“Bharti fauj da pehla Sikh jarnail” (first Sikh chief of the Indian Army), proclaim posters with retired general J J Singh’s picture across Patiala. When he had taken over as Army chief, Singh had proudly proclaimed he was first an Indian soldier, then a Maratha and then a Sikh. Today, J J Singh is the SAD candidate against the Congress’s Amarinder Singh.
It was nearly noon during the weekend at J J Singh’s campaign headquarters near the iconic Fawwara Chowk in the office of realtor Harpal Juneja, who himself was a ticket aspirant until Sukhbir Badal surprised the local SAD unit with his choice. As J J Singh held a strategy meeting with SAD and BJP councillors, one got to hear the choice being debated.
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“Why were three deserving local candidates ignored and this person chosen? It is suicidal,” said Paramjit Singh, a retired government official and now a practising advocate, as he waited for his wife who is a SAD office-bearer attending the meeting. “How can he be expected to know about the city in 20 days? It will be a walkover for the Congress.”
As those sitting around debated this, a woman councillor walked out of the meeting and said she had had enough. “General sahib asks for suggestions and then does not listen. I have nothing to say to him and have come out,” she said.
Around a quarter to two, with the meeting finally over, local leaders started trooping out. Surjit Singh Kohli, former minister and SAD’s current Patiala unit president, sought to explain how campaigning would take place when half the day had been consumed in a meeting. “Have no doubt. Maharaja will be defeated at the hands of the general. You must understand that instead of trooping out in every street it is better to hold nukkad meetings of around 100 people. The general will be addressing such meetings today,” he said.
J J Singh himself appeared and, on the way to his meeting venue, explained why he took the political plunge. “I have come with seva bhavana. I was already doing social service but now I want to do social service in politics as it is much more effective.”
Asked about critics’ view that a former army chief and governor should not be fighting an assembly poll, Singh replied: “Is there a Lakshman rekha beyond, above or below which a former Army chief cannot go? Can any value be ascribed to social service for the people?”
But why SAD and why not Congress or AAP? “Congress is responsible for getting Punjabis labelled anti-national. It is also responsible for sending tanks and guns into the Golden Temple and causing its descration. An incident which will live on in infamy for generations,” he said. “With AAP, I realised that Arvind Kejriwal is very autocratic. He is a megalomaniac and is a dangerous man to have in any party.”
The saffron Akali flag fluttering on J J Singh’s bonnet, the convoy reached the meeting venue in Ram Bagh area. It was at the home of a local BJP supporter. J J Singh was greeted with slogans of “Gen JJ Singh zindabad”, BJP scarves and mata ki chunni. But several rows of chairs were empty. Assured that people were on their way, he waited some time before some people did arrive and he gave a brief speech.
He wants to be a vidhayak of the masses, wants to do seva. “I have achieve d a lot in life but now I want to serve the people of Patiala. I will work shoulder to shoulder with you to solve your problems I want to win your hearts. Dhanyavaad, Jai Hind, Fateh.”
Asked about his main opponent Amarinder, J J Singh was direct. “He will not come to the galis and koochas like I do. He will campaign from his palace or from New Delhi. His wife, for whom I have great respect, is running his campaign. Will she take oath for him too? He cannot run elections by proxy. He has had weak opponents in the past but now he has got a real fight on his hands.”
It was time for another party strategy meeting now. J J Singh bade farewell and sped away.
Across the town, some residents The Indian Express spoke to seemed to feel that the former Army chief is fighting an uphill battle. “He has not got the time he should have been to build up a fight. Raja sahib will win comfortably,” said Harjeet Singh. Naresh Sharma echoed: “Raja sahib has done a lot for this city, J J Singh is new.” Said Jatinder Mittal, a chemist: “What is this General-versus-Captain hype being built up? It is Maharaja versus General, and Maharaja will win.”