He calls his party’s quest for power “Punjab nu Punjab banaan di ladai (The battle to regain the real Punjab),” swears by Shaheed Bhagat Singh, wears the freedom fighter’s trademark ‘basanti’ (yellow) turban and usually rallies the crowds with ‘inquilab zindabad’. Meet Bhagwant Singh Mann, 48, a former comedian who’s covered the momentous journey from being a political novice to the CM face of Aam Aadmi Party Party in less than 11 years. With the AAP set to sweep the elections in the state, Mann, who is leading in his constituency of Dhuri, is all set to be AAP’s second chief minister after Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.
The party declared him its CM face on January 19, barely a month before the elections after a phone-in poll which it claimed received 2.15 million responses with over 93 percent voting for Mann.
The two-time parliamentarian from Sangrur, who fought this assembly election from one of its segments of Dhuri, is no stranger to fandom. Born into the family of a schoolteacher at Satoj village in Sangrur, Mann had his first brush with fame at 18 when he released his maiden audio cassette while in B.Com second year at Shaheed Udham Singh Government College, Sunam. A master of social and political satire, he was soon the undisputed king of comedy in the state with long-running television shows such as Jugnu Mast Mast.
His career in comedy was at its peak when he quit it to join People’s Party of Punjab, an experiment in clean politics by Manpreet Singh Badal, a nephew of Akali patriarch and five-time chief minister Parkash S Badal, in 2011. But his first jab at elections in 2012 assembly polls from Lehragagga, a pocket borough of former chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, proved to be a non-starter. When Badal merged his party with Congress before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Mann refused to go along, deciding instead to accept the invitation of AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal. The rest, as they say, is history. Mann won the Sangrur LS seat by a record margin of over 2 lakh votes, slaying veteran Akali leader SS Dhindsa.
He was also the most visible face of AAP during the 2017 assembly polls, addressing over 300 rallies during the campaign, and making an anthem out of Punjabi ditty ‘kikli-kaleer’, turning it into a damning satire on the Badal family at the helm of the then ruling Akali Dal.
Later, when Kejriwal apologised to Akali leader Bikram S Majithia in a defamation case for accusing him of drug trade in March 2018, Mann who’d routinely lampooned Majithia quit as the state chief in protest.
While hugely popular in the state, Mann gained a degree of notoriety in Parliament when some fellow MPs complained he came to the House in an inebriated condition, earning him the moniker of Pegwant Mann. Earlier too, there was muffled outrage when he fell at a rally in Bathinda in January 2017, after blowing fuzzy kisses to the audience.
But by 2019, the party claimed that he had turned a new leaf, with Kejriwal publicly declaring that Mann had sworn off liquor.
These elections saw a sober and restrained Mann—there were no rides on the bonnet of his Fortuner, no over-the-top jokes or diving into the crowds—who drove home the message that it was time to vote out the “corrupt” parties in his folksy way peppering his speeches with shero-shayari. At every meeting, he would tell people how while the net worth of other politicians increased with every election, his had only decreased.
His house at Satoj bears no trappings of his success in politics. Nor do his mother, a homemaker, and sister, a schoolteacher, both of whom addressed party workers at the ceremony in which he was declared the CM face. A divorcee—he parted from his wife a year after the 2014 LS elections, saying he was dedicating himself to Punjab—he has a son and daughter aged 16 and 20 who live in the US.
People close to him warn against dismissing him as a rubber stamp of the Delhi high command. Friends and foes alike maintain he is a shrewd politician who bided his time while Kejriwal looked high and low for a credible turbaned face to lead the party.
Post elections, Mann has been maintaining that the party would garner a comfortable majority. “We are not worried, we will get 80 plus seats, it’s the other who need to sit and calculate.’’