The Congress and Aam Aadmi Party election offices stand barely a few metres apart at the entrance of Lambi village in the constituency of the same name in Punjab. This constituency is the bastion of Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
“Captain [Congress’s Amarinder Singh] is contesting [from here] because he wants to ensure Badalji doesn’t lose to us,” said Ankit, an Aam Aadmi Party volunteer.
This is match fixing, he added.
Having overheard this conversation from a few feet away, Sandeep Singh of the Congress hurriedly paced towards this reporter, and offered his own reading of the political situation in the state that goes to polls on February 4.
“The AAP fielded Jarnail Singh [in Lambi] because it wants to split votes and help Badal win,” said Singh.
Both men then burst out laughing, exchanged pleasantries and returned to their respective offices.
Their statements, however, capture the core of the battle ensuing in this constituency, which locals now refer to as Punjab’s Kurukshetra, an allusion to the Mahabharata battlefield.
Punjab has never before witnessed leaders of such stature taking on each other in the elections.
Local residents here revere Parkash Singh Badal as the son of the soil. His native village, Badal, is just a few kilometres away from Lambi village, and is also part of Lambi constituency.
But Congress veteran Amarinder Singh decided to storm this bastion, and take the bull by its horns. At stake is not just an electoral win but the legacy of both leaders and their future in their respective parties.
There was hectic activity outside the chief minister’s house in his namesake village on Thursday, the last day of campaigning in Punjab.
The house, located right next to the sports stadium, is often referred to as a palace. It dominates this hamlet with its high compound walls.
Asked if the electoral fight this time could sink the Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch, 74-year-old Jaideep Singh, a thick shawl wrapped around his chest, stood up from the chair he was sitting on outside his house.
“No force can move him,” thundered Singh.
The senior Badal’s political career has become a legend in this village. Even the youth narrate the story of how he became the youngest sarpanch of Punjab at the age of 20. This was 69 years ago, in 1948. To others, he might be the all-powerful chief minister, but his supporters here say that he has always been accessible to them during his visits to the village.
“Whenever he is here, he will meet the local people and listen to their grievances,” said Rajinder Singh, a farmer.
Tales of Badal gifting substantial sums of money to families for weddings are common.
“He will never say no if you ask him,” the farmer added.
Parkash Singh Badal has represented Lambi for two decades now, and the village of Badal has clearly received special attention.
Its residents boast of the “mirror-like” road connecting Bhatinda city with Lambi.
“Did you come by that road?” asked Jal Singh, who works a small shop in Badal village. “Have you seen a better road anywhere in India?”
It is obvious that the chief minister has tremendous support in his native village. Even those who were still undecided on whom to back on February 4 either kept quiet or reluctantly offered positive words about the Shiromai Akali Dal government.
But as one moves away to other hamlets, this quickly changes.
“Did you see Badalji’s house?” asked Charandev, a Dalit farm labourer near Mehna. “From where did all that money come?”
Charandev said that his “blood boiled” every time he read or heard about the alleged business operations of Badal’s relatives. In contrast, the lives of farmers and labourers like him have suffered in the last five years, he said.
“I have lot of debts,” said Charandev. “The farmer who employs me also has debts. Do the Badals have debts?”
But there was also sympathy for the senior Badal. Many people in places like Mehna, Sikhwala and Gaggar, said the chief minister was a good man but was pulled down by his family.
In particular, they had harsh words for Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, Parkash Singh Badal’s son.
Such views were prevalent in 2012 as well, when the senior Badal won Lambi with a narrow margin of just over 23,000 votes.
Some people, like Mahek Kaur, said that if the Shiromani Akali Dal won the election, the junior Badal would become chief minister given that his father was nearing 90. She said that this has made her think twice about supporting the party.
“But I also feel Badalji should not lose at this age,” she said.
Party members said that a loss could seriously erode Badal’s stature within the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Corruption, inflation and law and order are the biggest campaign points of the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate Amarinder Singh.
The strong anti-incumbency mood evident on the ground has come to the aid of this Congress veteran who decided to take on Parkash Singh Badal to put an end to the accusation that the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal were part of a secret alliance.
Though he was a former chief minister between 2002 and 2007, the memories of his rule, whether positive or negative, have become hazy, providing the former royal with a chance to present a clean slate.
Also helping him is the notion that the Aam Aadmi Party is not a purely Punjabi party, and that an Aam Aadmi Party government would be remote-controlled from Delhi where its founder Arvind Kejriwal is chief minister.
“We can treat the disease we know,” said Gurmeet Kaur, whose husband is a government employee. “It is better that way.”
Amarinder Singh’s rallies have seen a huge response. Even on Thursday, his joint public meeting with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi drew a huge crowd.
The blast that killed six at Maur Mandi in Bhatinda on Tuesday has rattled some of the state’s residents.
Surjith Singh, who rents out tractors, said he was not sure if the Aam Aadmi Party understood the complex problems that Punjab faced.
“The last thing we want is terrorism coming back to Punjab,” he said, explaining why he has decided to back Amarinder Singh, who has experience of handling Punjab’s administration.
However, Congress workers were cautious. Though they exude confidence that Amarinder Singh will be able to defeat Parkash Singh Badal, the presence of the Aam Aadmi Party has made them work a lot harder.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s choice of Jairnail Singh, a journalist who became famous for throwing a shoe at former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram in Delhi in 2009, has helped it fight criticism that it was not Punjabi enough. Jarnail Singh did so to protest that the victims of the 1984 riots have still not got justice.
Congress officials said they were hoping that anti-incumbency votes did not split substantially due to the presence of the Aam Aadmi Party. Perhaps this is why Amarinder Singh chose to contest from two seats, the other being Patiala, considered to be his pocket borough.