“Show me the money” — that’s the first thing we feel like asking Kulwant Singh (52), the richest Lok Sabha candidate in the fray in Punjab, as we catch up with him at Bohra village under Sahnewal assembly segment.
But we think of dropping the question as the realtor-turned Akali politician comes across as a simple, down-to-earth man, minus the airs of a richie-rich political leader. And we actually drop it when we note that the pockets of his white kurta are empty rather than overflowing with currency notes.
Unlike stalwarts such as Capt Amarinder Singh and Prem Singh Chandumajra, first-timer Kulwant is not fighting a do-ordie battle. The near-permanent smile on his face indicates that he has nothing to lose from this electoral contest which, he admits, he was asked to take part in by Punjab deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sukhbir Badal.
With the ruling SAD riveted to the ‘prestigious’ seats of Amritsar and to a lesser extent Bathinda, seats such as Fatehgarh Sahib have been rendered low-priority. Cool and relaxed, Kulwant says the scenario suits him as he himself likes to keep a low profile.
Being an unknown entity in villages under this assembly segment, best known as film legend Dharmendra’s native place — which falls in Ludhiana district but is part of Fatehgarh Sahib parliamentary constituency — the for mer Mohali municipal council president is heavily dependent on local Akali MLA and PWD minister Sharanjit Singh Dhillon to woo voters.
At Machhi Kalan village, the eloquent Dhillon sets the ball rolling by listing the achievements of the SAD-BJP government and bashing the Congressled UPA. His speech, rich in attadal, is repeatedly interrupted by disgruntled elements, whom he tries hard to pacify. A firebrand village youth is allowed to read out a poem, which goes like this: “Machhi Kalan pind nageena, meenh da paani khada rehnda maheena… kehnde ne ehnu Akalian di reed di haddi, par chikad de vich phas jaandi gaddi…
(Our village is a jewel, the backbone of the Akalis, but the truth is that rainwater isn’t drained out for as long as a month and vehicles get stuck in the slush).” The sarcasm makes Dhillon and other Akalis cringe, but they somehow stop things from spinning out of control. Amid the din, Kulwant’s speech is reduced to a mere formality.
In other dusty villages, including Bonkar Gujran, Kakka Dhaulan and Jagirpur, the scene is similar as Dhillon and other Akali leaders, including back-from-Congress Ishar Singh Meherban, overshadow Kulwant in lung power as well as theatrics. Being a rookie politician, the ex-councillor doesn’t mind playing second fiddle, for he knows how valuable is the support of these party leaders. At Bajra village, local Akali veteran Gurcharan Singh Meharban curtly tells Kulwant to cut shor t his speech, but instead of getting offended, he takes it in his stride and does the needful.
On our way to Kanija village, over roads peppered with Martian craters, we start ribbing him about his once-close ties with the Amarinder-led Congress gover nment, before he switched l oyalties to the Akalis. He tactfully replies that a businessman doesn’t bother about political affiliations. His PA Paramjit Singh pulls out a knife, as if to stop our incessant questioning, but mercifully, he uses it only to slice an apple. As the low-calorie snack is passed around, Kulwant tells us that he has lost 3 kg during the past two months of hectic campaigning. He adds that he bought a house at Khanna soon after getting the SAD ticket so as to set up a base in the area.
At Kanija village, Kulwant’s ‘identity crisis’ surfaces as he asks the video cameraman not to block the audience’s view while he is delivering a speech. “Side te ho jao. Lokan nu vekhan tan deo election ch kaun khada ho riya hai. Eh na hovey ke oh mainu pach hanan hi na (Step aside. Let the people see who’s the candidate. I don’t want that they should even fail to recognise me).”
We do talk about money, but Kulwant says it’s not a factor. “Accessibility and public connect matter the most,” he avers. He doesn’t even mention his tough rival, four-time Congress MLA Sadhu Singh Dharamsot.
At Bonkar Gujran, a tricky situation arises when the moneybags is of fered a few thousands in cash on stage by a village Akali leader. With the ‘Big Brother’ (Election Commission staff) watching through a video camera, Kulwant politely says no. The money is then directed towards Dhillon, but he too refuses it with folded hands.
Protected from the scorching sun by the shamiana, speakers reiterate that Kulwant is a Ravidassia who has risen high from a humble background. With ‘Vote for Modi’ cards pinned to Akali workers’ shirt pockets, the BJP’s PM candidate figures in the speeches too. Kulwant calls him “imandar” and “soojhvan” (honest and wise). He hastens to add that even Manmohan Singh was honest, but could do nothing since he had no power. Kulwant promises a golden future for Punjab with Modi as PM and Badal as CM.
We ask a listener, local hosiery worker Jagga Singh (40), what he thinks of politicians’ promises. Most of what he says is unprintable, except this line: “Kujh nahin badalna. Iddan hi raula-rula pa ke chale jaande ne (Nothing’s going to change. These leaders just make a lot of noise and go).” We aren’t sure whether he’ll vote for the ‘ takdi’ (scales, the SAD symbol), but we let him have the last word.