“Baap Ki Na Bete Ki, Banegi Sarkar Aap Ki”
Neither father’s nor son’s, the next government will be yours (a pun on the Aam Aadmi Party or AAP)
The slogan provides comic relief from the high-pitched electioneering in Punjab’s Jalalabad city. With the broom – the party symbol – held high, AAP supporters, primarily youth, chant it to take pot-shots at Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Deputy Chief Minister Sukbhir Singh Badal, the father-son duo who control their party, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Punjab government. The battle of slogans had erupted as the campaign vehicles of the Akali Dal and AAP came face to face near the main market of this town.
Not one to take such provocations lying down, Akali Dal supporters waved empty bottles at the AAP campaigners, an insinuation of their candidate Bhagwant Mann’s alleged penchant for the Patiala large (alcohol). But both the groups moved on, realising the real battle is at the polling booths on February 4, when Punjab will vote in the Assembly elections, and not on the streets.
Such back and forth sloganeering aside, the Akali Dal is struggling to break the AAP’s momentum in Jalalabad, where its poster boy, Bhagwant Mann has run a campaign of extraordinary enthusiasm. With an unconventional style of oration which has a mix of humour and melodrama, the former stand-up comedian is eyeing an upset that could bring down the Badal scion.
A rising star
At his roadshow in the constituency on Wednesday, Mann, Lok Sabha MP from Sangrur who is now contesting the state elections from Jalalabad against Sukhbir Singh Badal, decided to counter accusations on his drinking habit. On Saturday, local newspapers published photographs of the member of parliament struggling to get up from the stage. The captions alleged he came drunk to an election meeting.
Standing in an open-roof vehicle, which was followed by a long convoy of at least 10 cars, Mann held his hands out and urged people to come draw his blood to test for alcohol content.
“What you will find in the blood is love for my people, not alcohol,” he said, evoking a frenzied response from the supporters gathered in front of him. Such melodramatic dialogues marked the roadshow throughout Wednesday.
“If you give the Badals another chance, they will loot so badly that Punjab will disappear from the maps,” Mann, in his signature yellow turban, alleged.
Mann’s appeal has a lot to do with his popularity as a comedian. The one-liners he cracks seem to connect with the crowd, mostly youngsters, in contrast with the statistic-ridden speeches of Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Back at his campaign office near the entrance to the town, Baldev Sidhu frantically notes down phone numbers and names on a piece of paper. The AAP’s foray into Punjab – this is the first time they are contesting the state elections there – has given the 25-year-old an opportunity to be part of politics. He said the Congress and the Akali Dal were primarily run by powerful families. There was no scope for a poor boy with no background in politics to make a name in these parties.
Hailing from a family of farmhands, Sidhu said the agriculture crisis the state was facing had hit their income. “But the rich in Jalalabad are only growing richer,” he claimed.
For many youngsters like Sidhu, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal presents an “honest alternative”. WhatsApp messages glorifying his rule in Delhi are commonplace. Many such messages make bizarre claims – for instance, one said that Kejriwal punished a corrupt official, confiscated his assets and distributed it to the needy.
Mann echoes Kejriwal’s rhetoric. He constantly talks about how the AAP will ensure the Badals are put in prison if it is elected to power. Asked if this imitation was conscious, Mann said Kejriwal was an inspiration.
The AAP member of Lok Sabha often dubs the junior Badal as the “prince” who had ransacked the state. As Kejriwal did in Varanasi in 2014, when he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Parliamentary elections, Mann presents his fight with Badal as a David versus Goliath battle. In this narrative, he is the underdog trying to defeat a man who has become the face of power in Punjab.
Mann’s campaign tries to avoid all the typical pointers to power. There are only two armed guards, dressed in black, in his convoy and he consciously keeps the local police away. The roadshows have multiple, unscheduled stops where he meets people at their homes and uses his biggest weapon to drive home his points – humour. A typical day involves visits to at least 35 villages. In fact, as he moves from the town to villages, there is a palpable increase in the enthusiasm of those who receive him. This indicates where the core support of AAP lies in Punjab and why Mann concentrates on the rural pockets.
But the campaign team also understands that roadshows alone will not tilt the scales in Mann’s favour. Some of the senior members of the campaign team said communal equations will play a crucial role in deciding the winner in this big battle of Jalalabad, which many believe could produce the next chief minister of Punjab.
An AAP member, who did not wish to be identified, said the Rai Sikhs would decide the fate of the candidates in Jalalabad. A powerful sub sect of Sikhs, this community has a huge influence on trade in the western pockets of Punjab.
In Jalalabad, the Rai Sikhs comprise close to 80,000 of the 1.8 lakh voters and are known to back candidates as a bloc. Through the campaign, they have come out in significant numbers at Mann’s meetings, giving a fillip to his confidence in this battle against Sukbhir Singh Badal.
However, at his campaign office on Wednesday, there were more non-Sikhs than Sikhs.
Though the contest in Jalalabad is largely being perceived as that between Mann and the Badal scion, the AAP official said much would also depend on how the Congress candidate, Ravneet Singh Bittu, performs.
The MP from Ludhiana is the grandson of former Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was assassinated in a bomb blast in 1995. Bittu gained support from an unlikely source when rebel Akali MP Sher Singh Ghubaya, who belonged to the Rai community, decided to campaign for him.
“Whose votes Bittu splits [Akali Dal’s or AAP’s] could turn out to be crucial,” he said.