Updated: January 23, 2022 3:37:25 pm
On the face of it, Bhagwant Singh Mann, the newly anointed chief minister face of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab, is your quintessential aam aadmi, complete with the turban sitting a little askew on his head, the razor sharp wit directed always at the ruling dispensation, and the bluster. Be it in a village, a dhaba or a Punjab Roadways bus, you are sure to encounter someone like him.
But Mann is no common man. From a celebrated comedian to a parliamentarian and now the CM face of a party that is among the contenders to win Punjab, the 48-year-old has seen one success after the other. Mann was 38 when he joined the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP), an experiment to “cleanse politics” by Manpreet Badal, the estranged cousin of current Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal; and 41 when he won his maiden Lok Sabha election in 2014 with a record margin against Akali stalwart S S Dhindsa from Sangrur, a seat he bagged again in 2019.
Born into a landed Jat Sikh family of Satoj village in Sangrur, with 15 acres and Akali leanings, Mann’s first brush with fame came in his late teens when he enrolled for B.Com at Shaheed Udham Singh Government College at Sunam in 1991. Soon, he was a star standup comic at youth festivals, when few knew about this genre. A year on, he dropped out to pursue a career in comedy, releasing his first cassette at 19.
What followed was a dream run, with a host of successful television series and movies, till he switched to full-time politics.
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Family and friends say he is a natural. Mann’s mother Harpal Kaur recounts how he would have people in splits even when he was all of 10. Laughter was a balm to the family that had lost Mann’s six-year-old brother Mewa to cancer, a painful memory that inspired him to found an NGO for children.
In youth fests, what set his humour apart was his political satire. Mann says he inherited his interest in politics from his father, a schoolteacher and postgraduate in political science, who would keep the radio tuned to political commentaries and election results regardless of the state. As he is fond of recounting, he was in Class 7 when he learnt the full form of the DMK and AIADMK, not a mean accomplishment in these parts.
Comedian Kapil Sharma, who hosts the successful TV show Comedy Nights with Kapil, also talks of Mann’s interest in politics. “Right from his first hit Kulfi Garma Garam in 1993, political satire was an essential part of his repertoire,” Sharma, who grew up in Amritsar listening to Mann, says.
Even now, most people in India’s comedy scene steer clear of politics, and resultant controversies. Fewer still succeed in hitting home with those jokes across social groups. But not Mann. Around election time in the 1990s, Mann’s cassettes would be chartbusters, with bus drivers playing them on a loop.
When he veered towards politics, he decided he couldn’t go with traditional parties as he wanted to change the system, Mann says. So when Manpreet Badal approached him after forming the PPP in 2011, he found Mann willing.
Once in public life, Mann embraced Shaheed Bhagat Singh, his writings, and his yellow turban, making it a point to visit his memorial at Khatkar Kalan in 2014 after becoming an MP on an AAP ticket. “I told Bhagat Singh I can’t do what you did (exploding a bomb on the premises of the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi), but ‘Main Parliament mein zubaan ke bomb phekoonga (I’ll throw bombs of my wit in Parliament)’.”
In 2013, AAP, till then known only for its anti-corruption campaign against the UPA in Delhi, turned its attention to Punjab, and, seeking credible faces to make an impact, tapped Mann. In March 2013, Mann joined AAP, a month after Kejriwal got in touch with him and said he wanted to team up with the PPP. While Manpreet went with the Congress, Mann stayed with AAP. “My idol Bhagat Singh didn’t get along with the Congress before Independence. How could I choose them?” Mann says.
In an emotional resignation letter, he quoted the famous poem penned by Dushyant Kumar: “Sirf hangama khada karna mera maksad nahin, meri koshish he ki ye surat badalni chahiye (I don’t intend to just raise a storm, my intention is that things must change).”
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AAP would not just stun Punjab by winning four Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2014 — it could not get a single one elsewhere, even Delhi — but Mann would continue to pay off for the party.
As a star campaigner for AAP in the 2017 Assembly polls, he addressed 180-odd rallies over two months, regaling crowds with his scorching one-liners aimed at either the Badals or Amarinder Singh and their “jungle raj” — “Majithia, Tote, Maluke, Raju, Kaju, Harry, Barry, sab andar kar deyange (I will put everyone in jail)” or “Chaunda hai Punjab Captain di haar, lagaataar (Punjab wants Amarinder to lose, continuously)” were some of his hits. He would conclude rallies by exhorting the audience to sing along with him a folk ditty altered to mock the Badals — “Kikli kaleer di, gupp Sukhbir di”.
As he left the stage to an ovation, he would mostly do so precariously perched on the bonnet of his Fortuner, delighting the Punjabi heart.
Mann told The Sunday Express at that time: “People flock to my rallies not because I am a comedian but because I speak the truth to them.”
He also reiterated he was a fully committed politician. After his divorce from his wife in 2015 — the couple’s two children, a son and daughter, were then 10 and 14 — Mann had posted a Punjabi verse on Facebook to the effect that he had chosen the state over his family.
But dedication apart, rumours have long trailed Mann that his high energy levels were fuelled by something more liquid. In what was taken as a confirmation that the bottle had got the better of him, Mann once slipped while on stage at a rally in Bathinda, only to get up and continue blowing fuzzy kisses to the audience.
Two years later, in 2019, he publicly swore upon his “Bebe (mother)” that he would give up alcohol, a vow that AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal called a “sacrifice” for Punjab.
Former AAP legislators who have switched to other parties call this narrative part of Mann’s theatrics to gain public sympathy. “He is a good actor, but what has he achieved as an MP?” says an MLA who has joined the Congress now. Dharamvir Gandhi, an ex-MP of the party, says Mann is just a pawn in the hands of Kejriwal.
But, playing for bigger stakes now, Mann has mellowed, with this election marked by measured oratory, without losing the charm. He now talks of the agriculture crisis, the need for industrialisation, jobs, the perils of mafia raj by the two traditional parties, and his honesty. “Is there any leader whose assets have only been decreasing with every new affidavit?” he asks his audience, adding how he still lives in a rented house in Sangrur. He draws loud applause as he says: “Jitney marzi ikathhe kar lo paise, heere, moti, magar khyaal itna rahe, kafan pe jeb nahin hoti (Gather as many riches as you want, precious stones, but remember, a shroud does not have pockets).”
Even his critics attest to his fairness in utilising his MPLAD funds, while his own ancestral house shows no trappings of his fame. His younger sister is a teacher at a private school in Patiala. Mother Harpal Kaur, now known throughout AAP circles as “Bebe”, stands in for him when he is away, attending to people, solving their problems, calling up officials. Kaur has never been to Parliament, but as Mann says, she once sent saag and makki di roti to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla.
Friends advise that his persona can be deceptive, and that Mann is a shrewd politician. They cite how the 48-year-old bided his time even as AAP — wary of his image as much as his popularity — looked high and low for a CM face. Let them exhaust their options, then they will come to me, Mann told them in November.
The announcement of his name was eventually packaged as “people’s choice” by Kejriwal, decided by a survey. However, every AAP worker would tell you off the record that the result was foretold: supporters, especially in villages, wanted only Mann. And that as AAP fought the “outsider” tag, and looked for a face from Punjab, Kejriwal could do no better.
And no, Mann doesn’t think Punjab, seeing a five-corner contest for the first time, is headed for a fractured verdict. “People have made up their minds, but they won’t tell.’’
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