He might not be the favourite, but is still the defending champion in what is fast becoming the most thrilling electoral match in Punjab’s history, and Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal is giving it his best shot.
The 55-year-old is on the go, crisscrossing the state on a chopper, addressing rallies in one assembly segment after the other this last week before the high-voltage campaign comes to an end. As HT catches up with him in the historical town of Chamkaur Sahib in Rupnagar, Sukhbir is addressing his second rally — after the first of the day at Kharar in SAS Nagar — all guns blazing.
“We delivered what we promised,” the Punjab deputy chief minister begins, listing welfare schemes of his government. “It is only Parkash Singh Badal who has stood for the poor,” he says. This is followed by a blistering attack on the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “Main tuhanu ik gal dassa. Kejriwal sab to vadda thug hai. Eh topi-walean ne barbad kar dena Punjab (AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal is the biggest cheat. His party will ruin Punjab).” The crowd breaks into smiles and cheers him on. His tone changes to casual, as he pulls out the Punjabi-versus-outsider card: “Yaar dekho. Changay haan, maade haan, tuhade apne haan (We might be good or bad, but belong to you).”
But what really gets the crowd going is when Sukhbir begins to announce his party manifesto. Loan waiver, bonus on minimum support price (MSP), subsidised ghee and sugar, government jobs — every promise invites a loud applause. Fifteen minutes later, as the speech ends, many in the audience get up from their chairs, shouting slogans: “Kejriwal-Panja jamna paar, teeji vaar Badal sarkar (Kejriwal and Congress will be thrown across the Yamuna; Badals will form the government for third consecutive time).” As Sukhbir leaves the stage, youngsters rush to the front, mobbing him to take selfies. He indulges some, smiling into their mobile phones, before his Z-plus security prompts him to move.
“We are winning this seat,” he says, while effortlessly climbing the rather high lone step into the chopper. And how do you know that? “A party whose workers are charged up like this cannot lose. They are the soldiers. If they make it as much as their fight as mine, then my work is done.”
Taking on all odds
Considered to be a highly effective election ‘micro manager’ who created history with back-to-back victories in 2007 and 2012, Sukhbir is aware of every odd stacked against him this time.“That is the whole thrill of the fight. To have everything against you to begin with and then come out victorious,” he says with a smile. “I tell the candidates: win the game in your mind first. Work till the very end. No seat is lost or won till the last vote is cast.”
If Sukhbir is expected to be tense, he is certainly not showing it, dressed in a white kurta-pyjama with the blue Akali turban and matching coat. As the helicopter lifts off, he settles comfortably in his seat and in less than a minute his eyes shut to catch a power nap before the next stop: Chabbewal in Hoshiarpur. As an animated discussion begins with his media adviser on AAP’s election prospects, it becomes clear sleep is a luxury for the Akali chief. “Unlike what you journalists think, AAP is in the fight on only 25 seats in Malwa and a lone or couple each in Majha and Doaba. Akalis and Congress are in direct two-way contest on majority of the seats in Punjab,” says Sukhbir with an air of finality.
But you are hitting out more at AAP in your speeches. “That is because they are the worst set of people — for not just Punjab, but for the country. They are anarchists, who believe in destroying institutions, systems, and not in building them.”
But what happens if AAP comes to power in Punjab? Are you worried they will arrest you, like they go around promising? “Are you joking? They are thoroughly corrupt, have made crores from sale of election tickets. I will be putting them behind bars.”
Four rallies later, as the sun begins to set and Sukhbir shifts from the chopper to his car, it is a slow, salubrious drive from Sham Chaurasi (venue of the last rally) in Hoshiarpur to Jalandhar. “Where is my lunch?” he remembers. His embarrassed staff has no clue. A quick stop and steaming ‘pakodas’ are passed to him on a newspaper’s front page. “These are good.” The ‘foodie’ offers us some.
“I enjoy these months more than the five years of being in power!” He is running on what he describes his favourite mode — election-charged. “I am thinking all the time. I barely sleep. After the rallies I hold meetings till wee hours.” That is when the ‘backroom strategising’ is done. And what is the strategy to ensure the hat-trick he promises to his men? “I wouldn’t tell you that!” he laughs.