Come to Sangat Mandi, on the outskirts of Bathinda town, less than 10 km from Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s constituency of Lambi, for a glimmer of why a settled, two-party contest looks triangular this time in Punjab.
In a clearing where the grain market is held, a crowd is gathering for an AAP rally one recent afternoon. Bhagwant Mann, star campaigner — he will take on Deputy CM Sukhbir Badal, he has declared, in Jalalabad or wherever — and Rupinder Kaur Ruby, the candidate from Bathinda (Rural), the reserved constituency in which Sangat Mandi falls, are scheduled to speak. Arvind Kejriwal is not coming to Sangat Mandi but he is prominent in posters. And in the slogan that makes up in enthusiasm what it might lack in conviction: “Kejriwal, Kejriwal, saara Punjab tere naal (The whole of Punjab is with you, Kejriwal).”
Behind the stage and the audience spread out in front, a group of men speaks of gathered resentment and discontent, the sameness of SAD and the Congress, the need for change.
“No one listens to us. We can’t meet any leaders. Food rations are late by a month, and because of notebandi, we only get paid if we do Rs 2,000 worth of work. If it’s less than that, the money comes in late,” says Jagsir Singh, a daily wage labourer. Others speak of how they get only subsidised wheat in the state-run atta-dal scheme from which both the atta and dal have gone missing. His family always supported SAD, says Jagsir Singh, but not this time. The Congress is not an option, he says.
“The Akalis are khaas aadmi. They only look after their own,” says Jasvir Singh, a farmer from Phullo Mithi village in Bathinda, a former SAD voter and now an AAP volunteer. For Gurdeep Singh, the issue is drugs. “You may have to go out to buy alcohol but in Punjab today, drugs come home to you,” he says. In Gudha, the Badals’ ancestral village, the theka (liquor vend) is right next to the school and a godown of alcohol near the Vishwakarma mandir is saanjha, owned jointly by Congress and SAD leaders, they say.
Bhagwant Mann has arrived at the rally venue and Jaskirat Kaur Mann, introduced as the AAP’s Canada convener, takes the stage. “I am from Canada and I have come here especially for the elections,” she says.
If accumulated grievance against the two-term Badal regime, and voter exhaustion with SAD-Congress alternation, are one pointer to the third factor this time — the AAP’s presence seems most vivid in the Malwa region from where it won all four of its Lok Sabha seats in 2014, less so in the Doaba and Majha — Jaskirat Kaur’s fiery speech is the second inkling of the fight turning triangular. For Punjabi NRIs, this is “the second independence movement”, she says, melodramatically. “Why else would we need to come back here?” Punjabis go empty-handed to foreign countries, she says, “but their governments welcome us, help us settle down, take responsibility for our success. We pay taxes because we know government is honest. It gives us unemployment support, health care. But here, no one even guides the farmer on which crops to sow.”
It is not, or not only, a freshly rediscovered empathy and kinship with the Punjabi farmer that makes the Punjabi NRI a more enthusiastic presence in this campaign, pitching in with phone calls, donations and campaigning for the new player. Punjabi NRIs are also driven by more specific and mundane concerns relating to long-distance disputes over property, marriage, and travel agents and the perceived inattention of Congress-SAD regimes to what agitates them the most.
A third intimation of the changed contest for Punjab is the AAP candidate. Rupinder Kaur Ruby, the 27-year-old Bathinda (Rural) candidate who takes the Sangat Mandi stage after Jaskirat Kaur, is pursuing a PhD in law. She has been campaigning door to door, well before SAD and the Congress hit the ground.
Like Dinesh Bansal, 35, the bespectacled volunteer-turned-candidate from Sangrur, an accountant before he joined politics, or Deepak Bansal, 33, standing from Bathinda (Urban), who worked as a research analyst with a financial consultancy after three failed attempts at the civil services, Ruby is a first-timer from a middle class background who came to the AAP via the Anna movement.
“We are new. The Congress and SAD would not have let us in,” says Dinesh in the cramped, bustling AAP office in a market in Sangrur town. In Bathinda, Deepak says that in every meeting, his message is: “Jis desh ka raja vyapari hota hai, us desh ki praja bhikari hoti hai (it’s an impoverished people whose ruler is a businessman)”. He is referring to the entrenched business-politics nexus in Punjab, and the Badal family’s formidable business empire, which the AAP is trying to make into an issue this election.
The Bansals, Deepak and Dinesh, and Ruby have the advantage of newness — but its disadvantages too.
Stories of AAP infighting among volunteers, and between its Delhi and local leaders, and allegations of tickets being sold or doled out to dynasts and turncoats, are doing the rounds. In a party still finding its feet, every such story potentially rocks the still-fragile allegiances, within and without.
If the sacking of AAP state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur is cited as evidence of the local leadership’s humiliation by Kejriwal’s Delhi coterie, MP Dharamvira Gandhi’s suspension is held up as another pointer to the same malaise. In 2014, Gandhi became only the second non-Congress candidate to win a Lok Sabha election in the Amarinder Singh family bastion of Patiala.
In the heart clinic he runs in Patiala, Gandhi sees every patient himself, many of whom he seems to know personally, and also decides the fee for each one. Patients are graded according to their degree of disprivilege, or privilege, in a four-tier fee structure devised by Gandhi — do they own land, what kind of job do they do, and so on. The landless labourer gets free treatment.
In between briskly dealing with patients, the doctor describes his initial hopes from AAP — and his disillusion. “Even though I had not fought elections, I was in politics, influenced by Marxist philosophy. I was in the final year of MBBS when I went to jail during the Emergency. I joined the Anna movement because I saw unprecedented fervour for the fight for a better system.” When Kejriwal floated AAP, Gandhi joined, applied for a ticket and got it — “the son of a primary school teacher with a small clinic” versus Captain Amarinder Singh’s wife, Preneet Kaur.
“The Punjab leadership was let down by AAP, a dream was aborted by them,” he now says. “Nearly 60 people from Delhi were appointed observers, they took charge of Punjab”. Gandhi was suspended for attending a conference against the “takeover by Delhi lieutenants”. The party is giving tickets to Congress and SAD imports, he says, “trampling over the rights of volunteers”.
It is not just the “high command culture” that concerns Gandhi; he also accuses Kejriwal of “religion-based politics”. The AAP chief has been visiting all prominent deras, he points out. Kejriwal is also accused of a bid for a piece of the religious mainstream or “panthic” vote, capitalising on anger against SAD for its failure to nab culprits in incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Gandhi is now a leading light of a “Fourth Front”, while Chhotepur has floated the “Aapna Punjab Party” — both rebels could chip away at AAP support, at least in Patiala and Gurdaspur respectively.
Even though AAP is a self-consciously faceless organisation in Punjab, depending crucially on Kejriwal’s name and charisma, the rumblings over candidate selection could hurt its chances among those who feel alienated from SAD and the Congress but who are wary of the fledgling third force.
The star MP
Mann is Pointer No. 4 to the triangulation of the contest. He is not just another AAP candidate but an MP, one of the two that remain with AAP, after the party suspended Harinder Singh Khalsa and Gandhi. For the new party, he is a precious reminder of its winnability: in the middle of a Modi wave, AAP had won four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab.
The star comic from Malwa takes political satire to the Badals’ doorstep. He talks of a “rising storm” in the Badal backyard. “How can I say which trees will remain standing,” he says. He twists the knife in: “I am not here to bribe you or make false promises. Or to make buses walk on water.” The last is a reference to Sukhbir’s pet project, flagged off in Harike Wetland Lake days earlier. The amphibious bus that can run on both water and land has become a favourite in jokes featuring “Sukha gappi” or Sukhbir, the boastful.
Mann paints a picture of withering jobs, dying mandis, the spread of drugs, while the Badals fly in helicopters. He speaks of the stranglehold of dynastic politics — Akali politics comes in father-son pairs, he says, and for dramatic effect, as in a school roll call, calls out their names, one by one. The Congress, he says, is the sickly old man even the doctor gave up on and asked the family to take back home. But it is Mann’s imitation of Sukhbir’s talk of sadak and pul that draws the most applause. “Where there is no toll tax there is no road,” says Mann. “Are they doing us a favour?”
The Akalis fear AAP, he says: “Their leaders spend 36 of every 40 minutes talking only of AAP. And then they say AAP is not in the race”.
Akali leaders do have a lot to say of AAP, although, in their telling, their opponent is the Congress and Kejriwal’s party has waned.
“Till six months ago, AAP was No. 1,” remarks Prem Singh Chandumajra, SAD MP, in Patiala. “But now, in 70 per cent of the constituencies, they are facing revolts due to ticket distribution. They are accommodating SAD rejects, they don’t have a vote bank of their own. AAP has broken the Congress vote bank, not ours. If they win, Kejriwal will keep the state in permanent confrontation.” And in Chandigarh, Dr Daljit Singh Cheema, education minister in the SAD-BJP government, says: “AAP’s graph is down. Will comedians lead a sensitive border state?”