The high-octane, calumny- filled campaign for the assembly elections in Punjab and Goa, billed as the first major test of the Modi government’s popularity post-demonetisation, ended today.
The gruelling campaign concluded for all the 117 seats of Punjab and 40 of the tiny coastal state of Goa this evening ahead of the February 4 single-phase polling in the two states where BJP is in power.
It was for the first time in the recent memory that Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has not been keeping well, did not go stumping and the task of spearheading the electioneering was left to her heir apparent and deputy Rahul Gandhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah a battery of Union Ministers Including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar plunged into electioneering for BJP and its allies in the two states.
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Punjab, where the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine has been in power over the last decade, saw bitter exchanges between it and two other major contenders for power–Congress and AAP over drug menace, corruption and law and order.
Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is contesting assembly elections in both the states, where BJP and Congress have been traditional political rivals, for the first time and is said to be a potential contender for power.
Apart from the drug menace, the contentious SYL canal issue and sacrilege of holy books of Sikhs were among the major issues flagged by the electoral rivals.
Prime Minister Modi held two elections rallies in Jalandhar and Kotkapura in the state where he flagged the issue of threat from Pakistan to seek votes for SAD-BJP combine, which he claim alone could provide a stable government that would guarantee safety and security of the state.
Rahul Gandhi took Congress’ campaign to the pocket boroughs of the ruling Badal clan, including Lambi, Majitha and Jalalabad, to target it over alleged corruption, playing dynastic politics and promoting drugs and mining mafia.
The AAP, which had won four Lok Sabha seats in 2014, has plunged into the contest whole-heartedly with Arvind Kejriwal criss-crossing large parts of the state. It has fielded candidates in all the 117 seats and is expected to fare well.
After initial dithering, Rahul Gandhi declared Patiala royal family scion Amarinder Singh the party’s chief ministerial face. Amarinder, 74, has already announced it would be his last election.
A clutch of AAP leaders including Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and Bhagwant Mann, a potential candidate for chief ministership if the party wins, added heft to the party’s campaign.
Interestingly, in Goa, where the BJP is facing a rival in a rebel RSS leader, the party has not projected incumbent Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar as chief ministerial face and has often hinted at a Manohar Parrikar’s return to the hot seat, apparently to cash in on his enduring popularity in the state.
Union Minister and SAD’s Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the explosion at Maur was “a wakeup call for Punjabis to reject both AAP and Congress and vote in the SAD-BJP alliance which was committed to maintaining peace and communal harmony in Punjab at all costs”.
On the other hand, Rahul and Amarinder held Kejriwal squarely responsible for allegedly promoting extremist forces such as the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) in the state, and said the bomb blast in Bathinda showed that the inoperative terror cells of the Khalistanis were again getting active.
Amarinder said Kejriwal, who had himself stayed at a KCF extremist’s house in Punjab, was fanning terror forces through his actions, led by the dangerous mix of the AAP’s extreme left and extreme right ideologies.
It was only from Punjab in which Kejriwal’s outfit won four seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, later two MPs were suspended from the party.
Ahead of the polls, political leaders from Punjab cutting across parties had flocked Sirsa-headquartered Dera Sacha Sauda to seek ‘blessings’.
While the leaders, many of whom are contesting assembly polls, had maintained there was nothing political about their visit, the Dera, which has a number of followers, especially in the Malwa belt, had announced to support candidates of SAD-BJP combine in the polls.
Key contest on the cards is from Lambi seat where CM Badal, who is seeking another term, is locked in a triangular contest with Amarinder Singh and journalist-turned-politician Jarnail Singh of AAP.
Jalalabad – a pocket borough of Sukhbir – is witnessing two sitting MPs Ravneet Singh Bittu (Cong), grandson of late chief minister Beant Singh, and comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann locked in three-way fight against the Deputy CM.
Veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal is fighting it out against finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa of SAD from her traditional bastion Lehragagga.
AAP’s Himmat Singh Shergill is up against revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia from Majitha and AAP’s Ghuggi from Batala against Congress stalwart Ashwini Sekhri.
Patiala is another seat which is witnessing a close contest between Amarinder and former army chief Gen J J Singh of SAD.
Sidhu is fighting it out from Amritsar East against Rajesh Kumar Honey of BJP.
Badal’s estranged nephew Manpreet Singh Badal is trying to return back into main politics from Bathinda Urban seat on a Congress ticket.
Indian Youth Congress Chief Raja Amarinder Singh Warring is testing electoral battle from Gidderbaha. A total of 1,146 candidates are in the fray for Punjab Assembly polls.
In the coastal state, apart from Rahul, members of his youth brigade including Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Randeep Surjewala sought votes for Congress.
Apart from Modi and Amit Shah, Parrikar extensively campaigned for BJP. Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani were among its other star campaigners IN Goa.
Kejriwal, too, campaigned in several parts of the state where his party had been doing the ground work for entering the electoral contest for a long time.
Both Kejriwal and Parrikar got embroiled in controversy for allegedly encouraging bribery when they reportedly asked the electors to accept money from others but vote for their respective parties. They have been issued show cause notices by te Election Commission.
The BJP is going to the hustings without Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, its ally in the last elections, which has teamed up with rebel RSS leader Subhash Velingkar’s Goa Suraksha Manch and Shiv Sena. The new alliance is contesting 28 of the state’s 40 seats.
The contest in Goa, in all probability, will mainly be three-cornered between BJP, Congress and AAP. The new alliance may be able to make it four-cornered in some places.
The BJP is contesting 36 seats and supporting four independents, while Congress has fielded its candidates in 38 seats and is supporting two others, including an independent. AAP nominees are in the fray in 39 seats after nomination of one of its candidates was rejected.
In Punjab, the death of six people, including children in a car bomb explosion at Maur Mandi in Bathinda has raised the political temperature further with the Akalis and their rivals accusing each other of patronising extremist elements, and warning of a return of terrorism.
Tough contest appears on cards for the Lambi seat where Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, 89, is crossing swords with state Congress chief and party’s CM face Amarinder Singh. Amarinder is also trying his luck from his pocket borough of Patiala, where he is locked in a keen contest with former Army chief J J Singh of SAD.
Badal’s son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir is contesting Jalalabad against two sitting MPs Ravneet Singh Bittu (Congress), grandson of late chief minister Beant Singh and comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann.
Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who recently left BJP to join Congress is in the fray for Amritsar East constituency represented in the current assembly by his wife.
Alongside the assembly polls, by-poll for the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat will also take place on Saturday. The seat fell vacant after Amarinder Singh resigned as MP to protest against Supreme Court’s order on Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal.
BJP has fielded Rajinder Mohan Singh Chhina, who is trying his luck against Congress’ Gurjit Singh Aujla and Aam Aadmi Party’s Upkar Singh Sandhu for the seat.
In Goa, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar is facing a four-cornered fight in his constituency of Mandrem which he has been representing for last four terms.
Panaji, the constituency represented by Manohar Parrikar till his elevation to the Union Cabinet, has BJP’s sitting MLA Siddharth Kuncolienkar contesting against Congress-backed Atanasio Monserratte.
Former Chief Minister and Leader of Opposition Pratapsinh Rane is pitted against BJP’s Vishwajit K Rane in Poriem constituency on Congress ticket.
Interestingly, the February 4 polls will decide the fate of five former chief ministers besides Parsekar. While Ravi Naik, Digambar Kamat, Pratapsinh Rane and Luizinho Faleiro are in the fray as Congress nominees, Churchill Alemao is contesting on NCP ticket.