Title

× Close
Window Seat

Why the Aam Aadmi is doing balle balle in Punjab

Along her 2,500-km election train journey through India, Supriya Sharma finds that AAP has chosen candidates in Punjab with reputations for being independent and deeply engaged. Voters are responding enthusiastically.


"Kejriwal is a bhagauda. He was given a chance to run the government but he ran away."

On trains, in buses, at streets corners and in village gatherings, this was the most commonly heard sentiment about the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader – until the train crossed into the fields of Punjab. The landscape shifted and so did political sentiment.

"Koi chaprasi bhi apna daftar nahi chadhta inhaane CM di kursi chadd di. Even a peon does not give up his job, he gave up the position of the chief minister." Charanjit Singh, an old man in a village near Patiala, who identified himself as a supporter of the Akali Dal, spoke with admiration for Arvind Kejriwal's “sacrifice”.

Sacrifice appeals to the Punjabi psyche, said Satwant Singh, a Left activist, as does Kejriwal’s image as an underdog. "If a small man shows courage and takes on someone tagada, people root for him."

But you don't have to look deep in the Punjabi psyche to understand why AAP is doing well in Punjab.

The state has traditionally swung between the Congress and the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. In the last assembly elections in 2012, the Akalis sprung a surprise and made history when they bucked anti-incumbency and won a second term. As the joke goes, even the Akalis were surprised that they won.

This time, even if they flooded the villages with terror, alcohol and money, said an old man in Sangrur, there would be no escaping the wrath of voters. But the principal opposition party, the Congress, faces anti-incumbency at the centre too.

This has opened up a foothold for the AAP in Punjab, which, unlike other states, does not have multiple competing parties and has space for a third political formation.

What also seems to be helping AAP is the choice of its candidates. Most of them are people with reputations for being independent and engaged with public life, as Scroll.in found in the Malwa region.

Patiala is the stronghold of the Indian National Congress. Its tallest leader in the state and former chief minister Amarinder Singh belongs to the family that ruled the erstwhile princely state of Patiala. With Singh taking on the BJP’s Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, his wife, Preneet Kaur, a minister in the United Progressive Alliance government, is once again contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Patiala.

Not far from the palatial home of the Maharani, as Kaur is known, is the poor man’s clinic of Dr Dharamvir Gandhi, the AAP’s first time candidate. At Gandhi’s clinic, dalits, brick kiln workers, landless labourers are treated for free. There is a tiered fee structure for the rest: Rs 50 for skilled workers, Rs 100 for professionals, Rs 150 for on-resident Indians.

One morning last week, as his colleagues sat attending patients who had come from afar, 62-year-old Gandhi rushed in and out of his home that serves as his clinic, with just enough time for his wife to thrust an egg sandwich into his hands. From a quiet life as a doctor, what had prompted him to enter the chaotic electoral arena, I asked him, as he jumped into his car, headed for an election meet.

“I have been in politics all along,” said Gandhi, a short, bespectacled man with a thin crop of graying hair. “I courted arrest as a student leader during the Emergency. I spent two-and-a-half years in the slums of Ludhiana among migrant workers. I took part in the farmer’s movement. I have been with people’s struggles all this while. And I run a clean practice as a doctor. There is so much inequality in society you cannot charge people at one level. These days, my fellow doctors get a smart lady to sit at the reception. She charges people Rs 300 and only then are they allowed to enter. By doing this, you are denying science to poor people. Science belongs as much to slums as to South Delhi and South Bombay. It is the heritage of all mankind.”

What were the issues on which he was seeking a mandate, I asked.

“Punjab is witnessing tyranny. Sukhbir Badal is out to grab Punjab through his gangmen. They have turned the state into mafia raj. There is drug mafia, transport mafia, sand mafia, cable TV mafia…"

The charges against the Badals are indeed serious, as various media investigations have shown.

“Whether it is coal and oil in the country, or buses, sand, gravel, cable TV in Punjab…inha Badala ne, maharajiya ne, ambaniya ne kabza kar littaa hai. These Badals, Maharajas and Ambanis have captured it all,” Gandhi thundered into a microphone at a roadside gathering ten km outside Patiala.

Before I took his leave, I had one last question.

Gandhi was a name more commonly found in Gujarat. What was a Gandhi doing in Punjab?

“I got the name Gandhi for my work as a student activist. My father was an adarshwadi teacher. He did not believe in religion and caste. He did not want his sons to associate with any narrow identity. He named my brothers Harvir Kabir and Yashvir Nanak. And he named me Dharamvir Bulla…Bulla, as in Bulleh Shah, the revolutionary rebel poet. Have you heard of him?”

With this, he broke into a couplet by Bulleh Shah:
Bulleh nalu chulha changa/Jispe ann pakayeeda
Thakur nalu theekar changa/Pulpul dana khayeeda

Pauthi nalu khuthi changi/Jiske rizak kamaeeda
Bulleh Shah nu murshid milaya/Darshan ho gaya sai da

The stove is better than Bulla/You can cook on it
The earthen pot is better than God/You can serve in it
The donkey is better than the scripture/You can earn a living with it
Bulleh Shah has found a teacher and glimpsed God

***
“Mann Sahab, I love you,” said a young boy, coming up to the window of the SUV in which Bhagwant Mann drove across Sangrur. A stand-up comedian famous for political satire, Mann is a celebrity in Punjab. He is contesting on an AAP ticket from Sangrur.

So strong are his chances of winning that his political opponents have taken the trouble of finding an unknown farmer named Bhagwant Singh in the constituency and getting him to file a nomination as an independent with the symbol of a kite. As The Tribune reported, “Some voters intending to vote for Bhagwant Mann may end up voting for Bhagwant Singh (by mistake) as 'kite' was his election symbol in the 2012 Assembly elections.”

In 2012, Mann had contested his first election, finishing third in Lehragaga constituency with a vote share of 21.8%. He had contested on the kite symbol as a candidate of the Punjab People’s Party. The PPP was created in 2011 by Manpreet Badal, the cousin of Sukhbir Badal, who had rebelled against the Akali Dal. The party did not win any seats and Manpreet is now contesting the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.

“Bhagat Singh did not get along with the Congress. How can his followers join it now?” says Mann, explaining why he ended his association with Manpreet Badal, choosing to join AAP instead.

Mann’s friendship with Arvind Kejriwal dates back to the Anna Hazare agitation in 2011, which he had attended at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds along with 400 men dressed in Bhagat Singh-style basanti pagadis, yellow coloured turbans. “We had gone to mark Bhagat Singh’s attendance,” he said.

Dressed in jeans and a white short kurta, styled as a modern-day protégé of Bhagat Singh, Mann has a strong appeal among young people, evident from the number of young men riding motorcycles and racing ahead of his car from village to village.

“Politicians might get happy at a sight like this but mere liye dukh ki baat hai. Why are these young men here on a working day? Why are they not at work? What would they gain by joining my election campaign? Kya inhone mere se MLA ki ticket leni hai? Clearly not. They are joining because they hope for a day when the youth of Punjab will not have to queue up outside embassies for visas because there would be enough jobs in the state itself.”

At a village gathering, Mann spends much time addressing the women, who laugh at all his jokes.

“Badal sahab loves to get his pictures clicked,” he told them. “Paani di tanki te badal ki photo. Cycle ki tokeri pe badal di photo. From water tanks to bicycle baskets, BPL cards to ambulances, you’ll find Badal’s picture on them. Now, we have come to know the government plans to distribute utensils among the poor. Pitalla te bhi bebe badal ki photo hai. Even the utensils, let me tell you sisters, have Badal’s photo…”

The women laughed. And then, Mann delivered the punchline. “What Badal does not know is that this time the women of Punjab would wipe his party clean.”

The jokes aside, Mann’s political astuteness is evident from the way he gets a Sikh farmer from Gujarat to brief villagers about how Sikh settlers in Kutch had to fight eviction notices by Narendra Modi’s government. “These are the kind of anti-Punjabi people the Badals are in alliance with,” Mann told the gathering. The party has nominated Himmat Singh Gill, the lawyer fighting the case of Sikh farmers in Gujarat, as its candidate from Anandpur Sahib constituency.

Isn’t politics more difficult than comedy, I asked him.

“Comedy is a very serious business. It is easier to make people weep than laugh. They are anyway on the brink of tears thanks to inflation, unemployment, cancer…”

He is a consummate entertainer but what had he done at the grassroots to be taken seriously as a politician, I asked.

“I was born in a village. I grew up in a village. Mere se zyada ground kaun janta hai,” he said. “Baaki inhone tamasha banaya hai mulk ka. It is the politicians who have made a tamasha of the country. They go around attacking each other with pepper spray in Parliament. As for Sukhbir Badal, he is the real comedy king of Punjab. Do you know what he said? Punjab ki sadak aisi bana donga ek haath mein peg pakado ek mein steering aur peg girega nahi. I would make the roads of Punjab so smooth that you can hold the steering wheel in one hand and your drink in the other and it won’t spill.”

Did Badal indeed say this or was this AAP hyperbole?

Last October, the Hindustan Times reported that while distributing bicycles among school girls, Badal “went overboard with claims about road development in Punjab. He said the highways and traffic would be so good that 'je daaru pee ke vi drive karoge tan accidents nahi honge (even if you drink and drive, there will be no accident).' Punjab is number two in the country in road-accident deaths, and drunk driving is one of the main reasons.”

***
Dilli takhat te daler nu bhejji, Hakka de layi sher no bheji. Send a brave man to the seat in Delhi. Send the lion who can fight for your rights.

The soft-spoken Harvinder Singh Phoolka makes for an unlikely sher.

The man on the street in Ludhiana calls the senior lawyer who practices at the Supreme Court Phoolka Sahab and tells you that he fought for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots for free.

If you ask whether, as the candidate of AAP, Phoolka Sahab stands a chance to win the election, you would be told, “Tagada muqabala hai. It is a close contest.”

Phoolka is pitted against the Congress’s Ravneet Singh Bittu, the grandson of Beant Singh, the former Congress chief minister slain by militants, Akali Dal’s Manpreet Singh Ayali and independent candidate Simarjit Singh Bains.

If the Akalis and Congress have organisational strength, Bains is seen as the tough guy jo gareeba de kam karaunda hai  (who gets poor people’s work done). “He runs a service centre where you can go and seek help for anything, from licences to police cases,” a tea-shop vendor told me.

“We are trying to educate voters that this is not an election of a councillor who will get your ration cards made,” Phoolka said when I met him in the AAP’s office. “You need to send a person who can represent you in the Parliament and work towards changing the system so that you do not need not go to politician to get your work done…Leaders have paralysed the administrative system. They have captured all power. We need to restore the administrative system. We need to implement the laws and get people the rights that laws give them.”

But this legalistic view of politics might not win votes among an electorate accustomed to a politics of patronage. A woman showed at AAP’s office to request Phoolka to get her son admitted to high school without fees. Phoolka explained that he could not help her until the elections were over. “Come back later and we will evaluate your case,” he told her. “I am associated with several educational institutions that give scholarships to needy students,” he told me.

What appeals much more to voters in Ludhiana is Phoolka’s record of fighting the 1984 cases. This goes well with the larger attempt by the AAP to claim credit for demanding that a special investigation team be set up to probe the 1984 cases afresh. Justice, rights, struggle are the words resonated the most in the slogans of the AAP workers as Phoolka’s roadshow wound through the traffic-snarls near Ludhiana railway station, the dense markets, low-income neighbourhoods and dalit colonies, with Rakhi Birla, the AAP leader from Delhi, as the star attraction.

“Sadda haq, Aithe Rakh.”

“Bahar Niklo Dukano se, Jung Lado Baimaano Se.”

“Pehle Sheela Haari hai, ab Badal ki baari hai.”

The best slogan, however, sprung up spontaneously in a dalit colony, where women stood outside their homes, greatly enthused by the presence of Rakhi Birla. “After all, she is from our community,” they told me, before they broke into, “Aam Aadmi Party ki balle balle, baaki saare thalle thalle.”

Click here to read all the stories Supriya Sharma has filed about her 2,500-km rail journey from Guwahati to Jammu to listen to India's conversations about the elections – and life.

 
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BULLETIN BY 

Making transportation more sustainable even with fuel-based automobiles

These innovations can reduce the pollution caused by vehicles.

According to the WHO’s Ambient Air Pollution Database released in 2016, ten of the twenty most polluted cities in the world are in India, with Gwalior and Ahmedabad occupying the second and third positions. Pollution levels are usually expressed in the levels of particulate matter (PM) in the air. This refers to microscopic matter that is a mixture of smoke, metals, chemicals and dust suspended in the atmosphere that can affect human health. Particulate matter is easily inhaled, and can cause allergies and diseases such as asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Indian cities have some of the highest levels of PM10 (particles smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter) and PM2.5 particles (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter). The finer the particulate matter, the deeper into your lungs it can penetrate causing more adverse effects. According to WHO, the safe limits for PM2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

Emissions resulting from transportation is regarded as one of the major contributors to pollution levels, especially particulate matter. A study conducted by the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science estimated that the transport sector constitutes 32% of Delhi’s emissions. It makes up 43% of Chennai’s emissions, and around 17% of Mumbai’s emissions.

Controlling emissions is a major task for cities and auto companies. The Indian government, to this end, has set emission standards for automobiles called the Bharat Stage emission standard, which mirrors European standards. This emission standard was first instituted in 1991 and has been regularly updated to follow European developments with a time lag of about 5 years. Bharat Stage IV emission norms have been the standard in 2010 in 13 major cities. To tackle air pollution that has intensified since then, the Indian government announced that Bharat Stage V norms would be skipped completely, and Stage VI norms would be adopted directly in 2020.

But sustainability in transport requires not only finding techniques to reduce the emissions from public and private transport but also developing components that are environment friendly. Car and auto component manufacturers have begun optimising products to be gentler on the environment and require lesser resources to manufacture, operate and maintain.

There are two important aspects of reducing emissions. The first is designing vehicles to consume less fuel. The second is making the emissions cleaner by reducing the toxic elements.

In auto exteriors, the focus is on developing light-weight but strong composite materials to replace metal. A McKinsey study estimates that plastic and carbon fibre can reduce weight by about 20% and 50% respectively. A lighter body reduces the engine effort and results in better fuel economy. Additionally, fuel efficiency can be increased by reducing the need for air conditioning which puts additional load on the vehicle engine thereby increasing fuel consumption. Automotive coatings (paints) and sheets provide better insulation, keep the vehicle cool and reduce the use of air conditioning.

Most emissions are the result of inefficient engines. Perhaps the most significant innovations in making automobiles and mass transport systems more eco-friendly are being done in the engine. Innovations include products like fuel additives, which improve engine performance, resist corrosion and reduce fuel consumption while offering a great driving experience, and catalytic converters that reduce toxic emissions by converting them to less harmful output such as carbon dioxide, Nitrogen and water. Some of these catalytic converters are now capable of eliminating over 90 percent of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

All of these are significant measures to bring the negative impacts of vehicular pollution under control. With over 2 million vehicles being produced in India in 2015 alone and the moving to BS VI emission standards, constant innovation is imperative.

Beyond this, in commercial as well as passenger vehicles, companies are innovating with components and processes to enable higher resource efficiency. Long-lasting paint coatings, made of eco-friendly materials that need to be refreshed less often are being developed. Companies are also innovating with an integrated coating process that enables carmakers to cut out an entire step of coating without compromising the colour result or the properties of the coating, saving time, materials and energy. Efforts are being made to make the interiors more sustainable. Parts like the instrument panel, dashboard, door side panels, seats, and locks can all be created with material like polyurethane plastic that is not only comfortable, durable and safe but also easily recyclable. Manufacturers are increasingly adopting polyurethane plastic like BASF’s Elastollan® for these very reasons.

From pioneering the development of catalytic converters in 1975 to innovating with integrated process technology for coatings, BASF has always been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to making transport solutions more sustainable. The company has already developed the technology to handle the move of emissions standards from BS IV to BS VI.

For the future, given the expected rise in the adoption of electric cars—an estimated 5~8 percent of car production is expected to be pure electric or plug-in electric vehicles by 2020—BASF is also developing materials that enable electric car batteries to last longer and achieve higher energy density, making electronic mobility more feasible. To learn more about how BASF is making transport more sustainable, see here.

Watch the video to see how automotive designers experimented with cutting edge materials from BASF to create an innovative concept car.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.

× Close