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February 13, 1998


R L Bhatia faces the stiffest challenge of his career

Prem Panicker in Amritsar

In the Vatican of the Sikhs, where that community comprises 63 per cent plus of the electorate, a battle royal is brewing.

In the left corner, former Union minister and sitting Congress MP R L Bhatia, looking for a sixth term from the temple township.

And in the right corner, Daya Singh Sodhi, card-carrying member of the RSS, state unit president of the BJP (here in alliance with the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal headed by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal), a greybeard veteran of 50 years in politics but, surprisingly, contesting his first-ever election.

The last time this constituency went to the polls, in 1996, Bhatia polled 268,490 votes (this time, his campaign manager and son Ramesh Bhatia points out, he has the added advantage of the CPI and BSP support). Runner up was Kirpal Singh of the Janata Dal with 234,818 votes -- however, he is neither contesting, nor has Singh come out in favour of any candidate. On that occasion, BJP candidate Baldev Chawla polled 81,334 votes while Daljit Singh of the Akali Dal (Mann group) polled 19,980 votes.

On the face of it, thus, it appears a shoo-in for the incumbent. However, there is one vital new factor this time round -- the SAD (Badal) and the BJP share power in Punjab, and it is as a member of the ruling alliance that Sodhi is taking to the streets.

In effect, there are eight candidates. Beant Singh 'Khiala', under the banner of Baljit Singh Sandhu's newly floated outfit Sikh Citizen's Council; Amarjit Kaur of the BSP (Ambedkar); Kirpal Singh of the RJD (being confused, I find, quite often here with the Janata Dal candidate who came runner-up in 1992); and Praveen Kumar, Ramesh Talwar and Durga Dass, all Independents.

You want to go around Amritsar for any of the above six -- no one has heard of them, their homes are unknown, election offices non-existent; and despite a day and a half of going through this city I am yet to spot a single poster bearing their images.

Effectively, then, what you have here is Bhatia versus Sodhi -- sort of like a battle between the reigning heavyweight and the challenger, only said challenger has the support of the boxing council or, in this case, the state government.

That support was evident on February 10, when Chief Minister Badal in company of cabinet colleagues Manjit Singh Calcutta and Balram Das Tandon (former state BJP chief), stormed thru the constituency addressing five rallies in the day. Earlier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Shatrughan Sinha addressed rallies in Amritsar, and on February 11 it was Dara Singh's turn to play crowd-puller.

Bhatia's campaign is not exactly star-studded -- his USP being the organisational skill that has carried him to five wins thus far. The campaign is meticulously charted and monitored by son Ramesh, and Bhatia, having already touched every town and village here, is now on his second round.

Sodhi's leitmotif is simple: the Akalis and BJP share power in the state; bringing the same combine into government at the Centre is a gilt-edged guarantee for Punjab's progress; Vajpayee according to every opinion poll, is the country's choice for PM, so you might as well vote Sodhi because you are in effect voting for Vajpayee. And oh yes, the BJP is now the only party that can guarantee stability at the Centre.

Bhatia, too, harps on the stability factor, arguing that in 50 years of Independence, no non-Congress government has ever severed out its full term. Sure, the Congress has no prime ministerial candidate, but then you are voting for a party, a government and not for an individual.

It all boils down, however, to votebanks. The BJP-SAD combine appears, thanks to measures such as providing free electricity to the farming community, to have consolidated the agrarian vote to a considerable extent. However, this gain appears to have come at the expense of a Dalit backlash, the backward community's grouse being that to appease the Jat farming community, the government has been forced to increase domestic power supply rates to balance the shortfall caused by provision of free power. Interestingly, the populist shagan scheme whereby the SAD-BJP government gifts Rs 5,100 to every Dalit girl on her wedding is being dismissed as a meaningless sop.

All this has caused some erosion in the ruling combine's prospects in rural areas. But the key to the contest lies in the urban centres of Amritsar, Batala, Majitha, Qadian and Verka.

My version of a straw poll -- walking into shops, garages and just about anyplace else I can find open for business -- ends inconclusive. The average votes here appears undecided. Yet.

A faceoff

On their respective achievements, and their rivals

D S Sodhi: I have been with this party all my life. I am a founder member of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, I still attend the daily RSS shakhas. There is no ambiguity about who and what I am. In all these years I have never sought office, asked for a ticket -- even now, I stand because the party wanted me to.

As to Bhatia, what is he? A goonga pehelwan -- a man who, in 20 years or more as MP, has done nothing for Amritsar. In this period, this constituency raised millions - does it look like millions have been spent in Amritsar?

R L Bhatia: I brought the Shatabdi Express to Amritsar, got new trains introduced from here to Puri and Nanded, got the Jammu Tawi and Kalka train services from here restored, got a passport office for Amritsar -- my work for my constituency is known. Sodhi? Well. Just what has he done for Amritsar? And if elected, what can he as a first-time MP do?

Sonia Gandhi, Bluestar and all that:

D S Sodhi: That apology comes not from sorrow, but from a hunger for power. If Punjab suffered the turmoil of militancy for over a decade, the Congress is wholly, solely responsible.

R L Bhatia: Sonia Gandhi expressed her anguish, showed her compassion. And in my view, it was justified. The BJP condemns it today -- forgetting that they were to first ones to applaud, to gloat when Bluestar took place. They attack Sonia's 'hypocrisy' -- what of their own?

The Stability Plank:

D S Sodhi: Why are we facing the expense of a national election after just 18 months? Because of the Congress. The Congress was responsible for 18 months of political turmoil -- with what face can they now promise stability?

R L Bhatia: Out of 50 years, the Congress ruled for 43. We had four prime ministers. In the remaining seven years, there have been seven prime ministers. The Congress, whenever it got a mandate, served out its full term. The Opposition parties never, ever have. They say we caused the recent instability -- they forget that if not for the Congress, the country would have faced elections in 13 days, not 18 months? The Vajpayee government fell not because of the Congress, but because no party trusted the BJP. The UF ruled not because it had a mandate, but because we did our best to spare the country an election.

On the BJP-SAD government in Punjab:

D S Sodhi: We restored peace to the state, where the Congress could provide only hatred, bloodshed. If the two parties are in alliance, it is because Hindus and Sikhs, between whom the Congress sought to create a divide, are now united again. And that is achievement enough. Punjab is an agrarian state, and the government has already fulfilled its promise of free power. We have a common minimum programme, and every item on it is being fulfilled.

R L Bhatia: The Akali Dal says that unless Punjab gets all the water it requires from its rivers, none will be released to Haryana. And the BJP is opposed to that. What common minimum programme do they have -- to disagree on every important issue?

On corruption:

D S Sodhi: I thought Rao was not given a ticket because he was held responsible for Ayodhya? Is the Congress now saying it had a corrupt prime minister for five years? As to the CBI enquiry, does Bhatia think that anyone can block it? His party, while in power at the Centre, could not block the CBI from investigating Sukh Ram and others, but he claims a state government can? No, if the CBI is not investigating, it is because there is nothing to investigate! As simple as that.

R L Bhatia: The Congress stance is very clear -- denial of tickets to P V Narasimha Rao and many others is all the proof you require. What of the BJP? It is allied to the Akali Dal -- and in the short period of their rule, three senior IAS officers were sought to be investigated by the CBI, but the SAD-BJP government blocked it. And how can a party allied with Jayalalitha talk of corruption?

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