Balachaur can hardly be termed remote, yet the Akali bastion close to Ropar gives a look of forgotten territory. No wonder the Gujjar-dominated constituency has a rather dismissive refrain ahead of polls: ‘You really think it will improve our lives?’
Just a kilometre away from the busy Chandigarh-Jalandhar highway, and yet so tucked away — it is a characterisation Balachaur would find it hard to find fault with.The dusty, potholed single lane off the highway towards the town gives an indication of what to expect in the Assembly constituency.
Balachaur is the native place of war heroes like Maha Vir Chakra winner Brig Kuldip Singh Chandpuri of the Battle of Longewala fame (the Sunny Deol-starrer Border was based on him).
It was also home to late Lt Gen Bikram Singh, the saviour of Ladakh and Chushul against enemy aggression, in whose memory Jammu has the popular Bikram Chowk, though there is no memorial here. Even the re-naming of his village, Siana, after him has remained on paper.“Road closed. Sewerage-laying work is underway” reads a signboard at the entrance of the town. “Go back to the highway, take the Balachaur bypass to reach the other side of the town if you are headed towards the offices of the political parties, or spend several hours passing through the town,” an auto-rickshaw driver advises. It’s a terse reminder of how development has bypassed this area.
The shockers on the ground notwithstanding, two distinct features are perceptible. One, a general pessimism about the whole purpose of conducting elections. Second, the non-Gujjar communities feel they have not got an equal share in jobs and “power”. The constituency is unique in the sense that Gujjars form majority of the population. “Elections, yes, but so what? No change will happen here. I am not losing my sleep over it. I will think about it on election day only,” says a youth, showing no interest in any conversation on the subject. His friends nod in acquiescence.Kuldeep Singh, another youth at the famous Hoshiarpurian Dhaba on the highway, has this to say before he speeds away: “The elections make or mar life for the parties and the leaders but bring no change to commoners. I may not even cast my vote.”The resentment among the non-Gujjars, meanwhile, can even prove to be a game-changer in the elections.
The Gujjars are about 33 per cent of the 1.40 lakh voters, while the Dalits’ vote percentage is 28.3 per cent. The Jat Sikhs form the third-largest chunk at 23.4 per cent. The remaining population comprises Sainis and Ramgarhias, among others. The importance of being a Gujjar leader is reflected in the electoral history of Balachaur. The voters have chosen the same Gujjar leader — Chaudhary Nand Lal of the Shiromani Akali Dal — for four consecutive terms. “All communities have voted for me as I have brought unprecedented development in the region. The sewerage project is underway. The canal from Ropar is being relined for better irrigation.
A government college came up two years ago due to my efforts,” he says.His confidence is not shared by many. Akali sarpanch of Phirni Majara village Paramjit Kaur says though she is a die-hard Akali supporter, she and other Jats are angry. “Gujjar youths have got recruited the most in the police and other departments,” she says. Other parties have preferred Gujjar leaders in the past and the same is the trend now.
The five ticket contenders of the Congress are all Gujjars. Sham Lal, another Gujjar leader, contested from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2012 and came second. He later joined the Akali Dal.The Aam Aadmi Party has also fielded a Gujjar, Brig Raj Kumar (retd) from the constituency. The former Army officer had hogged the limelight as the interrogator of 26/11 Mumbai attacker Ajmal Kasab.
After his retirement last year as Director, Army Recruitment Board, he returned to the town and organised camps to advise youths on training for recruitment in the Army and paramilitary forces. “Twenty-eight trained in the camps got recruited recently,” he says proudly.Maj Jarnail Singh (retd) is the prospective candidate of the Sucha Singh Chhotepur-led Aapna Punjab Party (APP). He has opened his office opposite the AAP’s. A Jat Sikh, the thrust of his campaign is the “discrimination” by Gujjars against others. He has run into trouble with the government and accused the Akalis of falsely implicating him in four cases, “I have just been acquitted in two of those cases.”The importance of caste in elections is reflected by 80-year-old Surjit Singh, who waits for a bus at Majra village, “I have always voted for the biggest Jat of all,” he says. Who? “The Badals,” he chuckles, adding, “Though they have not done much for the area (keeta kucch nahi saade layi) but we will always vote for his candidate, whosoever he might be.”And Dalits, the second largest vote bank? “No party has given us due representation, no wonder we are marginalised as we are not one,” feels Suresh Krishnan, a youth.
The last Dalit MLA from here was Hargopal Singh of the BSP in 1992, when the Akalis boycotted the elections.In rural areas, the road connectivity is an issue. The narrow roads are either worn-out or swift re-carpeting work is on.
The Punjab Mandi Board officials are on the ground pushing the contractors and workers to speed up the work. “The code of conduct can be imposed any time,” says a construction company employee.Suresh Kumar, a trader standing outside a brick-kiln, is bemused. “Last time the road was repaired was just before the 2012 election. And it lasted till the government was formed!”