“USS passe rani hai, iss passe Gandhi!”
Election speeches always seem to linger in the air, long after they are over — not necessarily as lofty metaphor but as distant, static-filled sound too. Long after the megaphones go silent, the echoes remain. In Paharipur, Dr Dharamvira Gandhi, Patiala’s sitting MP, is speaking to everyone and no one in particular. “Uss passe rani hai, iss passe Gandhi! (“On that side is the Queen, on this is Gandhi),” he repeats, framing the 2019 election battle in Patiala between him and the Congress’s Preneet Kaur as one between the commoner and the royals.
It is the timeless appeal of election at play. A group of elders sits under a tree listening to the campaign intently, three youths sit on a wall dangling their feet while children hop off their school bus, rush in to take a look without waiting to deposit their heavy bags home. Gandhi talks of the grants he got the village for benches for schools and why they should give him another chance.
After the commoner Gandhi leaves the village, the common woman speaks. “Look at how dirty our pond is, all the filth of the village goes in here. We have asked so many times to get it cleaned but no one bothers. Some of us once even went to our MLA. He asked us where we had come from. When we said Paharipur, he asked us where is Paharipur?” says Reshma Rani, the most vociferous of them all.
“We are all landless labourers. We know there are schemes but they don’t reach us. Modi kya karega (What can Modi do)? There are so many people in the chain, this officer, that officer. All we know is that the Jats have big houses with gates, we have nothing,” says Rani, a Dalit, pointing out that a few homes in the village have got toilets made under the government initiative and some have got free cylinders. “Nothing has come our way though,” she says.
In neighbouring Mardanheri village, a small private school bears the slogan ‘Education is not received, it is achieved,’ putting the burden of education squarely on the students. Here villagers talk of the road that finally got built last year, they speak of the work done and the much that’s left undone. In 2014, much of Gandhi’s support came from these villages when the popular cardiologist contesting on an AAP ticket upset Preneet, the three-time Congress MP and a former Union minister.
But with the Congress winning the Assembly polls in 2017, Kaur’s husband Capt Amarinder Singh in the Chief Minister’s chair and with Gandhi dismissed by the AAP and now contesting from his newly floated party that’s part of the Punjab Democratic Alliance, the Congress appears upbeat about its chances in Patiala.
Gandhi also has the added task of explaining to voters in every rally that his new election symbol is a microphone and not the jhadoo that swept through Punjab, shaking up its politics last Lok Sabha polls. The AAP, meanwhile, has fielded businesswoman Neena Mittal as its candidate. Patiala goes to the polls on May 19.
With its old quarter and its expansive leafy neighbourhoods, its verdant Baradarai garden and its narrow bazaars selling traditional juttis and parandas, Patiala city is dotted with palaces and institutes that bear the royal stamp. As dusk falls, the market around Qila Mubarak selling traditional red bangles for brides and garlands of notes of grooms is a dash of colour. In one such small shop, owner Anil Kumar sits chatting with Vijay Sethi, his friend of over 40 years. “I am a Congressi and he is from the RSS. Our friendship has survived because we avoid talking politics,” laughs Kumar.
The election season is an exception though. “The RSS doesn’t have much of a presence here. Many people would like to vote for Modi but then wouldn’t want to vote for the Akalis who are their alliance partner,” says Sethi, “Gandhi changa banda hai (Gandhi is a good man).” In the jutti market next door where all the owners of shops and the artisans originally belong to Rajasthan, Modi and his nationalism pitch appear to have found some takers but for most local issues trump everything else.
When the Congress came to power in the state over two years ago, it had made a slew of promises, including loan waivers to farmers and it’s hoping it could pay rich dividends now. “My loan of Rs 50,000 from the cooperative bank has been waived but Rs 2 lakh that I took from a commercial bank stays,” says Data Singh who owns three acres in Mardanheri. Local issues like farmer distress, lack of basic amenities and jobs are what voters in villages are most concerned about.
“Vela”, the Punjabi term for doing nothing that has such a leisurely ring to it, has serious overtones here. “Vela baitha hai (He is sitting idle),” is a common descriptor fathers use for their sons here. “There are no industries here, no jobs,” says Arhind Singh, a BA second year student at Mohindra College in Patiala.
In Rakhra, the village of Patiala’s Akali Dal candidate Surjit Singh Rakhra, past a drug de-addiction centre, a defunct sugar mill and fields of flowers, old timers discuss the fickleness of power and the steadfastness of their vote. “Seventy-five per cent of our votes will go to Rakhra. He is from our village, he is the one who can work for us. Other parties only promise, they don’t deliver,” says 67-year-old Garmail Singh. There is a dissenter amongst them, 85-year-old Kartar Singh, a garrulous ex-fauji. “We promise so many things to kids too, can we fulfill them all?” he asks.
Purana Rakhra is set just across from the new village. Here, 25-year-old Gurvinder Singh, who recalls watching Akshay Kumar’s interview of the PM on his phone, says, “Social media has made the young aware. We watch and hear things on our phones and so think differently from the previous generations. Our folks will continue voting for the same person kyunki woh pind ka banda hai (because he is from our land), but I voted NOTA in the last Assembly election,” he says.
Gurvinder’s disenchantment stems from the bleak future he foresees for himself, a sentiment shared by many in these parts where billboards for coaching for international English tests and assistance for visas overshadow all other advertisements. “There is no industry here. The jobs we get in private companies hardly gets us much. Drugs are rampant,” he says.
In the absence of jobs, the young in the village aspire to what many before them have done: going abroad. “More than surfing for news and politics, most youngsters are on the phone trying to find ways to go abroad or find girls who are going and can take them,” says Gurvinder.
“It’s best to go,” he says. Suddenly Gandhi’s words from the election speech take on a new meaning. “Uss passe rani hai, iss passe berozgaari!”