SANDEEP SINGH, the former India hockey captain once known as Flicker Singh for his drag flicks, is playing a different game these days. And it’s the children who are cheering the loudest for him.
Fielded by the BJP from Pehowa constituency in Kurukshetra for the Haryana assembly polls on October 21, the 33-year-old six-footer towers over a motley crowd at Dera Baajigariyan Da as he shouts: “Bharat Mata Ki…” The restive gathering has been waiting for over two hours to meet the star, but the children shout back: “Jai”.
The low-roofed panchayat building, where this village meeting is taking place, is dingy but the vibe is warm. “Sabko Ram Ram. I come here as your son, brother… I won’t make promises of roads and drains that you have been hearing for 40 years. But I promise to do all that I can to better the future of your children.”
Once again, the children lead the applause as the adults smile at the enthusiasm. Singh goes on to promise a stadium in every village, and a coach. “Vote for me, and I promise I will be there to lend you an ear. Even your children will be able to approach me,” he says.
Hailing from the hockey hub of Shahabad in Kurukshetra, Sandeep made his debut for the Indian team in 2004. His career was on an upswing when, in 2006, he was hit by an accidental gunshot on a train while he was on the way to join a national camp.
The accident left him on a wheelchair for close to a year. However, he recovered and returned to captain India in 2009. At his prime, the London Games Olympian was one of the world’s best penalty corner exponents, known for his speed and accuracy. He last played for India in 2014.
Last year, the biopic ‘Soorma’, which showcased his rise, fall and rise with actor Diljit Dosanjh playing the lead role, received a warm response in theatres across the country. He is also a popular mentor on the reality show Roadies on MTV — one of the five celebrities in the show dedicated to “Real Heroes”.
But this time, the challenge is different. The BJP has never won from Pehowa, a constituency of 1,72,496 voters, many of them Partition survivors and their descendants.
The Congress, which has won this seat five times since 1967, has fielded Mandeep Chatha, who is the son of former Haryana finance minister Harmohinder Chatha. In 2014, the BJP came second, with its candidate losing by around 9,000 votes to INLD’s Jaswinder Singh Sandhu who died this January.
The INLD is banking on Manjeet Singh while the fledgling Janata Jannayak Party (JJP) has fielded Prof Randhir Singh. There’s even a BJP rebel Swami Onkar, who is contesting as an Independent.
Congress’s Chatha has accused the BJP government of neglecting Pehowa, and is banking on dissension within BJP and INLD. JJP’s Randhir Singh is riding high on rhetoric and support for party founder Dushyant Chautala. He reminds the audience that Sandeep is “just a visitor”.
Sandeep, however, is unfazed: “I played for India all my life, how am I an outsider?” He’s even got an LCD screen on a campaign van that screens clips of him on the hockey field, interviews with his parents, and scenes from ‘Soorma’.
In his speeches, Sandeep doesn’t refer to the menace of drug abuse but his slogan is direct: “We will keep our youth healthy and busy.” Then, he adds, “You know what I mean”, as the elders nod their heads in agreement.
On the campaign trail, his supporters hope the story of Sandeep’s grit will resonate among the Partition refugees who were given land on annual lease by Partap Singh Kairon, the chief minister of undivided Punjab in the early 1950s.
Today, Pehowa wears an air of prosperity with several upscale salons and palatial houses amidst vast fields of gold and green. “A lot of blood and sweat has gone into making this land fertile. We cut down the forests to make this land cultivable,” says Kuldeep Singh, an elderly voter.
At Kalsa village, the residents, many of them ex-servicemen, say that for long they have been aligning with the INLD and Congress but have now decided to throw their lot with the BJP.
“It’s largely due to the central government’s move on Article 370 in Kashmir. This government has the spine to take strong decisions,” says retired Capt (honorary) Tarsem Singh. “We are hoping that the government will also show the will to put an end to our uncertainty by selling us the land given to us on lease.”
“Sandeep Singh is different, he is not a politician,” says Jagroop Singh, a youngster from Chhajupur village.
Sandeep, meanwhile, is running two hours late and visibly struggling to cope with the constant interruptions. “I resigned as a DySP in Haryana Police to join politics because I want to serve the people. The election field is tough… but people are with me and the BJP,” he says with a grin.