It is 11 at night, the shutters are down in Tej Nagar but there is a party underway at the end of a narrow alley. Standing on a stage in what has now become his signature blue waistcoat and turban, diplomat-turned-politician and now Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri is giving a call to action to the crowd that has a few youngsters. PM Narendra Modi is “definitely” returning to power, he says. “So be wise, vote for a candidate who will get a ministerial berth in his Cabinet, and see the fortunes of the city change,” he says.
Speech done, he leaves for a tea break at the house of a BJP supporter. The few local leaders break into a run as they try to catch up with Puri’s brisk strides. It’s a modest house already packed with people, ready with their cellphones, but Puri makes himself comfortable, shaking hands, making eye contact with everyone introduced to him, and happily posing for selfies.
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It’s almost midnight and the city appears fast asleep by the time he steps out, but the minister has yet another meeting at a hotel with a group of professionals. “It’s just another 5am-to-1am poll day,’’ he shrugs. No, he doesn’t mind the heat and dust of canvassing, he says. “The people here are unbelievably warm,’’ says the former diplomat, who often finds himself mentally correcting his Punjabi. “Japanese was my first language,” he laughs.
Pitchforked into the Amritsar poll fray rather late in the day, the BJP candidate is trying hard to make up for the lost time. In 2014, this seat, known to be unkind to ‘outsiders’, had defeated BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley, who had even bought a house here in a bid to burnish his Ambarsari credentials, preferring to elect homegrown Capt Amarinder Singh instead. Earlier, the city had forced cricketer-turned politician Navjot Sidhu to move base from Patiala to Amritsar — Sidhu bought a house here — and ensured three LS wins for him.
In the 2017 bypolls, necessitated by Amarinder’s elevation to chief ministership, the city defeated BJP candidate R M S Chhina by over 2 lakh votes and elected Congress councillor G S Aujla, 46, who is pitted against Puri now. In fact, Amritsar has elected a BJP candidate only four times in the past 19 LS elections.
Calling the outsider tag “baloney”, Puri says, “I am not an outsider, my grandparents came and settled here after Partition. I was four when I first visited the city.’’ The minister has even printed a brief ‘jeevani’, detailing his family’s ties with the holy city. He also underlines his panthic ties. “As a long-haired child in Germany, I faced a lot of jibes from my classmates but I stood firm.’’ He reminds people how, as a special representative to the United Nations, he fought for the turban and even refused to remove it for a security check at Houston airport.
Early morning, Puri is at Company Bagh, the favourite morning hangout of Amritsaris, wooing voters with a smile. The locals acknowledge the effort he is making. “He is trying hard, he shakes hands with everyone but there were several local BJP leaders who could have made the cut,’’ says Vikas Chhabra, a trader.
Puri admits his nomination did cause heartburn among local hopefuls. “That is part of democracy, every leader should get a chance.” But he is quick to add he is no newcomer to the party. “I was an ABVP member in college. When I officially joined the party in 2014, the PM told me the BJP is already in you.’’
Navdeep Plato, a lawyer, says infighting in the BJP, coupled with Congress candidate Aujla’s local connect could foil his chances. Puri claims he is over this hump: “The party leaders are rallying behind me.” Waving his blue and red vision paper, detailing his ambitious plans for the city, he says, “I’ve done more for the city during my tenure as a minister than the last five MPs.” He takes credit for the Rs 1,200-crore grant under the Smart City project and Rs 70 crore under the Hriday scheme. “The city will see a dramatic change if I am elected.’’
The BJP has pinned its mathematics on Puri, an urban Sikh, getting the 80,000-odd urban Sikh votes in the city with ally and Akali leader Bikram Majithia swinging the rural votes in his favour.
Puri is dividing his time between the urban and rural electorate, as wife Lakshmi Puri, executive director of UN Women, meets women in small groups.
The locals, meanwhile, are enjoying being wooed. As the lawyer Plato says, “He is putting up a good fight. Let’s see who wins.”