“Sat Sri Akal ji, main Hira Singh Bhattal di dhee haan, kirpa kar ke votan mainu pauna (Greetings, I am the daughter of Hira Singh Bhattal, please vote for me)”.
This was how former Punjab chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal made her maiden poll speech in 1972, standing in front of a rural audience.
“Listening to my speech, the villagers burst into laughter, and I had no place to hide. My father got up and stretched my speech for five minutes, and we headed for the next meeting,” recalls Bhattal, who was 27, when she was pushed into politics. Busy preparing for her MA, Punjabi, exam, she was a reluctant politician.
RISE OF A DAUGHTER
Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had urged her father, a former MLA from Sherpur and a freedom fighter, to make her contest the polls. She lost the elections, but was noticed by then chief minister Giani Zail Singh, an erstwhile comrade of her father in the Praja Mandal movement, who helped her take baby steps on the political ladder by appointing her a member of the state khadi board.
Now at 71, Bhattal is known for her command over political idiom and oratorical skills that impress rural audiences. Bhattal says she would have gone much further in her political career had she been adept at English.
AN ACCIDENTAL CM
A hardcore Congress loyalist, Bhattal opposed militancy in Punjab, which brought her close to Beant Singh. Consequently, she managed to upstage Harcharan Singh Brar, who took over as Punjab chief minister after the assassination of Beant Singh. “Brar chalee gayee, Bhattal aa gaya,” was how people described her rise and assertive nature when she became the CM. She had been in saddle for only three months when the 1997 elections were announced and the Akali Dal came into power.
Though she has no big claims to make as a CM, the stint made her a hard bargainer. Her brinksmanship was evident during Captain Amarinder Singh’s term as CM from 2002-07. She sought Capt’s removal in 2005, and continued to protest in Delhi for over a month until she was made the deputy CM. Though Capt and Bhattal were mired in several heated exchanges, it’s all water under the bridge now, and the duo fondly address each other brother and sister.
A Congress old-timer Ved Parkash Gupta, who was district Patiala president in 1997 when Bhattal was Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) president, calls her a brave politician who fights for her rights both within and outside the party.
While observers claim Bhattal’s clout in Congress is on the decline, she says she is satisfied with the way things are shaping up.
READY FOR A FIGHT
Gearing up for her 10th election, seventh in a row from Lehragaga, which she has wrested a record five times since 1992, Bhattal is pitched opposite Shiromani Akali Dal’s Parminder Singh Dhindsa.
But Bhattal is ready for a fight. It’s a lesson she has gleaned from life the hard way. Bhattal, who married Lalli Sidhu, a landlord of Changali Wala village that falls in her father’s constituency, was widowed when she was pregnant with their second child. Her son, Rahul Sidhu, was born three months after her husband’s death. “Ours was a love marriage. Lalli, a typical sardar, wanted me to leave politics or shift to his home constituency. I chose the second option to carry forward my father’s legacy,” she recounts.
Her first victory from Dhanaula in Barnala in 1980 fetched her the deputy minister’s post in the Darbara Singh government.
FAMILY OF FREEDOM FIGHTERS
Bhattal’s parents Hira Singh Bhattal and Harnam Kaur were freedom fighters, who fought against both the British and the rulers of princely states. Bhattal was born in 1945 when her mother was out on parole from Patiala jail after contracting tuberculosis.
“Those were tough days. The British seized my father’s house and 100 bighas,” Bhattal says. Though she had three sisters and two brothers, only her brother Kuldeep Singh joined politics and became a legislator from Dhanaula.
Bhattal’s son Rahul Sidhu, who is seen as her heir apparent, is president of the youth wing in Sangrur parliamentary constituency. Campaigning for his mother, he says: “Right now I am working from behind the scenes, but in politics, things can happen suddenly.”
Bhattal’s son-in-law Vikram Bajwa is also a contender from Sahnewal that he lost to Akali Dal’s Sharanjeet Singh Dhillon in 2012. “Bibi ji (Bhattal) is an experienced politician and has an important role to play in the Congress,” says Vikram, who was active in student politics.
Meanwhile, unfazed by her strong opponent, Bibiji is gearing up for another tough fight.