By Gautam Datt
Career diplomat-turned-Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri is roughing it out in Amritsar in his maiden electoral foray battling out the “outsider” tag, voter’s apathy and internal strife in local party unit.
In stark contrast to the high-profile contest in 2014 between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart Arun Jaitley and Punjab Congress spearhead Captain Amarinder Singh, the contest in the holy city is muted.
Puri is up against Gurjeet Singh Aujla of the Congress, a relatively junior leader who won the 2017 Lok Sabha by-polls from the Amritsar seat which was vacated by Amarinder Singh after becoming the Chief Minister.
Aujla was just a councillor before entering the Parliament two years ago and drives home his local connect with the people of Amritsar in his campaign speeches.
At an election meeting in cramped Lahori Gate area in the heart of city on a blistering Friday afternoon, Aujla told the gathering that he was one of their own while Puri will never be seen again after the elections like Jaitley.
“I am here with you. You have seen me, known me. I will fight your battles in Parliament,” he said to the audience occupying seats choking the congested road.
Puri is functioning out of his home in upmarket Shastri Nagar near Lawrence Road.
Harinder Singh Khalsa, an MP from Fatehgarh Saheb is standing firmly with Puri after quitting the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and joining the BJP. An IFS batchmate of Puri, he has been camping in Amritsar along with several other supporters of the Union Minister who have come from outside.
The local circles are abuzz about frictions in the state unit and the factors that may go against the Union Minister. The support from ally Akali Dal is missing and with its leaders like Ratan Singh Ajnala joining breakaway Taksali group, the support for Puri in the Assembly segment of Ajnala (one of the nine Assembly segments in Amritsar Lok Sabha seat) is expected to take a hit.
Within the BJP, it’s leader Rajender Mohan Singh Chinna who lost the by-polls with large margin to Aujla and there are reported frictions between local leader Shwet Malik and Anil Joshi who holds sway in Amritsar North.
Puri’s supporter are countering the “outsider” tag by emphasising that in “guru ki nagri” (Guru’s city) Amritsar nobody is an outsider. They said that initial resistances have been sorted out and his campaign has gathered steam.
They also remind the people about the “mistake” of defeating Jaitley as he went on to become the Union Finance Minister after losing from Amritsar and commanded immense powers. But Puri is already minister for Urban Development and will be able to work for the betterment of the city.
He has given a vision for Amritsar which includes giving it a holy city status. Apart from Golden Temple, the city has Durgiana temple and Ram Tirath.
For the people on the street, it is poll fatigue and general apathy. Aujla is a known face and Puri is still trying hard to break the ice.
The issues are local. The closure of border trade has impacted around 40,000 traders. The fencing on the border is a major issue for the farmers who have fields beyond the fence.
Aujla is credited with undertaking work for closing a waste drain on Atari-Amritsar highway causing major health hazard.
For the Congress, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who once represented Amritsar, is missing in action. His wife, Navjot, also an area MLA, is also keeping a low profile. Seen with Aujla is state Education Minister Om Prakash Soni.
What seems to be working for Aujla is his familiarity with the locals.