Its corridors have portraits of the many maharajas of Patiala. But the Moti Bagh Palace is now abuzz with the “aam aadmi”. Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh has kept last two days for his own turfs — Patiala and Lambi, where he takes on chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.
His wife Preneet Kaur is out campaigning and their daughter, Jai Inder Kaur, is busy holding meetings in the palace wearing a cervical collar. Ask her if Patiala is angry at the lack of development, she blames the Akali government. “They diverted funds and no development took place in the last 10 years.”
Her son, Nirvan Singh, is now his grandfather’s Man Friday, both on social media and on ground. Showing the gardens, Nirvan recalls early memories of his grandfather. “Before he became Punjab CM, we used to see him just in the gardens,” he says. Amarinder agrees. “I love to see things grow. I have strawberry plants outside my bedroom in Chandigarh.”
It is his second day of campaigning in Patiala. So will it be for Lambi with Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday. After meeting lawyers and later a press conference, he is running late for a rally in Patiala Rural segment for MLA Brahm Mohindra. As Amarinder’s convoy drives out of the palace, he wonders: “Is it not the municipal corporation’s job to clean this area?”
Inside his bulletproof Toyota Fortuner, the joke is on his Patiala rival, former army chief JJ Singh. An aide says the “general” goes to voters and points towards former Akali candidates, and says: “Pehle yahan se giddar lartey the, pehli baar ek sher aaya hai (Its’ for the first time that a lion, not jackals, is contesting on an Akali ticket).”
Captain is quick to add, “I have serious reservations about how country’s army generals are selected. From a great Sam Manekshaw, we had JJ, who is a fraud.”
Mohindra joins him on the way with a group of slogan-shouting bikers. On stage, the loudspeaker is blaring “Chaunda ae Punjab, Captain di sarkar (Punjab wants Captain’s government)” and cans of Diet Coke are opened for him.
Amarinder plays the audio of Badal seeking support of a Lambi voter and later tells the crowd: “A five-time CM is begging for votes. He should be ashamed. This is what happens when you serve your family not the state.”
Then, he attacks the Aam Aadmi Party. “Kejriwal (AAP chief) stays at the home of a former Khalistani commando. Ohde khabbe Naxalite ne, te sajje Khalistani (He has Naxalites on his left and Khalistanis on right). Vote paan wale yaad rakho, Punjabiyat kayam rahe (While voting, make sure Punjab’s ethos is not lost).”
His next rally is at Sanaur but a call from Preneet gets him back to the palace. Some doctor and teacher associations are waiting. He is already running four hours late and hits the road after a quick meeting. In his car, he reckons such meetings as “good tidings”. “It is a good sign when people think you can solve their issues. They did not come to me before the 2012 elections,” he adds.
As he enters Sanaur (formerly Dakala), he recalls it was the first seat he fought in 1969. Before he enters the rally, he brushes up on a few things. “What is Harry’s full name?” he asks, and gets a quick, “Harinderpal Mann”. Amarinder again plays the CM audio and warns about AAP’s “divisive” agenda. The day ends with an evening rally at Patiala.
A year-long campaign and a new challenger in fray, Amarinder’s last mile has been the hardest. March 11 will give Punjab’s verdict. It’s also the day when he turns 75.
Whether he is able to command the Congress ship to a win or not, one part of history will write itself.
“I will be the longest living heir in 15 generations of my family,” Amarinder says.