The royal palace has been left much behind. Moving through the serpentine road dividing fields turned golden with ripe wheat, the cavalcade of SUVs — with the erstwhile queen of Patiala on board an Innova -- is entering the villages of Nabha ‘ riyasat’.
“Maharani Preneet Kaur Zindabad,” the thin gathering raises slogans to welcome the union minister of state for external affairs at Narmana village. Preneet is seeking a fourth consecutive term as member of Parliament from the Patiala constituency.
Soon, local leaders are lashing out at the Akali leadership. (Bikram Singh) Majithia, retabajri (sand and gravel) and drugs are the most repeated words.
The audience comprises a small chunk of Dalit women and a few Congress workers. Referring to AAP candidate Dr Dharamvira Gandhi, the leaders remind the gathering that she is a real politician who belongs to the royal family, that politics is in her blood and that the others can’t match her.
“Koi bhul-chuk ho gayi ho taan main maafi chhaundi haan (I beg pardon if we committed some mistake),” Preneet starts her speech on a defensive note. Perhaps she understands the resentment among people: leaders reach out to them only in poll season.
People are reminded that in the last elections the Akalis were given votes, but what did they give in return? “Thanas (police stations)? We are fed up with this politics of thanas,” she says.
She says that before the meeting women conveyed to her that their old-age pensions were not reaching them. They were also complaining about atta-daal.
She says, “Eh sooba sarkaar diyan jimmevaarian han. Asi kendar ton taan sirf sakeema shuru kar sakde haan te paise hi bhej sakde haan. Per eh Akaali gariban de paise naal tankhaan vand dinde ne, khajana khali hoyia pya hai (These are state government’s duties.
The Centre can only start schemes and give funds. But the Akali government gives away salaries from poor people’s money, emptying the treasury).” She also questions “betrayal” by Deepender Dhillon, who is contesting against her on SAD ticket.
She acknowledges that the MPLADs funds are limited too and they can’t reach all villages. The meeting is over. Women encircle her again. They want to touch her, feel her and get pictures clicked with her. She poses with them with great patience.
She hugs the women and tells them to come and vote. She checks if her dupatta covers her head properly. She does that time and again.
The cavalcade heads for the next village on the itinerary: Ramgarh. Harvesting is in full swing.
“People are not turning out in large numbers as they are busy in harvesting,” Preneet points to the fields as she sips nimbu-pani. She isn’t happy that so many meetings are planned for the day.
She has a sore throat. “Hazoor, mention about the Rs 100-crore grant that came for fencing of forest land,” Gumail Singh, her personal assistant, sitting on the rear seat of the SUV, says.
‘Hazoor, that is how the personal staff addresses each member of the royal family, says Avtar Singh, who has been driving Preneet’s car since 1996.
A former journalist with a Punjabi daily who has been roped in for the elections by the family says, “Every member of the royal family is hazoor for the personal staf f. It is tradition. They can’t say ‘no, mam’. They only say ‘ji hazoor’. That is how the term ‘ji hazoori’ evolved,” he smiles.
We are already in the village. The gathering here is slightly bigger than the last one.
After the meeting, people take Preneet along to show the bad roads and the non-existent sewerage system. She patiently listens and explains to them that these are responsibilities of the state government. This is something that is beyond most of the people here. For them, hazoor is sarkar.
Standing amid overflowing sewerage lines and dumping yards and asking people to vote, how does a ‘queen’ feel in the common man’s court? She smiles, and replies after a long pause, “It has become part of our life.”
People can’t be taken for a ride. That is the beauty of democracy.