Exclusive | India General Elections 2024: In Sangrur, a radical takes on establishment leaders

29 May,2024 06:53 AM IST |  Sangrur  |  Faisal Tandel

While Sukhpal Singh Khaira, three-time MLA from Congress, and Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer of the AAP focus on local issues like farm distress and drugs, Simranjit Singh Mann has been stoking Khalistani flames

Congress candidate Sukhpal Singh Khaira interacts with people in the constituency. Pic/Faisal Tandal

The Sangrur constituency in Punjab will witness a contest between the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Congress and AAP. The incumbent MP, Simranjit Singh Mann of the Akali Dal, known for his Khalistani sympathies, is seeking re-election. Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer, the AAP candidate, is a two-time MLA and serves as a cabinet minister in the Bhagwant Mann government, while Congress has fielded Sukhpal Singh Khaira, a three-time MLA and the leader of the Opposition.

Meanwhile, Mann has been vocal about his opposition to the central government and has utilised the anniversary of the 1984 Operation Blue Star to remind voters of the Congress's past actions against the Sikh community. Congress candidate Khaira, son of veteran Akali leader and former Punjab education minister Sukhjinder Singh Khaira, is focusing on local issues such as employment, a drug-free Punjab, and the farmers' concerns to garner support. Hayer is also centring his campaign on employment, drug control, and farmers' issues.

AAP candidate Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer drove a tractor to villages

Despite the other candidates' focus on local problems, Mann's campaign highlights his continued support for the Khalistani movement and criticises the current "Hindutva" government for not listening to the concerns of Sikhs. The contest in Sangrur is thus marked by a blend of historical grievances and contemporary issues, making it a significant race to watch. mid-day visited the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency and found posters and banners by these three candidates promoting themselves. The posters lined bylanes of remote areas and continued onto highway roads.

We first tried to meet Simranjit Singh Mann in Sangrur, but he was busy campaigning for himself and other candidates of the party, and left for Amritsar. The former IPS officer had also served as DIG (Group Commandant) of CISF in Mumbai. On June 18, 1984, he resigned as an IPS officer to protest against Operation Blue Star. In July 1984, he was dismissed from the IPS. Later he was elected as the president of the New Party United Shiromani Akali Dal.

Due to his political involvement in 1984, he won the Lok Sabha elections in 1989 from Tarn Taran. Later in 1999, he won the Lok Sabha elections from Sangrur constituency. In June 2022, he won the byepoll for the Sangrur constituency vacated by then MP, Bhagwant Mann, who went to become the CM of Punjab. Simranjit Singh is popular in Punjab due to his support for the Khalistani movement.

Simranjit Singh Mann of the Akali Dal campaigning from an open-top jeep. Pics/Faisal Tandal

mid-day later caught up with him in Bhatinda during a road show for his candidate Lakha Sidhana. Soon after he reached the spot, a huge crowd gathered to welcome him as he greeted them from his open-top jeep.

Excerpts from an interview…

Do you expect to win this time, with AAP and Congress also in the race?
You can see the crowd and support I get. The people of Punjab will decide.

What about the farmers' issues?
We are always with the farmers and will keep fighting for them. They should get MSP and their loans should be waived off.

You have always been raising the Khalistani movement issue...
We are fighting for it and we want for it to become a reality. In this Hinduvata Sarkar our voice is not being heard. (Simranjit Singh then left as he was busy campaigning) Meanwhile, mid-day caught up with Congress candidate Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the three-time MLA from Bholath constituency and leader of Opposition in the Punjab legislative assembly. Khaira is fighting the MP election of the first time from Sangrur constituency and is campaigning hard to reach the masses and know their problems. Starting his day at 8 am, he has been meeting villagers in remote areas.

Congress candidate Sukhpal Singh Khaira

Addressing the locals in Ubawal Village, Sangrur, he targeted the Akali Dal, BJP and AAP stating that these parties make big promises in Punjab but do nothing when elected. "In 1985, there was no loan on Punjab, but now we are in debt. The AAP said they will end the ‘VIP' culture. But now AAP leaders are roaming around in huge conveys with hundreds of cars, creating traffic snarls and wasting government money," he said, adding that AAP will make anyone an MP in Delhi if given Rs 100 crore.

Khaira told the villagers to also raise the issue of land in Punjab being taken over or being purchased by outsiders. He said the law in Himachal Pradesh is that no outsider can buy a piece of land. When a villager demanded that drug sellers be thrown out of Punjab, he replied that action is being taken against them under the NDPS Act and they will be imprisoned. "We have to follow the law," he said.

‘Will raise local issues'

Excerpts from an interview…

You are a three-time MLA… did you ask for a ticket or the party chose your name?
I didn't ask for a ticket. Being an MLA, I raised many issues related to Punjab and its citizens during my tenure. The party thought I am a fit candidate who has been seen on ground working for the citizens. However, they gave me a ticket for MP.

Did Rahul Gandhi approach you?
No. The state leaders who thought I was a good candidate told me about contesting. My MLA constituency was different and is 200 km away.

You were first elected as member of panchayat and now are an MP contestant… how long is the journey?
In 1994, I was elected as the member of panchayat from Ramgarh Village of Kapurthala district. It's a long journey and hard work that has taken me to this position. Till six months ago, I never thought that I would be contesting in the Lok Sabha election. But it's all guru kripa that I got a ticket for the Lok Sabha from Sangrur.

Your father was in Akali Dal, then why are you in Congress?
Akali Dal is a good party. But only if you keep the party happy then you are ok. I like the manifesto and working culture of Congress so I chose Congress.

You had also joined the AAP?
I thought AAP was honest and had good people in the party so I was inspired and changed over to them. But then their politics changed. Kejariwal is the only one working there… the rest are all corrupt. We have loans worth crores and interest on farmer loans. Punjab will not survive in such an environment of politics. People need a good and healthy government to bring change.

What about the farmers who are protesting?
The BJP is doing injustice to them. From independence to date, the farmers have played an important role. But farmers sitting at the border are just being ignored.

On campaign trail
Meanwhile, Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer was busy campaigning for the election. Gurmeet is attending different meeting in his constituency with the youth and farmers in remote areas. He drove a tractor in villages to meet the masses. Even a roadshow with a huge crowd was done by Gurmeet along with CM Bhagwant Mann who is turning out to be the star campaigner for AAP.

Gurmeet, while campaigning in his constituency, said he is a person who is working on the ground and knows the problems of the citizens and Punjab. "Citizens should choose a person who knows to solve the problem rather than choosing or electing one who is roaming around in a big car and doing nothing," he said.

He further said that the fight is to save the constitution and the country. "In the parliament elections, the local boys from ordinary houses are competing with the riches from outside," he said targeting Khaira. "Just as I have fulfilled the responsibility of MLA and minister. I will fulfill the responsibility of MP with honesty and diligence." Being a minister, and given his work and popularity, he was given an AAP ticket.

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