Chandigarh: Congress leader Sunil Jakhar scripted a fairytale comeback on Sunday, winning the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll by a thumping majority after crushing electoral losses in 2014 and 2017.
Jakhar, the chief of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, trumped his BJP rival Swaran Salaria by a margin of over 1,93,000 votes, triggering celebrations in party ranks. The victory margin is a record for the Gurdaspur seat. Jakhar polled 4,99,752 votes against the 3,06,553 votes cast for Salaria.
The previous record for the highest victory margin in Gurdaspur was held by former Congress MP Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, who had won with a margin of 1.51 lakh votes in 1980.
The decisive win comes as a shot in the arm for the six-month-old Amarinder Singh government and for the Congress ahead of Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
It’s also a relief for the Congress poll managers who picked Jakhar over Charanjit Kaur Bajwa, the wife of local strongman and Rajya Sabha MP Partap Bajwa, who has also held the Gurdaspur seat in the past. The choice was called into question especially since Jakhar lost the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly elections held earlier this year.
After the win, Jakhar, who is believed to be close to CM Amarinder Singh, said the verdict was a “message of resentment” against the policies of the Narendra Modi government. He said the saffron party “must read the writing on the wall now”. "People have rejected the BJP and also shown mirror to (their ally) the Akalis," he said.
As such the Akalis were wiped out six months ago when they were relegated to the third place in the Punjab assembly elections, he said.
Amarinder called it a major step in the “revival” of Congress and assured that he would fulfil election promises made by Jakhar.
Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu said the win was a Diwali gift for Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who will take over the reins of the party soon. "We have sent a beautiful Diwali gift packed with red ribbon to our would-be president Rahul Gandhi because it sets the tone.... It will be a shot in the arm for the Congress,” he said.
Sidhu also took on the Akali Dal, saying the massive mandate was a “slap” in the face of Akali Dal leader Sukhbir Badal and his brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia. “This (victory) is a big slap on the face of 'jeeja-saala'. Today the BJP will realise that Akali Dal in Punjab has become a burden."
The loss is worrying, to say the least, for the BJP. Gurdaspur, a Hindu-dominated constituency, was considered a party bastion with actor Vinod Khanna winning it four times on a BJP ticket. A victory now would have given it much-needed boost after it managed to win only one assembly segment — Sujanpur — of the four it contested under the Lok Sabha seat.
Other Assembly segments that fall under Gurdaspur are Bhoa, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Dinanagar, Qadian, Fathegarh Churian, Dera Baba Nanak and Batala.
BJP candidate Swaran Salaria had waited long for a chance to contest the Gurdaspur bypoll. The loss, despite huge investment of time and money, brings into question the role played by former deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, who managed the poll campaign for the BJP-Akali Dal combine.
The rape charge against Akali Dal’s Gurdaspur leader Sucha Singh Langah could also have dented the BJP’s chances.
For AAP, this bypoll was an opportunity to strengthen its presence in the state and Assembly, where it has 20 seats. The loss has reaffirmed its image of a party confined only to the Malwa region.
Its candidate, Major General Suresh Khajuria, blamed the party’s dismal performance on the “undemocratic” methods allegedly adopted by the Congress government.
“The Congress adopted every undemocratic technique that they could to get a lead in these elections. There were so many segments of voters, especially farmers who were disgruntled with the government and would never have voted for it. The Congress may have won, but it is not an honourable victory,” he said.
The high-stakes Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll recorded a 56 per cent voter turnout on October 11, lower than 70.03 per cent recorded in the 2014 general elections. Out of nine assembly segments falling in Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat, Dera Baba Nanak Vidhan Sabha constituency had registered maximum voting percentage at 65 per cent while the Batala Vidhan Sabha constituency had witnessed lowest voting percentage at 50 per cent.
The polling percentage in the nine assembly segments was also lower than what was recorded in 2017 assembly elections. Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat has been a stronghold of the BJP.
Actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna had remained four-time MP from Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat. Khanna died of cancer at a hospital in Mumbai on April 27 this year.