Can Manpreet Badal be Punjab's Kejriwal?

  • Sukhdeep Kaur, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Feb 15, 2015 07:58 IST

Days before the country witnessed a mass movement against corruption by Anna Hazare in April 2011, Punjab was scripting its own history at Khatkar Kalan. The man behind the "yellow uprising" at the native village of Shaheed Bhagat Singh in March that same year was not an aam aadmi but one carrying the legacy of the Badal surname.

As Arvind Kejriwal would do much later while launching his Aam Aadmi Party, ruling family rebel Manpreet Badal, 52, had dubbed his People's Party of Punjab as a movement against "corruption, nepotism and VIP culture". The deluge of yellow-clad men, women and children at Khatkar Kalan seemed to signal end of bipolar politics in Punjab.

Four years down the line, while AAP has rewritten the rules of poll politics -- posting a stunning victory in Delhi without a cadre but force of motivated volunteers and without "money and muscle power" - it has also put to test Manpreet's relevance in Punjab politics as a third alternative banking on the main plank of anti-Badalism. Especially when AAP has announced Punjab 2107 as its next destination having clinched all its four seats in Lok Sabha polls from the state.

Why he failed?

The reasons for why Manpreet could not be Punjab's Kejriwal are many. Trusting family over his core team, he failed to prove a team leader who could keep his flock together. The election campaign became a family extravaganza as his son too jumped the fray.

Finally, his ambition to contest all assembly seats without the organisational muscle, money and candidates proved his nemesis. Left with choice of only fielding political greenhorns, he made way for "disgruntled and discredited" Akalis and Congressmen. He took fund-raising trip to US and Canada that later raised more allegations than dollars. Worse, he missed the bus on poll pacts, when it was boarding time.

Though then Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh had dismissed him as a "summer storm", the fact that he engineered a defection of his closest aides, former MLAs Kushaldeep Dhillon and Jagbir Brar, a month ahead of elections was an indication of unease in Congress camp. Manpreet could have pre-empted it had he not derided the idea of truck with the Congress where he had many sympathisers.

The "ruling Badal machinery" too had worked overtime to ensure his downfall and not without success.

Badal surname 'liability'

By the time of Lok Sabha polls, AAP had hit the bull's eye in Delhi state elections. Though he tried, Manpreet failed to align himself with the party as its state leaders opposed the idea tooth and nail, terming him as one dyed in Badal wool for over 15 years and with the same "blemishes".

"The induction of Manpreet would have given Akalis a stick to beat the AAP with as he and his kin too have been accused of land grabbing, coercion and accumulation of wealth. Without him, Akalis did not get an opportunity to raise a finger at us," said a senior AAP leader from Punjab.

The resurrection

Still, the promise of Badal surname held out and Manpreet found a suitor in Partap Singh Bajwa, who replaced Amarinder after the poll debacle. Manpreet was resurrected as he took on the might of his estranged family in their bastion, Bathinda. The ruling Badals won the seat but lost face as the family rebel gave them a run for their "money and muscle" power.

Civic poll test

While the Bathinda election brought Manpreet back in the reckoning, his party seems to be struggling to keep itself afloat, lest it is forgotten. He could have used the civic polls to prove his credentials at a time the AAP has shied away from contesting and neither SAD, BJP nor Congress are topping the popularity charts.

But going by its patchy participation, Manpreet seems to be hedging his decks by contesting the civic polls while terming them as not important.

His challenge has been compounded by infighting in the Congress. The PPP failed to seal a pact with its ally at several places, including Bathinda where it felt it was being made a "pawn" in the factional war. Sensing which way the wind is blowing, Manpreet is warming up to Amarinder and it is being reciprocated.

Which way, finally?

There are many theories on Manpreet's survival plan at a time -- going to BJP, Congress and if Kejriwal beckons, even to AAP. He denies all speculations saying, "It is better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven."

He contends that AAP's win has given him hope that he too can succeed. "People of Delhi were more receptive to the idea of such a movement than Punjab. But I welcome AAP as another player in the poll field. The more the merrier. We bowled the same length and breadth as AAP but failed to get wickets. We would too, hopefully, when our time comes," he said.

While an unfazed Manpreet may reveal his cards close to state elections -- going solo or finding a suitor-- he has to realise it takes a team to clinch wickets. He cannot do so by batting, bowling and fielding all by himself. Manpreet's toughest challenge now will be to stay relevant at a time AAP has fired the imagination of people of Punjab.

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