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HindustanTimes Sun,31 Aug 2014

Selling individual effort, she wants all the grouses forgotten for now

Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times  Talwandi Sabo (Bathinda), April 29, 2014
First Published: 10:17 IST(29/4/2014) | Last Updated: 13:33 IST(29/4/2014)

The speech is well-structured but repetitive, longish but delivered impressively, and sounds combative but is defensive at its core. As Harsimrat Kaur Badal — the wife of deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and daughter-in-law of CM Parkash Singh Badal — seeks re-election from family turf Bathinda, she sees no big battle other than improving her 2009 performance.


“In 2009, we had two of the nine MLAs here. Now it’s the opposite,” she says later in the car, adding, “There is dissonance against local leaders of the (Shiromani Akali Dal) but I hope people see my work as an individual. If so much work does not get credit, I’d be disappointed with politics… My brain tells me it’s tough to beat last time’s lead, the highest in Punjab, but my heart says otherwise.”

Before we are allowed into her Land Cruiser, we tail her to Tangrali in Talwandi Sabo, where Congress MLA-turned-Akali leader Jeet mohinder Singh Sidhu is the introducer.

When Harsimrat takes the mike, she blames the Centre for everything: “The Congress-led UPA government had six ministers from the region, and they had more funds than the state government.

But they did not even make peele (yellow) card (for food subsidy) for poor families, while I got the maximum neele (blue) cards (from the state’s atta-dal subsidy scheme) to Bathinda.”

In the next village, she promises to waive “motaraan de bill” (farm electricity bills) and more “if the Centre and state government are of the same parties” — this argument forms the theme of her speech everywhere.

FAMILY TIES, KNOTS
Armed with village-specific lists, she har ps on how she gave Rs. 17 crore to villages of the area “even when an MP gets Rs. 5 crore a year for the entire constituency”, and tells villagers at Jogewala: “That happened because you made the right decision, of electing the CM’s family member.”

She does not name the CM’s nephew, Manpreet Badal, the Congress candidate, but makes a mention of his poetic leanings: “Don’t be fooled by those who do she’r-o-shayari!” In conclusion, she asks the crowd a question — “Vote kithey paoge (Whom will you vote for)?” — and expects them to shout “takdi” (scales, the SAD symbol) so loudly that “the deyor (brother-in-law, Manpreet) runs away, scared”.

Inside the car — which is parked as close as possible for her to walk very little from the sofa on the dais, only briefly meeting people — we ask her about Manpreet.

“He is no challenge… a discredited politician.” How does it feel to be contesting against a family member? “His parents are cordial, but Manpreet has always been greedy, jealous of my husband.

He’s a user, actually! He emotionally used my father-in-law and even got the finance ministry… Now he has struck a deal with the Congress after winning nothing in the 2012 assembly polls.”

About the AAP, which has singer Jasraj Singh Longia as its candidate, she says, “They have an understanding with Manpreet. The candidate was declared late and is hardly campaigning… But it’ll be good if AAP gets some votes; that will dent the Congress!”

‘WHY MODI POSTERS PUT UP HERE?’
At the next stop, we encounter SAD vice-president Hans Raj Hans already on stage singing a paean, quite literally, to “Biba-ji” Harsimrat.

He seems to be tainting Manpreet and his forming the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) at Bhagat Singh’s birthplace in 2011, with this couplet: “Band baariyaan ummeedan diyan… vaadeyan to mukkar gya, sauhaan kha ke shaheedan diyan…” (Windows of hope are closed, as he who swore by martyrs has broken promises).

He keeps it brief as his otherwise expensive performances had earlier led to the Election Commission adding Rs. 50,000 to Harsimrat’s expenses. But the Sufi legend, a humble worker here, struggles to rouse the crowd when he asks them to raise slogans. Smiling, he abandons the effort, “Chalo, koi na. Changa! (Well. Never mind. Okay!)”

Biba-ji tells voters that the NDA would form the government at the Centre: “Then what will a Congress MP get for you? Badal saab got the huge refinery for Bathinda from (former BJP PM Atal Bihari) Vajpayee saab, and the Congress got nothing in its 10 years.”

Realising that it’s more about the SAD-BJP regime, she underlines that its term is till 2017 anyhow: “Agle tin saal saanu koi nahi haraa sakda (No one can get us out of power for the next three years).”

An apologetic tinge is added when she asks people to forget their giley-shikvey (grouses) over “small matters” and vote with a “national outlook”.

She makes a mention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “who did not do enough for Punjab despite being a Sikh and a native”, but hardly mentions BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi.

Later, she agrees with the observation that there is no Modi wave here: “I don’t know who has put Modi posters here. People don’t relate to that. I must pull up my publicity team!”

DRUGS, FAMILY, AND THE POLL DUST
An issue she mostly skips is drug addiction, a matter in which her brother and state revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia has been named by a prime accused and also political rivals.

In the car, she tries pragmatism: “People seek opium for votes! But I’ve worked hard to control the menace, and will not succumb, even if it costs us.”

Personally, she would rather be a “social worker”, and a family woman. “My three kids (19, 13, and 11 years old) have no one to look after them these days.”

She also complains jokingly about having to take care of herself: “Sometimes when I get home after campaigning at, say, 2 am, Sukhbir is sleeping!”

She carries ice-tea sachets and lassi to remain hydrated, and food from home. “But finding a loo for women is the real task.”

As we head to a rest house where we can find a clean washroom, she talks of how her father-in-law “will age even faster if he retires”. “And if Sukhbir takes over as CM now, our family time would be curtailed further. The current set-up is convenient.”

Before we leave, she reiterates that she won’t have contested this time “unless Manpreet or Capt Amarinder Singh contested from Bathinda”. As for the next generation, the doting mother sees a “policy-maker, not necessarily a politician” in her 19-year-old daughter.

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