For most of last week, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal had only one programme.
For five days in seven, he went from village to village in Khadoor Sahib of Taran Taran district, meeting people, listening to their grievances, promising action and doling out government largesse.
There are 119 villages in Khadoor Sahib and Badal’s tour covered 92 of him. On the first two days, he visited 14 each. On the third day, he was away in Moga. Returning to Khadoor Sahib the next day, he covered another 12 villages, and 12 more the next day. Another event took him to Gurdaspur on December 1, but he was back to cover 40 more villages in the next two days.
Why Khadoor Sahib? Six weeks ago, the Congress MLA from Khadoor Sahib resigned over incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. Though there is no decision yet on a byelection, Badal wants to do what he can before the model code kicks in.
On November 27, the second day of his tour of the constituency, he arrived at 8 am at Kalla for the first sangat darshan from the Tarn Taran District Development and Panchayat Office where he was camping. A long black coat over his white kurta pyjama, he greeted people with folded hands and made a speech explaining the sangat darshan. When Congress MLAs resigned in Moga, Dhuri and Talwandi Sabo, he had gone through a similar exercise and the SAD won the byelections with huge margins.
He had the same message from village to village. After telling people they are supreme in a democracy, he talked about the present unrest and accused the organisers of the November 10 sarbat khalsa of trying to disturb communal harmony. He reminded people of the years of militancy and blamed the Congress for the current trouble. And he asked people to join a rally in Khadoor Sahib on December 14.
His audiences varied with the number of people in each village. Most of them seeing him for the first time, they had their own list of what they want from him — transfers of their near and dear ones, or jobs.
“The CM is not like the young generation of Akalis. See how he talks to people, like we villagers do,” said Himmat Singh, an Akali supporter in Naurangabad.
In every village, the chief minister announced that the government has started recruitment for 1.13 lakh people. Applications and petitions were collected; these would be processed in the CM’s office and action initiated, SAD general secretary Harcharan Singh Bains said.
Badal did not say no to any request, however difficult to meet. At Sangha, the sarpanch wanted the village connected to the Tarn Taran city power grid. The engineer in charge tried to convince the chief minister that it would not be possible but the latter told him it’s the sentiment that matters: “It is not about if it works or not. It is about satisfying them. They should be satisfied, and do the needful for that.”
As his 200-car convoy sped from one village to the next through link roads, people watched from the roofs while police constables deployed every 500 metres held traffic back. An hour ahead of his arrival at one village, a mini truck deposited a specially desgined chair for the chief minister. There were two such chairs so that they could be alternated between villages.
In Bania village, people asked for funds for development, and there was some haggling on the amount. “Let us not calculate too much. Make a pact with me. I will give you a handsome amount and you do whatever you want to do for the village. What do you say?” Badal said, leaving villagers in splits.
But not everyone was smiling. The chief minister was shown black flags during his visit. Bains said it was “the faith of the CM in the beauty of democracy that he allows everyone to protest. Any other government would have thrown them in jail.”
There were complaints that only Akali supporters were being allowed to get close to the chief minister. “Akali leaders have been deciding whose complaint will reach the chief minister. I wonder if the CM knows this or he wants us to bow to Akali leaders to have our problems solved,” said Baldeve Singh, a Dalit in Jahangir, who wanted to tell the CM he had been unfairly excluded from the blue card (BPL) list.
Khadoor Sahib, delimited just before the 2012 elections, was a rare constituency in a panthic stronghold that elected a Congress candidate. “The CM never came in the last three-and-a-half years. Everybody knows he has come now as elections are due. But now people have also become smart. There is no guarantee they will vote for SAD even if they take grants from him,” said Ranjit Singh, a 35-year-old who was watching the sangat darshan from outside the venue.
Through the week, an Akali supporter in Sangha village was in charge of organising home-cooked breakfast and dinner at a guesthouse. In between meals, Badal snacked on dried fruit he kept in his coat.