Cries of “Jo Bole So Nihal” rent the air as Parkash Singh Badal, the patron of Shiromani Akali Dal, is helped up to the podium. He may be a tad frail at 91, but the tall, ramrod straight five-time chief minister of the state comes into his own the minute he begins his address. Urging the crowd to do better, he says, “Fateh ik baar hor bula lo, dhila jya kam hai! (Let’s hear you again, this was a weak attempt!)”
The crowd, which has been waiting in the golden wheat fields for over two hours, responds with a much louder “Jo bole so nihal”, and gets a pat on the back for its effort.
“I have been addressing rallies for long, but I am yet to see such a huge gathering. This is not a rally, it’s a ‘railla’,” he says, as the crowd bursts into laughter.
The patriarch of India’s second oldest party, who has been in semi-retirement after its worst-ever performance in the Assembly elections of 2017, is back in his element, stirring up crowds and seeking votes. But this time, he is seeking votes for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s Modi first, the party later.
These elections are crucial, he thunders. You have to get Modi back, Badal says.
“The Congress has got Rahul Gandhi, who has no experience,” he says, and draws an analogy with a bus driver and the various stages of getting a driving licence. “Think of who loves you and who doesn’t, get a government that respects your sacrifices, not a natajurbekar (novice).”
He rakes up Operation Bluestar, the 1984 riots, and the various past “injustices” meted to Sikhs by the Nehru-Gandhi family. “Modi has sworn to build a dam so that not a single drop of water meant for your fields flows to Pakistan,” he tells the rural gathering.
This is an audience Badal knows well. He was 21 when he was elected sarpanch of his Badal village, and 25 when he was first elected a legislator, a feat he went on to achieve another 10 times.
Sitting in the second-last row, from where all you can see of Badal is his blue turban, a crinkled Balwinder Singh of Begumpura village in Patti, is all ears. “I was told he wasn’t keeping good health, but he seems fine,” he beams. A much younger Lakha Singh from Lohar village, who is a fourth generation Akali, says, “Wada Badal (Badal senior) is right, Modi is good for us.”
That is the point that Badal drums home at every rally, regardless of the local candidate. Speaking at the anaaj mandi in the dusty town of Zira, his second rally of the day where he is over two hours late, he advises the gathering to be more discerning.
“Modi governed Gujarat in an exemplary manner… he has improved our standing in the world.”
Prof Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist at Panjab University, says the reliance on Modi actually shows how weak the Akali Dal has become as a party. “Badal is using Modi as a symbol of strength to get support.”
In 2015, Modi had triggered a Twitter storm after he called Badal the Nelson Mandela of India for spending 17 years in jail. Last month, Badal made it a point to visit Varanasi when Modi filed his nomination papers, and photos showing the PM touching his feet were circulated widely.
Back in Zira, Badal doesn’t forget his main opposition in the state. He assails Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh of the Congress for not keeping any of his promises. “He fed you lies.”
Bibi Jagir Kaur, the candidate from Khadoor Sahib, gets a mention only towards the end. “She is a very strong woman, I call her ‘Dus Hazaar’ Jagir Kaur, eh te mardaan naalo wi takri hai (she is stronger than the men).”
Home to a profusion of gurdwaras and deras, Khadoor Sahib is considered a panthic seat. It was one of the four seats that SAD won in 2014, but late last year sitting MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura revolted against the “hegemony of the Badal family”, and set up his Akali Dal Taksali along with Sewa Singh Sekhwan and Ratan Singh Ajnala, popularly called the Akali generals from Majha.
The first and only woman SGPC president, Jagir Kaur, faces a tough battle at the seat against Jasbir Singh Dimpa of the Congress, whose father was gunned down by militants, and Paramjit Kaur Khalra, whose husband, a human rights activist, disappeared after being picked up by the Punjab Police.
But Badal makes no mention of any of this. His wit as sharp as ever, he urges the cadre: “Apni speed vadao. Rev up from 60 to 80 kmph, but don’t make it 100 or there could be an accident.”