In Amb. Taranjit Singh Sandhu’s campaign in Amritsar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have repeatedly tried to make inroads in Punjab, but so far the challenges have outweighed the rewards.

However, in the last 18 months, a large number of leaders from various political parties and prominent personalities from other fields have been exploring joining the BJP in the state.

Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu, a recently retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, is the BJP candidate from Amritsar, where he has roots, but his political opponents in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Indian National Congress party denounce him as an “outsider.”

With the four-way election campaign underway in Amritsar, we spent a day with Ambassador Sandhu on the campaign trail and asked her a few questions along the way.

Taranjit Sandhu removes a flag from an autorickshaw during election campaigning at Samundri House.
Sandhu waving a flag in front of an autorickshaw
Sandu addresses the people inside his burnt store.
Burnt out facility
Sandu speaks at the rally
Rally in Greenfield
Sandu performing a jeep show
Sandhu and his friends at the Gurdwara
Rally at Ranjit Avenue Block C
A billboard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Taranjit Sandhu.
Sandu speaks at a public rally
Sandu interacting with media personnel at his home.
Sandu met with supporters at her home

At Samundri House on Green Avenue in Amritsar’s upscale residential area, Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu’s family, well-wishers and supporters had gathered since early morning to plan the day’s itinerary.

They have to leave early as temperatures are soaring in the region. Sandhu will start his day by meeting voters, stakeholders and party workers. A large part of the day will be spent visiting key civic bodies in parts of the Amritsar Assembly constituency that hold key votes.

Soon after breakfast, Sandu met with media managers on the first floor of his house, where two chairs, a green backdrop and a video camera were set up.

His media colleagues also don’t have it easy, with journalists making unusual demands.

“Can I record this on the grounds of Kinkakuji Temple? I want to record it first.”

“Can he give a befitting reply to K group and anti-national elements?”

As Sandhu climbs the spiral staircase to meet his first interviewer, a group of reporters are waiting for him to arrive. The questions are predictable: about his switch from diplomacy to politics, life in Washington, being from Amritsar, why the Western media is biased and whether the BJP has a chance of winning in Amritsar.

He patiently answered all the questions, one by one. As soon as the interview was over, a motorcade of SUVs was waiting for him outside. They were leaving for the rest of the day, scheduled to return late in the evening, around midnight.

Sandhu’s family has ties to Amritsar: his grandfather, Sardar Teja Singh Samundri, was a freedom fighter who led the Gurdwara reform movement.

For now, he Away Samundri was a Sikh guru and the Golden Temple complex is named after him. He died while serving his sentence in Lahore Jail in 1926. For this reason, Samundri has a good reputation among the locals of Amritsar.

His father, Sardar Bishen Singh Samundri, was something of a legend during his time as chancellor of the city’s Khalsa College and later he became the first vice-chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University.

His mother is also an academic and received her PhD from the U.S. In the Majha region of Punjab, the Samundri people are renowned for their contribution to education and the welfare of the Punjabi society at large.

Sandhu is a retired diplomat who served in various capacities during a career spanning nearly four decades, including as India’s 28th Ambassador to the United States.

He passed the civil service exam and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1988. He is credited with opening the Indian Embassy in Ukraine and helping to withdraw thousands of Indian students, many of them from Punjab, who were studying there when Russia invaded Ukraine.

However, Amritsar is a tough constituency as four parties — Akali Dal, Indian National Congress, AAP and BJP — will be contesting in the state. Big names like Arun Jaitley have contested from Amritsar before but lost. This time around, the BJP is not represented in any of the nine assemblies in Amritsar, making it even tougher for Sandhu and the BJP.

But he is confident of victory given his family ties to the city, Modi’s welfare schemes and a general fatigue among voters with the traditional parties that represent them.

Home Gatherings, “Private Meetings,” and Satsang

After the meetings and interviews, the first thing I did in the morning was to attend a public meeting where people were patiently waiting at different locations for the candidates to arrive.

Ambassador Sandu likes to be punctual and does her best to keep her campaign as professional as possible.

“I want to continue to carry forward the principles and discipline I acquired as a diplomat. This field (politics) is not much different. After all, we are civil servants,” he said as he climbed into a Fortuner waiting outside his home.

Before setting off, he flagged down the autorickshaw he was campaigning in and signalled his departure, as loudspeakers blared slogans in support of him and the Khalsa.

As he was about to reach his next destination, his team informed him of the latest developments: a fire had broken out at a nearby commercial facility. He rushed to the scene, assured the facility owner of his full support, and asked some of his subordinates to assist his team if necessary.

In Greenfield, he addressed about 200 people who had gathered to hear him speak.

Locals say the biggest problems plaguing them are waste disposal, unemployment, insecurity and drug abuse.

As the afternoon heats up, Sandu meets various stakeholders at his home to solicit their support for the election. He spends most of the day persuading them and meeting farmers, community leaders and local representatives in the rural areas of his constituency outside the city.

“These ‘home meetings’ and ‘personal engagements’ are crucial to his election campaign,” said a family member of his who did not want to be named. The ‘yagrans’, which involve a certain religious fervor, are another opportunity for the candidate to gain visibility among potential voters in the constituency.

The BJP has deployed several experienced campaign managers and party workers to help Sandhu run his election campaign more efficiently.

“The current MP (Gurjeet Singh Aujla) has done very little towards developing the city. Issues that were important 50 years ago like safety, cleanliness and cracking down on the drug menace are still important today. Nothing has changed in Punjab. That’s why most of the young people are migrating abroad, away from their families. Think of the number of elderly people who are left behind because their children don’t want to return to India,” says Kazan Singh, a resident of Ranjit Road in Amritsar.

Hopes for silent voters

Ambassador Sandhu talks about his family history and his service as an IFS officer at every public gathering. He says Amritsar has great potential to set an example for other cities as it is close to the strategic border with Pakistan.

Instead of relying on trade with Pakistan, he says the viability of cargo flights is disappointing.

“Currently, less than 20 percent of air cargo capacity is utilized. Imagine how much our farmers could benefit if we exported their produce to other countries. This is something I will champion if elected to Parliament,” he said to applause from the audience.

Sandhu has prepared a vision document for Amritsar keeping in mind the traditions and culture of the city. He wants to expand air routes to different parts of the country and the world.

Moreover, he wants the US to set up a consulate in Amritsar as many Punjabis have to travel to Delhi to get visas.

Apart from the above, his goal is to make Amritsar a safe place for women, a drug-free place and create more employment opportunities for the youth.

While many pollsters and Punjab watchers believe Amritsar may pose too much of a challenge for Sandhu and the BJP, both the candidate and the party are leaving no stone unturned in preparation for June 1, when the city and state will go to polls and we will all be waiting for June 4.

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