At 11 am on a Wednesday, the office of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Fatehgarh Sahib, which runs out of party candidate Didar Singh Bhatti’s farmhouse in Barra village, is quiet. Days after voting in Punjab and with exactly a month to go for the results, there is none of the pre-election buzz. A few of Bhatti’s supporters stream in and out of his office; others wait outside for their turn to meet the leader.
Inside the farmhouse, in Bhatti’s main office room, there is a nervous hush as the SAD leader sits on a sofa, facing a row of longer sofas, and talks into his phone. He is dressed in a blue cardigan and grey trousers, with a ‘proud to be Akali’ badge pinned to his jacket. On the sofas facing him, people sit, waiting for their chance to meet the leader. Around 20 other people stand around, some of them speaking softly into their phones.
The walls of the room are lined with photographs of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and deputy Sukhbir Badal. There are more photographs — of Bhatti’s younger son, Jashandeep Singh Bhatti, who runs a private college, with Sukhbir Badal, and another of his elder son, Gurvinder Singh Bhatti, a SAD leader, with Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia.
Every time Bhatti picks up his phone to make a call, the room goes quiet. “These boys… sitting with me… they had organised a hockey tournament in your college (run by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) but their dues have not been cleared yet. Please ensure that is done,” he tells the person on the other side.
“It will be done,” Bhatti says brusquely after the phone call. Just as the youths prepare to leave after bending down to touch his feet, he asks: “Twade pind vich kinne vote ne (How many votes in your village)?” “We have 1,190 votes in our village. We (the SAD) should get 400,” says Arshdeep Singh, 22, a youth from Chanarthal Khurd village in the district who supplies tents.
Bhatti is annoyed. “Where have the remaining 800 gone? How many to jhaadu (Aam Aadmi Party)?” he asks. Arshdeep tries to wriggle out of the situation. “O ji, do-teen families da pataa nai chal raya. Shaayad gaddari kar gayian (We are unable to sense which way two-three families voted. Perhaps they have betrayed us),” he says.
Bhatti loses his temper. “Je jaande ne ta jaan de. Tu eh dass AAP nu kinne vote paye ne (Let them go if they want to! Tell me, how many votes has AAP got)?”
Arshdeep, his head hung, voice now down to a squeak, gives a guess, “Congress nu 440 vote gaye, 300 de kareeb AAP nu (Congress polled 440 votes, around 300 for AAP).” After the men have left the room, Bhatti says, “I am committed to my constituency. For the last 35 years, I have not taken a single day’s rest. Even on days that I wash my hair, I do not have time to sit in the sun and dry it. I simply dry my hair with a towel and wear my turban,” he says.
The 64-year-old won the Fatehgarh Sahib Assembly seat, until then considered a Congress stronghold, in 2007 on a SAD ticket. In January 2012, however, he shifted loyalties to Akali rebel Manpreet Badal and contested the election that year as a candidate of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP). Though he lost that election to the Congress’s Kuljit Singh Nagra (who is contesting this election too), Bhatti polled 30,000 votes, the highest for any PPP candidate.
Back in the Akali fold after the 2012 loss, Bhatti hopes to win the seat for the party. But this time, there’s palpable nervousness about the newest entrant: AAP. Fatehgarh Sahib falls in Malwa, a region where the AAP led in 31 of the 33 Assembly segments in the 2014 general elections. The region sent four AAP MPs to Parliament that year.
“AAP kis diyan votan toregi samajh nai aa raya (I am unable to figure out whose votes the AAP will take away). It is a triangular contest. Let us see,” Bhatti says, before trying to brazen it out. “What is so good about Donald Trump? Yet, people in the US chose him. Similarly, people here are mad about Arvind Kejriwal. What is so great about him?” he asks. “I have spent so many years among my people. I had to sell my father’s land to serve them. This is the sacrifice we have made for our people,” says Bhatti, a lawyer by qualification.
The unease about the AAP has also hit Bhatti closer home. Bhatti’s nephew Gurpreet Singh Bhatti, once considered close to Chief Minister Badal, is the AAP candidate from neighbouring Amloh constituency. Bhatti refuses to comment on his nephew’s chances. Bhatti is the halqa in-charge of Fatehgarh Sahib, a party position that sees him functioning as an Akali shadow MLA. Known to have as much power as a legislator, halqa in-charges in Punjab have been accused of being biased towards Akali supporters and have often had run-ins with the police and the bureaucracy.
However, it’s a role that helps him wield immense influence among people who come to him for “sifarish (favours)”, including today. After every such request for help, Bhatti picks up his phone. He asks an official to finish work on a road in Bhalmajra village, tells another to help a bride from Talanuya village, and directs a third to clear a Dalit supporter’s cheque “at the earliest” so that he can build a toilet.
Bhatti ends almost every such phone call with the same question: “How many votes?” A group of people come with a wedding card and a box of sweets. Bhatti accepts it unsmilingly and assures them that he would be there for the event. “Distribute these sweets,” he says, calling out to his office manager Jagdish Singh and handing him the box. He then turns around to ask: “How many votes?”
“The Congress has 500 families in our village and we have 600. We will win,” says the leader of the group. “Te jhaadu nu (And what about the broom)?” asks Bhatti. “Koi khaas nai ji (Not many), says the man, almost grovelling. “Othe ikk leader MGNREGA workers nu apne naal le gaya. Sarpanch de ulat ho gaya. Par assi ghar-ghar gaye (One of their leaders got the MGNREGA workers on his side. He even opposed the sarpanch. But we went door-to-door to canvass),” he says. Bhatti nods and the group leaves.
It’s now about 1.30 pm and Bhatti leaves his office for some “prior engagements”. As his Toyota Fortuner drives out of the large iron gates, the compound goes all quiet — the only sound now that of the faded yellow buntings rustling in the afternoon breeze.
The silence is broken by a visitor. “Sardarji gaye?” he asks. “Yes. He has several programmes today,” says office manager Jagdish, bringing out Bhatti’s diary as “proof”. “He has 11 programmes listed for today — a few bhogs in the afternoon and some weddings in the evening. He will be back at midnight. On an average, he meets 100-150 people in this office every day,” he says.
As the man prepares to leave, Singh calls out, “Langar ban raya hai. Chakh ke jayo (Langar is getting ready. Eat before you go),” he urges, adding that on any given day, the office prepares food for 15-20 people. Jagdish and Navdeep Singh, Bhatti’s personal assistant, then sit down to discuss politics. “We will win. In my area, which has 1,750 voters, only 20-25 would have gone to the AAP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, AAP MP Harinder Singh Khalsa led from this segment by just 1,500 votes,” he says.
While Navdeep usually travels with Bhatti (on Wednesday, it was another secretary’s turn, he says), Jagdish stays back in the office. “Bhatti saab will be back around midnight. I will leave only then, after briefing him about the visitors and messages received in his absence,” he says.