Satoj is a village in celebration. The signs are everywhere. ‘Jee aayan nu (Welcome)’, says a temporary gate erected at the entrance, with the picture of Arvind Kejriwal in one corner and that of Bhagwant Mann on the other. Venture a little further and every house has a poster of the newly elected Chief Minister of Punjab.
Their ‘Pind da munda (village boy)’ is now ‘Mann Saab (Sir)’, and Satoj can’t have enough of it.
The 48-year-old was at the village Thursday when news of AAP’s overwhelming victory — 92 seats of 117, upending the state’s politics and creating national history — came in. Manga Singh, Mann’s neighbour, says Mann celebrated with jalebis and pakodas at the grain market before going home to his mother Harpal Kaur, fondly called Bebe, and sister Manpreet. “It was an emotional moment as they hugged. Bebe broke down and Mann couldn’t speak.”
Mann’s house, as much as his journey from comedian to CM, is an aam aadmi story or, as they tell you, a quintessential AAP fairy tale. It’s a home in the traditional Punjab village style, with one room, a baithak (living room), a verandah and a sprawling courtyard, with an earthen chullah. Bebe continues to cook here as she entertains visitors. Villagers say the house is just the way it was when Masterji, Mann’s father, was alive.
Only now, there are a posse of policemen led by ASI Subhash Singh posted outside and two giant cutouts of Mann and Kejriwal at the entry. Mann’s first cousin Gyan Singh, who lives next door, says the policemen came as soon as it became clear that AAP was winning.
Since Thursday’s results, the line of visitors has been unending, like Jasbir Singh, an AAP worker who drove in on a motorcycle from Bhadaur, 51 km away.
Gyan, two years younger than Mann, says earlier their parents — two brothers married to two sisters — used to stay together, but then as the families grew, they built a wall. While Gyan has graduated to marble floors and a plush driveway, Mann’s house remains largely unchanged.
Friends recall how Mann’s father Mohinder Singh, a science teacher and headmaster at a government school in Tolawal, 3 km away, would take him along on his cycle. Janak Singh, his classmate from Class 6 onwards, remembers that even then Mann had them in splits with his wit.
Gurjant Singh, 75, recounts his other talent. As a boy, Mann would use empty cans as drums, and sing along, much to the annoyance of his father, Gurjant laughs. “He just wouldn’t stop.”
Mandeep Kaur, the current headmistress of the school, which has been upgraded with senior classes, is now planning a hall of fame for the “CM Saab”. Mewa Singh, the sarpanch of Tolawal, and Mann’s junior from school, has requested the principal to search for his school registration number.
A shelf in Mann’s house is dedicated to his career as a comedian, with photographs from the launch of his different comic albums, such as Gustalkhi maaf, Kulfi garama garam, Kursi rani. “He could see through the wiles of politicians,” says Gyan.
There was also his craze for cricket. Says Gyan: “He would listen to cricket commentary and later teach village boys the rules of the game. I am talking of the late 1980s, when cricket was not so well known here and hardly anyone had television.’’
Elderly Geeta Ram’s memory of Mann is of a weak child, with his mother taking special care of him. “But even as a child you could sense he was different. He made this village famous in 1992 when he released his first album, and he has never looked back.”
This election, there was no question about who they would vote for, the villagers say. By then, Mann, arguably AAP’s most popular Punjab leader, had already been declared the CM candidate. “Sade pind vich koi booth nahin laga, assi aappe vote paayi hai (No booth was set up in our village, we voted on our own),” says Gurjant Singh. “We voted for badlaav, for Bhagwant Mann.”
Villagers underline the ferocity of that desire for change. “The Badals, the Maharaja (Capt Amarinder) had thought no one could defeat them, but Mann, his team did it.”
Of the village’s 2,700 votes, nearly 2,000 went to AAP. Satoj falls under Dirba constituency, won by AAP’s Harpal Cheema. Mann’s seat Dhuri is about 50 km away.
The village gate lists Charna Singh as the sarpanch even though his wife Kiranpal holds the post — the ‘sarpanch pati’ phenomenon common across the country. Ask the elders about this anomaly, and about AAP’s promise of women empowerment, they are non-committal: “Chalo, vekhde haan (let’s see).”
The school in Mann’s village has been elevated from middle to high school. Villagers say Mann got new rooms built. “Now we hope it will get classes till Class 12, a CM’s village deserves this,” says 60-year-old Mohinder Singh.
Mukhtiar Singh, 65, reels out the list of works Mann got commissioned after becoming an MP from Sangrur, in 2014 and 2019. “We got solar lights, benches, higher classes, a library building… He has said he will make the village a model hamlet.”
However, the library, constructed a lane away from Mann’s house, is mostly deserted, with wild grass growing in the compound. It comprises a room with two chairs and three rusty almirahs stocked with books. “No one comes to read. These days we use it as our room is being used as a store by the village panchayat,” says Harpreet Kaur, 38, an anganwadi worker.
Janko Kaur, 60, who is giving Harpreet company, is counting on another promise of AAP, of Rs 1,000 a month to women. “Mann should start giving it at the earliest.”
There are other expectations as well, a list that has grown seeing the scale of the trust reposed in AAP. Janak Singh, Mann’s classmate, says: “Mann Saab has said he will put tiffins in the hands of students who have taken to syringes. Nasha khatam karna bahut zaroori hai (it is very important to end the drug menace).”
Mann’s neighbour Manga wants “affordable health and education facilities”. AAP has been promising to replicate its ‘Delhi Model’.
With AAP governments in both Delhi and Punjab, the villagers are aware that paddy stubble burning that is blamed for the pollution spike in the Capital every year may become a tricky issue for Mann. At Satoj too, farmers grow paddy, apart from wheat, on over 2,180 acres. Over 50% of them set the paddy stubble on fire. Gyan, who takes care of the 20 acres jointly owned by him and Mann, insists they are not among them.
Mann’s rivals, the Akali Dal’s Winnerjit Singh Goldy and the Congress’s Mohinder Singh Bakshi, also acknowledge his contribution and popularity. Goldy, who was an Akali candidate from Sangrur district, says: “I saw him as an artist initially. He visited villages, I feel he has a lot of content due to his interaction with the masses, which is what appeals to the people.” Bakshi, an old Congressman from Dhuri, says: “Being a comedian and a politician are two different subjects, but he has tried to ensure that people take him seriously.”
They will be watching, Gurjant says. “People want results, they want jobs, end of the drug mafia, end of the flight to the West, better schools, hospitals.”
Closer home too, that’s the fervent hope of Mann’s cousin Gyan. He hopes Punjab’s 17th CM will lift the state out of its deepening rut, create opportunities for youngsters, and stop the exodus of youth from Punjab.
“All the youngsters are moving out, leaving the elders behind,” Gyan says. His only son Sahil is studying in Canada.