One of the only four AAP candidates to win in the Lok Sabha elections, comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann talks about his party’s strategy in Parliament, Punjab’s drug problem, and why he doesn’t like Navjot Singh Sidhu. This session was moderated by Editor (Punjab) Vipin Pubby.
Kanchan Vasdev: You recorded a landslide victory by polling nearly 50 per cent of the votes in your constituency, Sangrur.
It is the victory of the people. They would wait for me in villages till 12.45 am or even later than that. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal claims that I entertained them with my jokes. But I only highlighted the fact that the incumbent government has failed to fulfil its promises. I want people to question their leaders. We shot videos of people confronting their leaders and posted them on YouTube. People in Punjab are fond of social media and that helped spread the message faster and wider. The maximum contribution came from NRIs. An NRI from Toronto came to Sangrur to thank people for having voted for me. His son and daughter had canvassed for me on social media and vowed never to visit Punjab if I lost. NRIs are victims of our system; they had to leave India in search of a better system.
Vipin Pubby: Why did the Aam Aadmi Party succeed only in Punjab, drawing a blank everywhere else?
We did not do badly in Delhi where our vote share went up from 29 per cent in the Assembly polls to 33 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections. We could not get any seats because the Congress fared very poorly across the country and particularly in Delhi. But the future belongs to the BJP and AAP. The Congress is going to be in coma for at least 10-15 years. All other parties are also finished. Sonia Gandhi came to canvass for Vijay Inder Singla, the Congress candidate from my constituency. But she could not help him get votes.
Mukesh Bhardwaj: Why couldn’t AAP emerge as a third alternative in the country? Was it because of the poor performance of AAP government in Delhi?
The message behind the resignation of our government in Delhi was that we were not after power. But we could not convey that message properly.
Vandana Sharma: Why was AAP rejected in Haryana?
Circumstances and issues differ from region to region and from state to state. Even dialect changes every few kilometres in Punjab and so do the issues. In Sangrur, the slogans that people had for AAP was ‘Na bhukki nu na daaru nu, vote paavaange jharu nu (Neither poppy husk nor liquor will sway our vote, we will vote for the broom)’. But in Ludhiana, the slogan changed to: ‘Na chitte nu na daaru nu… (Heroin is known as chitta in local parlance)’. In Punjab, we got such overwhelming support that people walked up to broom sellers and asked them if they were AAP supporters.
Jaskiran Kaur: From comedian to politician, what was the turning point?
I am a satirist, I have always been anti-establishment. Unable to take in the excesses of the establishment, I was thinking of how to help people. There were many issues that needed attention, but the solutions provided were like spraying pesticide on leaves when it was actually the roots that were infested and needed attention.
Sanjiv Sharma: During your campaign, did you find out what people wanted, what were their aspirations?
People want a leader who will be their representative and remain in touch with them even after the elections. In Dhaner Kalan village near Mehal Kalan, there was an elderly man who had campaigned for me barefoot and had taken a vow that he would wear his shoes only if I win. A few days ago, he called me and said that he would wear his shoes only if I visit him. I told him that I was a little busy and he should wear his shoes now. He replied that he would wait for me, even if it meant that he would have to stay barefoot for many more days. I went to his village and made him wear his shoes. People have expectations from us.
Chitleen K Sethi: Did the ruling party threaten you ahead of the elections?
We were intimidated even on the polling day. But the youth were with us and they persuaded the elderly to support us. Even children campaigned for me by asking their parents and grandparents to vote for me.
Jaskiran Kaur: What is your plan of action?
I will be my constituency’s voice in the Lok Sabha. From this year, the MP fund has been enhanced from Rs 5 crore to Rs 7 crore. I promise that every single penny will be utilised. My predecessor returned Rs 2.66 crore unutilised. My priorities will be education and health. There are 519 schools in the state that do not have toilets for girls. The state government can donate
Rs 1 crore to Sanawar school (Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s alma mater), but cannot spend money on constructing toilets in schools?
Vipin Pubby: Why did Arvind Kejriwal first refuse to furnish a bail bond and later end up doing so?
It was not about going to jail. If a person does not have
Rs 10,000, does that mean he has to go to jail? Just because he called a thief a thief? In our country, half the inmates lodged in jails are those who cannot furnish bail bonds because they do not have money. This is our issue. And why cannot elected representatives bring about change? They can move ordinances for issues that suit them, they can change rules for increasing their allowance… Moreover, it’s a civil case and not a criminal one. What will happen if Arvind Kejriwal is proved innocent at the end of the trial?
Varinder Bhatia: What is the criterion for calling someone a thief?
Ask those people who have been calling Arvind Kejriwal a Pakistani agent. Has Nawaz Sharif come and stayed with him? They call him naali ka keeda; Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal calls him a leper.
Varinder Bhatia: Why are AAP leaders resigning and alleging that the party lacks internal democracy?
Politics is like a Test match in which a cricketer scores a century after batting for a day and a half and playing 200-300 balls. And even after putting in so much effort, his team loses. In politics, people put you in a furnace to see if you come out alive or not. I was defeated in the Punjab Assembly elections, yet, I fought the Lok Sabha elections.
Vandana Sharma: Do you think people voted for candidates or for your party in Punjab?
These were votes for the party. Our candidate from Anandpur Sahib, Himmat Singh Shergill, polled 3 lakh votes. Jyoti Mann from Jalandhar, a school teacher, polled 2.70 lakh votes. Many candidates could not even meet all their voters, still the number of votes they polled were overwhelming. The AAP’s emergence was like an earthquake, its epicentre was Sangrur. In 99 per cent of our rallies, we did not have a stage. I would stand on a chair and talk to people or stand under a tree. Other parties have so many committees, starting from a welcome committee that garlands candidates to a siropa committee that offers a siropa, jaikara committees, speeches committees, etc. I went to 765 villages out of the 824 in my constituency. I could have covered more, but the party wanted me to canvass for Gul Panag and other candidates. My opponents could not even cover 200 villages each.
Japjeet Duggal: Why are you upset with Punjabi singers and actors, as your latest parody shows? Don’t they have the right to support whoever they want to?
I have no problems with Hans Raj Hans and Miss Pooja. But I have a problem with those who claim to be with the people and yet, don’t have the guts to speak out against the government.
Virender Kumar: Your party had an opportunity to perform in Delhi, but you lost it.
Why do you see those 49 days as wasted? We were not given an absolute majority, we got only 28 seats. Yet, in those 49 days, we constituted an Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, which nobody had done during the past 30 years. I have already got the Punjab Road Transport Corporation to accede to the demand of residents of Sangrur that buses should stop at every village on the Patiala-Sangrur road. I did not get a picture clicked for doing this public work. I told the PRTC manager that I will travel in these buses and see whether they stop at all these bus stops. I found that there were no seats reserved for MPs and MLAs in these buses; only freedom fighters have seats reserved for them. They want freedom fighters to travel in these buses, but MLAs and MPs can travel in cars with red beacons. The Badals fly helicopters. Sometimes, there are three choppers waiting in Kaljhrani near Badal village. Why do we need choppers? We are, after all, a small state.
Nitin Sharma: Punjab has not produced many sportspersons recently. Is there something that can be done to change this?
I am a sportsperson myself. We have a lot of talent. We will improve facilities and ask coaches to hone local talent.
Jagmeeta Thind Joy: How can satire transform politics?
I use my wit to convey my message. I do not lecture. I touch people’s hearts.
Shrishti Choudhary: Any plans to stop the brain drain?
If they get work here, why would they not stay on? We need to find them job avenues. The best way is to set up industry and delink it from politics. The scenario is such that the industry is forced to observe offs because we do not have power. The police force them to shut on compulsory off days. Is this how we are going to work?
Shrishti Choudhary: Since your electorate was divided between rural and urban areas, how did you grab the attention of the urban voters?
In Punjab’s urban areas, property tax was a big issue. Unemployment was another major issue in these areas. I promised the youth that we would get them work.
Shishir Tripathi: Smriti Irani’s educational background has led to a controversy. Do you think degrees are important?
One needs to have a vision. I studied till BCom second year. Can’t I speak on economic issues?
Jaskiran Kaur: Do you think there should be a retirement age for politicians?
Yes. Normally, people retire at 60. Why not have it for politicians as well? Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal should have retired gracefully long ago.
Gagandeep Singh Dhillon: Are you going to continue as a comedian, the way Navjot Singh Sidhu has done?
No. When you have been elected as one of 543 MPs, you need to give your best to the job. I do not agree with the way Navjot Singh Sidhu goes around laughing, dancing with cheerleaders, though I consider comedy a serious business.
Kanchan Vasdev: Why didn’t people choose the People’s Party of Punjab, a party nurtured by you and Manpreet Badal?
The PPP could not win the match because our wickets kept falling. Our prominent leaders started quitting well before the Assembly elections. Those who quit alleged that Manpreet Badal was not a good commander. I do not suspect Manpreet’s integrity and patriotism. We had other shortcomings too. People would come in huge numbers and listen to us in the rallies, but that did not translate into votes.
Sanjiv Sharma: What is going to be your strategy in Parliament?
We will represent AAP in Parliament. We are in the process of setting up a parliamentary committee. The electorate defeated senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley. I have decided I will not let him speak before me in the House. I will tell him that I was elected by 11 lakh and he was defeated. I will ask him to get elected first. Look at the irony — he lost to a fauji (Capt Amarinder Singh) and was made the Defence Minister.
Tanvir Dhaliwal: Can Punjab ever be drug-free?
We can bring drug addicts back to the real world. They need somebody to help them. There are several doctors, including NRIs, who are ready to help us. We will set up de-addiction centres.
Nitin Sharma: What is your take on Modi’s invitation to the Pakistan PM?
What is the harm in inviting Nawaz Sharif? Let him come. Only then will we be able to talk. We are not like mohallawala neighbours who will not talk to each other for years. We are neighbouring countries and we have serious issues to discuss. If Obama has a problem with Iraq, does that mean he will not go there? I am not one of those who criticise Narendra Modi just because he belongs to a rival party. I will thump the desk if they do something good and raise my voice if they do not.
Transcribed by Kanchan Vasdev