Congress holds edge but no smooth ride for any party in Punjab
Punjab will vote on Sunday for the Lok Sabha elections but unlike in other states, the contest in this border province is reduced to a battle between Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress and arch rival Akali Dal.
One of the few remaining states where Congress is in a commanding position, the Lok Sabha battle is being fought essentially on local issues.
Amarinder Singh stormed to power two years ago. Despite claiming that it is a national election and the outcome will not be a reflection on his government's performance, the voters are in a mood to put him on a mid-term test.
The going is not easy for the Akali Dal as well. The infighting leading to the formation of breakaway Taksali group has the party in disarray. The anger among Sikh voters over the episode of desecration of holy scripture and the subsequent police firing on the protesters during the Akali rule is still simmering.
In 2014, the Modi wave failed to inundate Punjab, which gave four seats to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the only state to send members from the new entity to the Lok Sabha.
However, the AAP's surge was at the expense of the Congress as the party managed to win only three of the 13 seats while the Akali Dal-BJP alliance bagged six.
With the AAP in disarray as most of its prominent faces and sitting MPs -- Dharmavir Gandhi from Patiala and Harinder Singh Khalsa from Fatehpur Sahib -- deserting the ship, both the Akali Dal and the Congress are relieved. They are happy to face each other in a direct contest instead of batting it out in a triangular fight.
Considering the overall political situation in the state, the Congress seems to have an edge but it is going to be a tough fight on every seat because of various equations at play.
There is anti-incumbency against the state government in some areas and the BJP is confident that the Hindu votes will go to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at least in big cities like Amritasar and Ludhiana.
Lack of employment is one of the major concerns for voters for which both the central and state governments are being held responsible.
There is resentment against the state government for stopping many schemes of the previous regime for the poor. The promise by the Congress government to put a stop on the rampant drug business -- one of the major poll issues in the Assembly elections -- remains unfulfilled.
Every region has its own complications that would have their own impact. In Amritsar, the banning of border trade with Pakistan because of the ongoing stand-off has affected livelihood of around 40,000 people.
The farmers in the border villages have a major issue with fencing as they face problems in accessing their fields.
The Congress will benefit from the split in the Akali Dali, with its Khadoor Sahib MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura floating Akali Dal (Taksali) with others like Rattan Singh Ajnala and Sewa Singh Sekhwan.
The Akalis had faced the wrath of the people in the Assembly elections when it came third behind the Congress and AAP winning only 15 out of 117 seats. The Congress got 77, AAP won 20 and the BJP could secure only three.
It remains to be seen how much ground has been regained by the Akali Dal-BJP.
Union Minister and prominent Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who is defending her Bathinda seat, told IANS that the party was on the comeback trail. She appeared confident of winning her own seat and said that her husband Sukhbir Badal, contesting from Ferozpur, will also secure an easy win.
The BJP is also facing a challenge. The party has fielded Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri from Amritsar. He is getting little support from the state unit as the campaign on the seat remains on low key.
Sunny Deol, fielded by the party from Gurdaspur, seems to be the best bet as the popular star is attracting a lot of attention. It is a prestige battle for captain Amarinder Singh in Gurdaspur as the Congress nominee and state unit president Sunil Jakhar is considered close to him.
Vjay Sampla, a prominent Dalit face of BJP, is sulking after being denied ticket from Hoshiarpur.
The fields of Punjab are ash blackened due to rampant stubble burning by the farmers preparing for the next sowing season.
The political parties are looking for a rich harvest on May 23.
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