A whistle-stop tour of a dozen constituencies across Punjab’s Malwa region is at best a dip-test of the popular mood. More so when polling is three weeks away and candidatures for a few seats still a mystery.
The temptation to speculate is premature yet irresistible. The lines get blurred between quick-fire psephology and quick-take reportage where contests are heady. Or at stake are fortunes of key opposition figures and the father-son duo — Parkash Singh and Sukhbir Badal — who’ve ruled for a decade.
On the 200-km stretch from Amritsar to Fazilka, one hits Hari-ke-Pattan headworks on the river Sutlej. The largest wetland of northern India marks the borders of Punjab’s Majha region with that of Malwa that covers half of the state’s 22 districts.
Not just that! Malwa’s political expanse matches its geographical spread. It returns 68 legislators in the House of 117. From Patiala across Ludhiana, Sangrur, Malerkotla, Barnala, Moga, Faridkot, Ferozepur, Muktsar, Fazilka and Bathinda, the region will decide the fate of Punjab who’s who: Capt Amarinder Singh, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Sunil Jhakhar (all Congress), Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhbir Badal (Akali Dal) and Bhagwant Mann (AAP).
Across Harike, the straws in the wind could be seen but not easily read at Jagtar Singh’s ‘Rumi’ tea stall. Unaware that his kiosk was inadvertently named after the Persian poet, the middle-aged tea seller ruminated a lot before opening up. As two of his friends joined, voicing preference for the Congress, he said, “I’d want AAP to win though Amarinder is better than the Badals....”
Why? The threesome agreed the Akalis did development work. But the principal beneficiaries were their henchmen even when it came to distributing ‘atta and daal’ under a scheme for the poor. They incessantly terrorised their political rivals and the poor. The sections on the margins only remember them for their “gunda raj, nasha Raj and parch (police cases) raj...”
The minuscule Harike vote could be deciphered to mean: AAP’s down but not out; Congress up but not about; Akalis in self-doubt. Voices interestingly weren’t dissimilar at pit stops in Ferozepur, Guru Har Sahai and Fazilka. The mood was a trifle converse in Jalalabad, the seat re-contested by Sukhbir Badal.
The Jalalabadis are appreciative mostly of the work the deputy CM has done in the area while being accessible to his constituents. “He gave his voters a political clout at the state level,” said a local journalist.
But by all accounts, Bhagwant Mann’s entry in the fray has turned Badal’s expected cakewalk a bit gingerly. Even committed Akali backers agree the stand-up comedian could push the fight down to the wire.
The sitting AAP MP from Sangrur is a riveting speaker. He reads well the people’s pulse. Mixes the comic with the serious to allure classes across castes and age-groups.
His daring to fight the powerful Badal is a natural attraction for the rural poor. In him, they see a saviour with the gauntlet in their defence against the Akali excesses.
Another imponderable for Badal in Jalalabad is the estranged Akali MP Sher Singh Ghubaya whose son recently joined the Congress.
The Rai Sikh scheduled caste vote he influences has a big presence in Jalalabad, Guru Har Sahai, Ferozepur and Fazilka.
“Ghubaya might be Sher Singh. But Jalalabad is Sukhbir’s den,” noted a local locksmith, Kuldip Kumar. “The Congress hasn’t given a candidate yet and AAP clogs airwaves without much hold on the ground.”
What might work eventually for Sukhbir could be his superior logistics and election management. He’d leave nothing to chance in Jalalabad and the nearby Muktsar where Parkash Singh Badal is in the contest from Lambi and the Congress’s Jhakhar from Abohar.
“Sukhbir is a generous investor in the business of politics,” said a police officer, tongue firmly in cheek. His poll-time ‘egalitarianism’ benefits as much the rebels on the rival side. It remains to be seen whether the deputy CM’s financial muscle would deliver in Moga and Faridkot districts perceived as AAP strongholds.
There the late mobilisation of the panthic vote hasn’t healed the scars left by last year’s incidents of sacrilege. Elsewhere the Akali strategy will be to divide and win. But will it? A lot depends on the Congress’s ability to contain dissidence. And the AAP’s revival of its once-upon-a-time charge that many believe had taken it close to a landslide.
Vinod Sharma is the political editor, Hindustan Times