Writings on the wall: The rich and the ostrich

The vicious Badal family feud plays on, while the youngest political entrant, AAP, courts ghosts buried long ago.

The vicious Badal family feud in Bathinda plays on, while the youngest political entrant, AAP, courts ghosts buried long ago. In the margins, Amarinder Singh shows off his black-grey partridge ringtones. And my few minutes of selfie-less fame.

Politicians and pundits both love to describe an election as a verdict from the people’s court. But it is, as they would say in a Hollywood courtroom drama, a case of flawed characterisation. The judge and jury are supposed to be impartial and are expected to arrive at a decision by examining all facts and arguments, giving each litigant equal opportunity. But the people are divided and their judgement coloured by ideological beliefs, and their likes and dislikes of personalities. This only peaks during an election campaign. Absolute truths do not matter.

What matters is what people believe at that particular point of time, and strongly enough for just a small minority among them to switch loyalties and preferences and vote for the “other” side. That is why, even in landslide election verdicts in India, or in first-past-the-post systems in most countries, voter swings are rarely in double digits. The rest remain in the old trenches of their ideologies or loyalties. The gap between a decisive victory and a rout can be as little as just one per cent of the vote share.

Or the tiniest fraction of even that. So small, indeed, that it won’t even register on the percentage scale, ending up several zeroes after the lowly decimal. Kerala is one such polarised state, where the gap between the UDF and LDF can be as little as a lakh of votes if you counted the entire state as one. But now, it seems even these most intellectually politicised Malayalis can’t compete with the Punjabis. In the last assembly election, the Akali-BJP defied anti-incumbency to win a stunning successive mandate, a rarity in see-saw Punjab. They surprised friend and foe. Many in the BJP had already written off that election and Congress challenger Amarinder Singh had even scheduled a party in Delhi to celebrate the “victory”.

He ended up with egg on his face, along with the legion of journalists and psephologists who had predicted a change. Sukhbir Singh Badal, Punjab’s deputy chief minister and for all practical purposes the successor to his father, Parkash Singh Badal, hasn’t stopped smiling since. That unlikely victory was widely credited to his skilled election management, placing of strategic independents, “encouraging the usual suspects of the BSP” in key constituencies to divide the opposition’s vote. The crowning glory was his destruction of estranged cousin and former finance minister, Manpreet Badal, and his newly formed People’s Party of Punjab (PPP). Manpreet did not win even one seat.

So why do we now see an occasional frown on Sukhbir’s forehead, even as he predicts “a minimum” of 10 out of 13 seats for his alliance? His campaign is enormously better managed and funded than his challengers’. His “management” talent has only sharpened. Cousin Manpreet is back, now on a Congress symbol, to challenge Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat Kaur, the incumbent in the feudal family borough of Bathinda. And writings on the wall tell you what a mortal, take-no-prisoners combat this is. On the forbidding boundary wall of Manpreet’s farmhouse in Badal village, really a vignette of southern Europe 35 km from Bathinda, posters asking you to vote for “Manpreet Singh Badal” greet you. And wouldn’t you have expected that? Except, I discover as a giggling Manpreet manoeuvres his SUV so I can read properly under his headlights, that this is a namesake.

His symbol, the kite, is exactly what the PPP used, and on which Manpreet contested the last time. He is also promising a revolution (inquilab) as Manpreet usually would, under the trademark portraits of India’s most-loved shaheeds: Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. This is a brilliantly imaginative and utterly legal case of strategic disinformation. Or election management. In a state where the oldest joke is still Dhanna Singh and Prem Singh, one and the same thing, Manpreet Singh Badal and Manpreet Singh Badal may confuse some readers. But just a few, and that is enough for the other side. This battle of Bathinda is not a cakewalk.

Wide media and chatterati obsession with the Arun Jaitley versus Amarinder contest in Amritsar has taken attention away from Bathinda, where the most significant contest of 2014 — for Punjab — is now reaching its finale. It will determine the future power balance in the state. It is also the most viciously contested, the only one in which motherhood and the venerable Gurus are being invoked. At Narendra Modi’s 35,000-strong rally on a 42-degree afternoon in Bathinda (audiences in rich Punjab now rally on plastic chairs, making it safer to estimate crowds by checking the number of chairs rented), even the senior Badal drops his gloves and notions of old-world nicety so identified with him, and says Manpreet leaving his party which gave him so much, was like someone being disloyal to his mother.

So how can you trust somebody who betrays his mother? Harsimrat grabs that hatchet still buried in her cousin-in-law’s back and thrusts it deeper still, pronouncing that one who couldn’t be loyal to the holy Gurus could never be worthy of your vote. But Manpreet is not engaging in a genteel, scheming game of chess either. Bathinda, the venue of the Kabaddi World Cup, is, after all, the capital of India’s favourite contact sport.

I chase him through the evening and finally catch up with him at a mohalla rally at Ahata Niaz Mohammed in the city’s ancient, crowded heartland, of which I only have faded memories from a year spent there in childhood, particularly Razia Sultana’s still-majestic fort, where we escaped to search for abandoned treasures like old coins in the ruins and rubble. You know how much the Congress is investing in the contest when you see its senior leaders from elsewhere, including Ashok Tanwar, Lok Sabha MP from Sirsa, secretary, All India Congress Committee and one of Rahul Gandhi’s chosen ones, waiting and holding the impatient crowd as Manpreet is two hours late.

But, apologies done, the crowd gets its time’s worth. Manpreet is a stirring speaker, drawing from poetry, Persian, Sufi and Punjabi history and scripture, and folksy storytelling. He calls the drug menace a snake and “all of you know the best way to kill a snake is by crushing its head and not its tail”, because then it will strike back and kill you. And the head is the Akali Dal or, more specifically, the uncle, the cousin, his wife and her brother, revenue minister and strongman, Bikram Singh Majithia, too.

Manpreet loves Baba Bulleh Shah and Allama Iqbal and quotes from both. Bulleh Shah in particular, saying how everybody says the rising sun inevitably sets. Except, if he had translated this into English, he would have said “son” instead of “sun”. This is a fratricidal battle. Manpreet is making a second attempt, this time for a revival of his fortunes, and it is widely believed that if he wins, which is still considered a distant possibility, but a possibility nevertheless, it would make the Badal government very shaky and also, later, the Congress would have discovered a young new leader.

Amritsar is such a keen contest because the prestige of both the Akali Dal and the BJP is at stake there, as also Jaitley’s stature. But Bathinda is in a different category altogether because it is so different. It is tempting to draw comparisons with the Uddhav- Raj Thackeray situation. But this is more complicated. In each case, the patriarch loved the son and the nephew equally, but ultimately chose the son. But you can oversimplify these things. Because, unlike Raj, Manpreet was in the state cabinet before Sukhbir, and no less than finance minister and effectively the uncle’s deputy.

Articulate like Raj, but unlike him, Manpreet was the liberal, modern, secular face of the Akali Dal. It was Sukhbir whose capabilities everybody doubted until the break came. He was then the lesser of the two cousins who, for all practical purposes, you would have described as siblings. The two families spent loads of time together, shared their farmhouse estates in Badal and holidayed together. But once the break came, it was as vicious as any between brothers, in fact much sharper, considering that we are dealing with Jat Sikh egos and vengeance in a region that is the toughest in tough Punjab.

The other difference is, in any other such situation — Thackerays, Ambanis, even the Gandhis — both sets of combatants swear by the patriarch. Not here. I check this out, reminding Manpreet of the senior Badal’s legendary courtesies and generosity, of how he always comes to receive and see you off and fusses over whether your driver has eaten or not. In any other similar situation, you would have got an acknowledgement and then, most likely, something saying that he is indeed such a wonderful man, but for that son of his.

Not here. There are no half-measures once you ruffle the emotions of the Jats of Bathinda. Manpreet, at the wheel, slows a bit and says, “Isn’t it a bit like Badshah Jahangir? He would order 300 persons to be trampled to death by royal elephants every morning and then sit in his balcony at night, crying copiously at the unbearable agony of the same elephants shivering in the Agra winter.”

Later the same night, I get the picture from Sukhbir over a generous vegetarian dinner at his beautiful home in Badal, which looks and feels like an extension of the Oberoi in Gurgaon (which he owns). He admits that Manpreet was always his father’s chosen one. How he was given so much importance, always put ahead of him, and he never complained. But Manpreet’s ego, meanwhile, got much too bloated. “He started to believe he was smarter, had more intellect, was a better orator than me. That went to his head and he made such big mistakes. Now he is in the Congress and finished for all practical purposes. It didn’t have to be this way, but it was a choice he made.”

Sukhbir, in fact, is a tough, talented politician in his own right. His politics has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. His economics is more modern and reformist than that of his father. Some of his administrative reforms, like the abolition of attestation of documents by gazetted officers, have really worked. Not only has he built the reputation of being a brilliant election manager, he has also made fundamental changes in the nature of Akali politics. It was mainly at his initiative that India’s most religious party reached out to Hindus and, in the last election, had more of them elected on its ticket than either the Congress or even its own ally, the BJP.

He has inherited from his father the ability to build relationships with allies and rivals and, in the process, his party is slowly, gently, smothering the BJP in Punjab in its warm embrace. The BJP’s relative irrelevance in Punjab is evident in how it has ceded almost entirely to the Akali Dal the responsibility of making Jaitley win after he was walked into what Sonia Gandhi turned into a trap by sending Amarinder to contest against him. Sukhbir says, “The BJP has to look after its assembly segments, and Jaitley will be through, comfortably.” But worry shows through.

Because, as we said earlier, in the people’s court, what matters is what is popularly believed by uncommitted voters, irrespective of whether it is a verifiable fact or not. In Punjab today, it is widely “believed” that an Akali cabal, led by Sukhbir’s brother-in-law, Majithia, controls the three most important levers of its society and economy: the drug business, sand-mining and liquor. Nobody would give you any evidence, but nobody on the street would even question this view. Surely, very many will vote for the Akalis in spite of this, but a few may just shift, and that is why you see some worry lines on Sukhbir’s forehead and repeated requests to Narendra Modi to commit more time to Punjab.

This, the belief that the ruling “gang” is running the drug, liquor and sand business, Amarinder says, is the main reason he is “winning”. Of course, you can never find a candidate in an Indian election who says anything else, and a Jat Sikh would not say anything else in any situation whatsoever. But Amarinder, who was a reluctant commando parachuted into Amritsar, is now grinning. He has a chance, he believes, and nothing to lose. His entire attack on Jaitley is through Majithia, who, if anything, is a hugely polarising figure. He still rules his region of Majithia (all Majithias are Brars, Amarinder tells us, but not all Brars are Majithias), but is also reviled equally elsewhere.

In a conversation with Amarinder, you are tempted to think that his upbeat mood reflects in the chirping ringtone on his phone: they are his favourite partridges, he says, black ones on one phone and grey on the other as they each have a distinctive birdsong, and offers to send along a link in case we want to use them. Along with the recipes, I am tempted to ask, given the favoured dish they make here. But this also underlines how nothing perks up a Punjabi more than a good, tough fight. It also makes me remember an earlier meeting with Harsimrat Kaur many years ago. She had come to see me to talk about the terrible excesses (it is entirely true, the Congress had behaved like thugs with the Badals) being committed on her family during Amarinder’s rule and was distraught, often sobbing. We heard, suddenly, a loud ring of the then item number hit, “Kaanta laga”. She paused, dipped into her bag, took out her phone and told the caller she would call back later and returned to the fight.

This tells you what makes an election in Punjab so much more interesting. In this edition, though, it has also brought back a little bit of a very distant past to me. In just over five weeks, we will be observing the 30th anniversary of one of the nastiest phases of our history, Operation Blue Star and the subsequent events of 1984. It is also uncanny how this election has revived some of those memories and issues just when nobody wishes to be reminded of them. For reasons I can’t fathom, it seems that the AAP has reached out to former but now overground and peaceable radicals, who may not use AKs anymore but swear by Bhindranwale nevertheless. Their Ludhiana candidate, lawyer H.S. Phoolka, is a renowned and respected activist on behalf of the 1984 riot victims in Delhi. In Gurdaspur against Vinod Khanna, Sucha Singh Chhotepur is a radical too. The local press has been carrying articles that the Akalis are feeling a bit lost as the AAP seems to have hijacked the panthik agenda. The United Sikh Movement, which is the umbrella organisation of these radical groups, has announced its support to the AAP, and while it may bring in a few votes (or none at all, they are irrelevant, Sukhbir insists), this is a dangerous liaison.

Navjeevan Gopal, The Indian Express correspondent in Amritsar, helps me find Bhai Mohkam Singh, a kind of convenor of these groups. We exchange one look and figure out we are old acquaintances. As a 24-year-old, he was always by Bhindranwale’s side, survived Operation Blue Star and, in fact, escaped. He now claims he was only a sewak and performed religious duties. But he was much more important than that. Your memory doesn’t even have to be particularly special to recall his face and frame, so striking in his flowing kurta, bare legs, saffron turban, all in a sea of AKs and carbines.

He says key AAP leaders started attending their seminars and vice versa, and slowly confidence built up amongst them. “We support them,” he says, “because we are all demanding the same thing, autonomy, devolution of power, exactly what Sant Bhindranwale had asked for, though he was deliberately misunderstood by Indira’s Congress, which carried out Blue Star purely for political reasons, or nobody had given her party any chance of coming back to power that year.” As to whether it was alright to assassinate her, he says anybody with elementary knowledge of Sikh history and tradition would have known what to expect.

Mohkam poses proudly under Bhindranwale’s framed portrait in his living room. He speaks of what’s wrong with Punjab. “See that mall across the road, Alpha One? This is Amritsar’s best mall,” he says. And see this colony, all of us have contributed money to lay our own sewer, instal our streetlights. Won’t people be angry? He reminisces about how he escaped the Golden Temple after Blue Star, hiding in somebody’s house and then borrowing a pair of chappals to walk away: “The army had all come from outside and knew nothing. They followed one basic principle.

If you had bare feet, you were coming out of the temple and were shot. If you had footwear on, you must be innocent,” he says with a laugh. I am too incorrigible a reporter not to notice that his car, a tiny Toyota Etios Liva, is numbered PB-02A-1984. Remember that year? 1984. If anybody from the AAP wants to explain why they are rubbing shoulders with this lot, I am happy to offer space on these pages. I decide, however, to move back to the crisis in today’s Punjab rather than the one three decades back. Because, I remember Bill Clinton’s dire warning: If your memories outweigh your dreams, you must be getting old.

Postscript: Old or young, a reporter’s life has not changed. Or so an old-fashioned reporter like me, from pre-Google times, would prefer to believe. But apparently, that is no longer true, as I discovered in the course of what I now describe as my 15 minutes of selfie-less fame.

Meeting politicians, spiritual gurus, film and cricket stars, thugs and terrorists is all part of a reporter’s life, in fact one of the more fun parts. Every time I come across somebody interesting and newsy, and am given time, attention and the privilege of a conversation, I feel I am blessed, and I so love my job. It can be Sonia Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Badal, Thackeray, M. Karunanidhi, all titans, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ustad Bismillah Khan, the Dalai Lama, yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar and, of course, Bhindranwale, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or Dawood Ibrahim. I’ve been touched with some degree of warmth and hospitality, if not a warm hug, by all of them and more.

As a 20-year-old reporter with this paper, still in my college blazer and full mop, I was thrilled at the invitation when Raj Narain, the recently sworn-in Union health minister after defeating Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli, asked me to sit on his knee to chat with him in his car. It was a big story. He had come to the PGI in Chandigarh to initiate an inquiry into how Jayaprakash Narayan’s kidneys were damaged while he was detained there during the Emergency. I still have that picture in my files, thanks to my old photographer colleague, Swadesh Talwar, in Chandigarh. I wonder how it would have played out today. Was I flirting with the Janata Party and looking for a ministry? Was the other guy flirting with me and making a pass? Who knows.

Silly questions, but no harm reflecting. Just last Friday at Bathinda, Narendra Modi sat me down next to him for a brief campaign-stop chat until his turn came to speak. Never did I realise how easy it would be to become a social media star these days as, before those 10 minutes were over, it was all agog with my “sharing the stage with Modi”. My facetious answer would have been no, I didn’t share the stage with him, he shared his stage with me. But seriously, do reporters now have to go on assignments wrapped in latex? Is it a story as to which reporter or editor is “seen” with which public figure?

I would have thought, not quite. But maybe I am wrong at a time when even reporters love to take selfies with newsmakers and tweet them gleefully. This is a terminal disease for us journalists, if we started believing that we made the story instead of merely reporting it. Journalism, particularly reporting, is a touchy-feely business. You can’t do it on the internet, and you can’t do it as a stream-of-conscience blogger, though you are sure your heart is in the right place. You have to talk, seek out, engage, and particularly with those you argue with. That is the most fun part of our business.

I will make full disclosure also, therefore, of what I did the rest of that Friday. I hitched a ride with Sukhbir on his helicopter from Modi’s rally in Ludhiana to Bathinda, and happily accepted his old invitation to stay overnight at his home in Badal. Besides his wonderful hospitality and conversation, I enjoyed some other very special privileges: I finally get to see what people mean when my colleague, Chitleen Sethi (special correspondent), tells me that Badal is actually a little southern European enclave in Punjab, wrought-iron streetlights and all. Sukhbir had the Badal High Street lined with palm trees that were, sadly, not designed genetically for this climate and are shrivelling. And then the most special privilege of them all: waking up to find a pair of the most majestic ostriches staring at me lovingly through the glazed wall of my room. Now that is a selfie I would have wanted to take and circulate widely with the caption, “Sukhbir charms Shekhar with his riches and ostriches”.

And finally, yet another disclosure must be in order. Who drove me at night to Sukhbir’s home? Manpreet, who else, except he asked me to get off a hundred yards before the gates of the estate. Am not sure if any of this makes a story, but for me, it was just one more particularly enjoyable day in the life of a reporter.


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