In the VIP constituency of Bathinda, the electoral battle is between sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of Deputy Chief Minister and SAD (Badal) president Sukhbir Singh Badal, and her “dewar” Manpreet Singh Badal, the joint Congress-PPP-CPI nominee. Also in the fray is another Manpreet Singh Badal, who filed his nomination as an independent and then seems to have disappeared.
Besides sharing his name with the former Punjab Finance Minister, this independent candidate has also managed to get the “kite” symbol that was earlier allotted to the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) that Manpreet had launched after parting ways with the SAD.
In the 2012 Punjab assembly elections, PPP candidates contested polls on the “kite” symbol. But on April 30, when Bathinda votes with the rest of Punjab, it will be the symbol of the other Manpreet Singh Badal. Many, including the “real” Manpreet Badal admit this would confuse PPP supporters.
Few have heard of this new Manpreet Badal, and nobody seems to know where he is. In his village of Badal, about 30 kilometres from Bathinda city, there is no sign of the candidate. His family members deny charges that he is a dummy candidate fielded by the SAD. While they claim to be unaware of his whereabouts, villagers say they last saw him with some Akali leaders. The Akalis deny any involvement.
When asked about Manpreet Singh Badal, the stock answer is which one? Manpreet Singh Badal, son of Gurdas Badal (the better known), or Manpreet Singh Badal, son of Gurdev Singh?
The latter’s family resides in an almost-dilapidated structure in the middle of the village. His poll affidavit has more “Nil” and “NA” (not applicable) answers than most candidates. Neither he, his wife nor any of the three “dependent” members of his family have ever paid taxes. His assets are a 1,000-square feet house worth Rs 5 lakh in Badal, 60 grams gold and Rs 50,000 in cash. His educational qualification has been listed as a “matriculate” (10th standard pass) and his profession as “labour”.
Asked about the candidate’s whereabouts, a family member replies, “Pata nahin, bahar gaye. Dus ke nahin gaye. Do, teen din baad aao (We don’t know. He has gone out, didn’t say where. Come back after two-three days).”
A youth, Kuldeep Singh, claims to be the candidate’s brother. Asked for his phone number, he says, “Two days ago, his SIM card got lost. He is yet to get a duplicate SIM.”
Another “younger brother” says there is no “balance” in the SIM card. But he adds that there is “bada pressure” (huge pressure), although he refuses to divulge more details.
The phone number that the candidate has given in his poll affidavit is answered by someone who, when asked for Manpreet Singh, cuts the call after a curt “wrong number”. Another number given in the list of candidates prepared by the returning officer’s office is switched off.
“Some youths of the village thought he should enter politics for the sake of the village. He will not win but will certainly get many votes,” says Kuldeep. A handful of villagers who have gathered around laugh at his statement.
But the “real” Manpreet Badal is worried. “He is a dummy candidate put up by the SAD. He was a bus conductor in Sukhbir’s transport company. I had a feeling they would do something like this to confuse voters. That is one reason why I chose not to contest on the kite symbol and opted for the Congress’s hand symbol. I knew that the returning officer, who is their handpicked man, would have found a way to deny me the symbol of my choice. But these tricks won’t help Harsimrat. The people are fed up of their misrule and corruption,” he says.
“I know for a fact that they have booked advertising space in all vernacular newspapers for polling day. On that day, they will issue an advertisement informing voters that Manpreet Singh Badal has opted out of the contest in favour of Harsimrat. They will not say which Manpreet Singh Badal. And the damage will be done. I have sent a representation to the Election Commission of India as the local returning officer is under their control. But so far, there has been no response,” says Manpreet.
The returning officer’s office says Manpreet tried to get the kite symbol blocked. Another independent candidate, Jagdeep Singh, had also applied for the same symbol. But, following a draw of lots, the symbol was allotted to the other Manpreet Badal.
“There was complete transparency. We offered to settle the issue by tossing a coin. However, Jagdeep’s lawyer wanted a draw of lots. The entire proceeding was videographed and even the observer was present. Where is the question of foul play?” says Bathinda Deputy Commissioner-cum-Returning Officer Kamal Kishor Yadav.
Meanwhile, asked if his brother would opt out at the last moment, Kuldeep said, “He is a serious candidate. Why should he surrender?” The response earns more laughter from the villagers.