In what was billed as a test for the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) state leaders in the absence of national convener Arvind Kejriwal, the Baisakhi mela rally at Talwandi Sabo on Wednesday underlined that comedian-turned-MP Bhagwant Mann is the party’s most popular leader in Punjab by a significant distance. At his witty best, Mann trained his guns squarely at the Badals and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), pitching it as a battle between the ruling elite class and the man on the street.
Arriving three hours after the scheduled start of the rally and speaking right at the end, Mann first deplored the sorry condition of farmers, and quickly moved to youth-centric issues: “The government schools in Punjab have been made to fail completely, so much so that now even Punjab School Education Board’s Class 12 pass-outs with 90% are rejected for visa to Australia as they are not good enough in English.” On drug abuse, he cited how a man in Tarn Taran “wrote a memorandum on the coffin of his son who died due to drugs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to get the Punjab government to at least acknowledge that the state has a drug abuse problem”.
Though he did not elaborately address the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and other issues, he took a dig at the Akalis’ statewide dharnas against Kejriwal over the demolition of a water kiosk outside Gurdwara Sisganj in Delhi: “I have been told there are large crowds at these dharnas, like 40, 70, sometimes 100 people! Actually, the SAD is training for dharnas for the next 10-15 years as AAP is going to rule after the 2017 polls.”
Sukhbir ‘looks like ragpicker’ in Holi pic
He asked the crowd if they had seen SAD chief Punjab deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal’s Holi celebration pictures that went viral on social media. Sukhbir appears without turban in those. Mann said it was “unimaginably sad” that the Akali Dal president did not have his turban on.
“Anyway, in those pictures doesn’t he look like some rag-picker on the Bathinda bus stand who does not have his senses about him?” he remarked, adding, “Sukhbir has no right to play Holi as he has taken the colours out of Punjabis’ lives, leaving behind only ‘chitta’ (white, also colloquial reference to heroin). He took another shot when he said the Amritsar mental hospital had also been mortgaged by the SAD-BJP government to pay salaries: “Now where will keep the Akalis and Congressmen after they lose their minds upon losing badly in 2017?”
Captain’s record and rally crowds
Attacking the Congress, he said that its state chief Captain Amarinder Singh “never went to the Vidhan Sabha as MLA, nor to Lok Sabha as MP now, just because they did not form the government”. “They think it will be their turn anyway now; but this is not some paani di wari (assigned farm-irrigation time)… They still cannot digest that we are here; that I have won and become MP.”
About the size of the Congress rally, he said they had booked 18 acres: “One acre fits about 6,000 people, which means they needed a lakh; but barely 7,000-8,000 people are there… It’s like a little kid wore the pants of his father.”
As for the AAP’s own rally, compared to the Kejriwal-led mega-show at the Maghi mela in January, the one here was smaller even in terms of the size of the pandaal (tent) — it used 12 acres given by a supporter, of which half was tented — but it was brimming with people.
Mann also decried Sukhbir for reportedly telling SAD cadres to take a vow from people to attend the rally before paying obeisance at Takht Damdama Sahib, which is the main venue of the mela held to mark establishment of the Khalsa Panth. “I told people that they should first pay obeisance and the come to our rally… Sukhbir was actually afraid if they would even come to their rally,” he said, referring to the Maghi crowds that travelled in other parties’ buses but walked into the AAP venue.
Among promises he made, chief was to give overtime allowance to police personnel, extracting wide smiles from the cops on duty.
Chhotepur clapped down
In his speech, AAP state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur said chief Parkash Singh Badal had “sold off” Punjab’s waters, questioning the stands of Congress too on the SYL canal. He termed the Bargari firing that killed two men protesting desecration of the Sikh holy book as “mini-Bluestar”. He was countering Sukhbir’s statement in which he had blamed the AAP for the Sis Ganj gurdwara ‘piao’ demolition and compared it with Operation Bluestar.
Speaking after Bhagwant Mann had already arrived and sat on stage, he listed one issue after another; but crowds wanting Mann to take the mike starting clapping and hooting for him to finish. Chhotepur remarked at least twice that “those who do not want to listen to serious issues, and want songs instead, should leave”. Eventually, there were loud cheers as he concluded. Sanjay Singh followed Chhotepur — before Mann did eventually get the mike — but Sanjay faced no hooting as he delivered an aggressive speech that clicked with the crowd.