’s industrial capital. The party’s candidate, HS Phoolka, had narrowly lost the seat to Congress’s Ravneet Singh Bittu.
Less than three years later, Bittu has now shifted his focus to Jalalabad to take on Punjab’s deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal in the ongoing assembly polls. Phoolka, meanwhile, has returned to the city to try his luck once again.
This time, AAP has decided to form an alliance with the powerful Bains brothers, one of whom had contested as an independent candidate in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Of the nine assembly constituencies, Phoolka had led in four in 2014, while Simarjit Singh Bains was a clear leader in other two segments. Bittu had the lead in the remaining three.
The Akali Dal’s Manpreet Singh Ayali, who had polled over 2,50,000 votes in 2014 was second or third in most assembly segments.
However, there does not appear to be any takers for Akali and BJP combine in Ludhiana in this year’s assembly polls with Badals’ popularity taking a serious beating since May 2014.
However, Devindar Singh Sidhu, a resident of Dakha constituency in Ludhiana, told me that the fight was between AAP and Akalis.
He said, “As of now, AAP candidate (Phoolka) has taken a significant lead. Even though we still have couple of days of campaigning left, I can’t see this trend being reversed. Congress may have had a chance here, but they started their campaign late.
“The reason why AAP has clear advantage here is because Phoolka is a known face. The other reason why AAP is ahead is the party’s popularity among youth, who have a lot of aspirations from Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal connects with youth even in Punjab.”
In neighbouring Gill constuency, I detected some loud support for Akali Dal’s Darshan Singh Shivalik, but even his die-hard supporters had no qualms in admitting that they ‘hated’ Badals.
Just when I was speaking to couple of enthusiastic supporters of Congress and AAP, a jeep full of Akali supporters arrived. Sukhdev Bhamrah was among them. A camera shy, Bhamrah said that he will vote for Akali candidate but not because of his love for Badals.
He said, “We are supporting Shivalik, the sitting MLA, because he’s been an honest leader, who is always accessible to us whenever we need him. Another striking thing about him is that he refused to use laal batti even after he won this constituency in 2012. But, we hate Badals, they have ruined the state. Nobody would miss them if Akalis are decimated this time.”
Ranjit Singh Sethu, a 23-year-old youth, agreed with Bhamrah about his description of the local Akali leader, but said he will vote for AAP’s Jivan Singh Longowal on 4 February.
Explaining his reason for AAP support, Sethu said, “We want change this time. Voting for Shivalik will be pointless because there’s palpable anger against Akalis in the state. We don’t want to waste our votes on Shivalik even though we like him.”
Kejriwal’s party enjoys plenty of support among Sikhs but it has not been able to win over the Punjabi Hindu and Ludhiana’s affluent community. The party is still viewed as the voice of youth and Sikhs in and around Ludhiana. Unlike Delhi, AAP also has not been able to get the city’s traders community on its side up until now.
This suddenly brightens up Congress’s chances in an otherwise AAP bastion in Punjab’s Malwa region. Congress’s Bharat Bhushan Ashu is widely being tipped to get re-elected from Ludhiana West, which houses city’s richest individuals.
Rakesh Jain, a native resident of Ludhiana West, said that Akalis were out but AAP had failed to woo the rich community in the city.
“I’ve lived all my life here and have never seen such an anger against Akalis before. Badals will be annihilated, no doubt about that. But, Congress will win Ludhiana West seat again because Ashu has been a great MLA here. Having said that, jhaadu and letter box (election symbols of AAP and Lok Insaf Party by Bains brothers) are very popular elsewhere in Ludhiana.”
Curiously, most of Congress posters in the city has no mention of Sonia or Rahul Gandhi’s names. Instead, most of Congress’s election materials appear to be seeking votes in the name of Captain Amarinder Singh.
Although AAP appears all set to win at least seven out of Ludhiana’s nine assembly constituencies with the help of Lok Insaf Party, the party is suffering from silent factionalism, thereby adversely affecting the morale of its supporters.
Many NRIs have travelled from USA and Canada here to campaign for AAP, but they too have been ‘shocked’ to see the growing differences within the party.
Shikhar Singla, an influential NRI, who has travelled from the USA, told me that the the ticket distribution by AAP had plenty of flaws. Singla blamed the internal feud for the ‘chaos.’
“Had we been careful in our ticket distribution, we would have indeed swept the whole of Punjab. But by fielding wrong candidates, we’ve considerably reduced our chances. Though we may still be able to get majority, with right candidates we would have surely crossed 100 in the state.”
Ludhiana falls in what’s known as Punjab’s Malwa region, which has 69 seats. AAP supporters claim they will sweep the region but even the most optimistic amongst them say that they will only be able to win not more than 50-55 seats in the region.
Kuljit Singh, a resident of Jagraon constituency, said that while there was an overwhelming support for Kejriwal and broom in Malwa region, the party still needed to do ‘more to penetrate’ in urban areas.
He said, “We are not very optimistic about our chances in urban pockets. Congress may do better there. But if we can replicate our rural performance in towns and cities in Malwa, we should be able to create history just like Delhi.”