The 6-foot-plus hope of the Congress, Manpreet Singh Badal, alights from his SUV looking down into the faces of the party legislators and ex-MLAs, ready to lay out the plan for the visit of Rahul Gandhi to Bathinda on April 28.
Returning from the “secret meetings” with the trader lobbies here, Manpreet enters an old, discarded cinema house of his mater nal uncles that has become his election office on the Goniana road here. As the theatre doors are opened, the daylight beams on the rows of the chairs once meant for the Bollywood audience and now occupied by the Congress and People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) cadres.
Manpreet breaks the silence. “Haanji, aap sarea nu pataa hai ke Rahul Gandhi ji ne auna hai, te unha di rally lai kharcha vi hona hai (As you all know, Rahul Gandhi is visiting for a rally, and that will need some expenditure as well).” “Let the rally be in Bathinda only,” he declares, 10 minutes after suggesting Maur also as an option.
Congress MLA (member of the legislative assembly) Ajaib Singh Bhatti and former legislator Jasminder Jassi and Makhan Singh surrounded him time and again, as the crowd disperses for the afternoon break after more public meetings in the Bathinda suburbs are announced for the evening.
Without naming chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, or his rival candidate and sister-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal, he seeks mandate from the crowd against “the corrupt leaders who patronise the sand and drug mafia”. He remembers to mention his dummy namesake candidate as “a cheap tactic” of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
Manpreet’s rhetoric references from the history echo in the ears of the labourers and lower-middle class voters, who applaud his narrating the saga of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Pointing a finger to the sky, he asks the voters to swear by the martyr’s soul to press the “hand” button on the election day in a sign of rising against corruption and poverty.
“I want to see degrees and jobs in the hands of these little girls,” he says pointing to a child in the mother’s lap and another standing in the frock a little further. The claim is loud: “Their (the Akalis’) end is near, as April 30 is not far.”
He bends to listen to a group of women who mob him inside a lane after the speech. An old woman says: “Phikar na kar kaka, aithe Congressian da hi garh hai (do not worry, my boy, it’s a Congress stronghold).” Late night, his rival and he return to the same base, Badal village, which projects an eerie silence and no poster of any of the two.