“Pichhey… pichhey ho jo (get aside),”called out a voice from a crowd of about a hundred people, all wearing blue turbans. At 10am sharp on Sunday, amid all the commotion in the hall of a high-end hotel in Ludhiana, emerges Sukhbir Singh Badal, president of the “party of common peasants”, Shiromani Akali Dal.
It is an important day as the party is releasing its manifesto for the January 30 assembly elections, and the tension is palpable. But the stage is set. Flanked by party secretary general Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujaral, Sukhbir announces, “Vision document”, before reading out the agenda for “development for all”. “Thank you,” he says after a hurried question-answer session, and hastily leaves the venue.
As he exchanges a quick word with party workers, a battery of heavily armed guards help him find his way through the crowd. He enters the elevator and reaches the ground floor to find a convoy waiting to take him to the PAU grounds, where his chopper is parked.
“Fly to Dhuri,” Sukhbir instructs Capt Puneet Pasricha and Capt MRP Kumar, who are flying the SAD president’s twin-engine VT-AZY helicopter. On board are Dhindsa, Sukhbir’s personal security officer and two journalists.
“Dhindsa sahib ki lagda ae? I think we will sweep the polls,” Sukhbir initiates a conversation in excitement. “Mainu ve lagda ae,” comes the subtle reply. “We need to financially support our Dhuri candidate Gobind Singh Longowal, but we have to monitor his expenditure. He may take some money home,” suggests Dhindsa.
“People say Gobind is my friend. Yes he is, but I am here to support just another party candidate,” says Sukhbir as the helicopter lands in Dhuri.
“Gobind is my brother. He is honest and I like him very much, so please vote for him and ensure his victory by a huge margin,” he says in a charged-up tone while addressing a jam-packed rally.
Seeking votes for party’s Amargarh candidate Iqbal Singh Chundaan and Malerkotla nominee Farzana Alam, the SAD president harps on his government’s achievements on the development front, its initiative to organise the kabaddi world cup and the benefits extended by it to the poor under the atta-dal and shagun schemes. He also speaks of cycles for girl students, as promised in the party manifesto.
Sukhbir may not have referred to alliance partner BJP in all his speeches, but his archrival PPCC president Capt Amarinder Singh finds a mention in just about every address. “They will be thrown across the Wagah border,” says the deputy CM as the crowd cheers him on. And Manpreet Badal? “He is a big zero,” retorts Sukhbir.
Looking at his stylish Breguet wristwatch while flying from Dhuri to Amargarh, the SAD president announces, “I am the astrologer. We will win 60 seats in Malwa and 15 each in Doaba and Majha. The BJP will fetch 10-15 seats. I can feel the pulse of people. They are with us.” Dhindsa nods in agreement.
Sporting a pearl ring on one finger and a cat’s eye on the other, Sukhbir does seem to take astrological calculations seriously.
After Malerkotla, Sukhbir heads towards Samrala, where Kirpal Singh Khirnia, an old Akali jathedar, is the candidate. “This candidate is weak, needs a push,” he announces while coming out of a bulletproof Mitsubishi Montero.
“Oye, what’s this?” Sukhbir asks while boarding his chopper after the rally upon spotting another helicopter parked at a distance. “Sir, Soniaji is coming on January 24, rehearsal is on,” he is told.
“They (Congress leaders) will waste her visit. Her presence will not help much,” says Sukhbir, signalling the pilot to fly to the PAU grounds.
After his Samrala visit, Sukhbir holds a ‘nukkad’ meeting in Jamalpur for Sharanjit Singh Dhillon, who is contesting from Sahnewal. For the first time in the day, some BJP flags are visible here. Towards the end of the day, Sukhbir addresses a rally in favour of BJP’s Ludhiana North candidate Parveen Bansal.
Directions are issued to the pilots to reach Jalandhar on Tuesday and stay at Radissons for the night. Another hectic day awaits Sukhbir on Tuesday, this time in Faridkot district.
Home cooked food
As the helicopter leaves Dhuri, Sukhbir’s personal security officer hands him over a hot case. “Paranthas and achaar,” says the SAD president, keenly rolling two paranthas for a quick meal. “I have not eaten since last night, Dhindsa sahib. I want some ‘paneer-bhurji’ now, please tell your supporters.” But his wish could not be fulfilled. “Arrange something from McDonald’s,” he asks a supporter while leaving Malerkotla, unable to resist his craving for junk food. Three hours later, he finally gets his McDonald’s fare at Jamalpur in Ludhiana.
Some fund please
After the Malerkotla rally, retired IPS officer Mohammad Izhar Alam, whose wife is contesting the Malerkotla seat, approaches the party president for money, saying, “Sir, I have no money, need some election funds, please send.” “Yes…yes, ok, I will send someone,” replies Sukhbir, abruptly closing the topic as he finds some journalists around. “Aap aaoge? (would you come)?” he asks this reporter as the copilot rushes to shut the chopper door.
Briefs Badal Sahib, miss children
Sukhbir says he makes it a point to talk to his father Parkash Singh Badal every night and brief him on day-to-day developments. “He always has some valuable advice for me, though on occasions I also offer my suggestions. He is happy with my hard work. I had once asked Badal sahib why he could not become the vice-president. He had replied that it was difficult to handle members of the Rajya Sabha. He would have simply adjourned the House instead of taking any action,” says Sukhbir, pausing for a moment to take a deep breath. “I have not met my children for days. My son is seven years old, younger than his two sisters.”
“Oh no, it was too close,” everyone on board screams as the helicopter takes a sudden plunge of about 20 feet to avoid a bird-hit. The helicopter was on its last flight of the day from Samrala to the PAU grounds. “I am crashing, dead tired. Want some place to rest,” says Sukhbir. But it is not the end of the day for him. He is yet to address ‘nukkad’ meetings in Ludhiana.