It is one of the most famous addresses in the city. Almost everyone seems to know the way to heritage property Nowshera House. The huge bungalow, eclectically decorated with brass artefacts, marble statues and Thanjavur paintings, is where Congress stalwart Capt Amarinder Singh, 72, addressed as ‘maharaja’ by his fawning followers on account of being from the erstwhile Patiala royal family, has set up base.
At 10.30 on Sunday morning, the place is humming with activity. The sitting Patiala MLA and former CM, his brother Malwinder Singh, and a few friends are at the dining table for a breakfast of papaya, porridge, butter toast and omelette. His aides are looking at newspapers, thrilled over the coverage of the rally in the Akali citadel of Majitha. “Wow! The turnout has been termed as ‘impressive’,” one of them says.
Malwinder cuts in, reminding everyone that they need to get going. Amarinder, pitted against BJP poll strategist Arun Jaitley, takes his daily dose of medicines and checks the schedule before getting into his Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. The SUV rolls on with two Toyota Innovas, a police Gypsy and other vehicles in tow.
First stop is Jallianwala Bagh where he offers floral tributes to victims of the massacre of April 13, 1919. And then he pays obeisance at Dera Baba Darshan Singh Kulliwale. His first public meet is at Thobah, 35km from Amritsar, where a 500-strong crowd is waiting patiently.
As the convoy arrives at 2.10 pm, slogans of “Maharaja zindabad” rend the air. He is welcomed with garlands and siropas. After the customary welcome speeches, comes Captain’s turn. He opens his speech with a one-line apology for being late, but does not waste time, firing on all cylinders from the word go.
His target: Akali minister Bikram Majithia and the two Badals, CM Parkash Singh Badal and his deputy and son Sukhbir. “Inna Akalian nu eni bhukk kithon aaundi hai?Kehnde ne Majitha parivar, Badal parivar roz Akhand Path rakhda hai. Pata nahin dharm ton ki sikhden hann. Reta, sharab, bus de permit, TV channel — sab ena de kol hai.
Koi cheez ni chhaddi (How are these Akalis so hungry? They say the Majitha family and Badal family pray daily. Don’t know what they learn. They control everything — sand, liquor business, bus permits and TV channels),” he says.
“Majithia thinks he rules the state and can do anything. If he messes with my people, I will hang him upside down! Badal used to think that I give empty threats, but I put him inside (jail),” he thunders, and the crowd cheers.
Just then, it starts raining, but Amarinder does not get distracted by the pitter-patter. Quick of wit, he takes a dig at the CM: “Baddal vi vajji jande, baba vi vajji janda. Pata nahin keda bolda hai. (The clouds are making a lot of noise, and so is the Baba [Badal]. I don’t know who this is now.)”
‘JET LI’, HIS RIVAL
Jaitley, whose name he oddly pronounces as “Jet Li”, is next in line. He says Jaitley belongs to the party of Narendra Modi “under whose regime Muslims were killed, Christians tortured and Sikhs thrown out of Gujarat”. “If such things happened in my state when I was the CM, I would have quit!”
Claiming that Jaitley was running scared, he blames the BJP candidate for Modi’s remark in Barmer on Saturday in which he dared Congress president Sonia Gandhi to come clean on alleged foreign bank accounts of Amarinder, his wife and son. “Jaitley is nervous. You must have seen how a rabbit runs around in circles after its tail is cut off. He is running like that.”
He winds up his 20-minute speech with an appeal for support before setting off for Tehhri village. On the way, when asked by this reporter why he was focusing mainly on Majithia and the Badals, Amarinder airily dismisses his BJP opponent:
“Nobody knows Jaitley here. He is incidental to the contest. The fight is with the SAD, Majithia and the Badals. People hate them. And, there is no ‘Modi wave’.”
On Jaitley’s charge that he was just a 'tu-tu, main-main’ candidate, the Congressman says, “This is his (Jaitley’s) first election, but the 17th for me. Punjab is a rough terrain, where people want to hear the truth. They don’t want namby-pamby stuff.”
The SUV suddenly pulls up. There are 200-odd bikers waiting for him to lead the convoy from there.
As the vehicles get close to the venue, some youngsters stop his Land Cruiser Prado and click selfies with him using their smartphones. At the rally, the barrage of charges continues. Calling Majithia “maha badmash (mega crook)”, he promises not to spare him.
“He controls everything. Today, reta (sand) costs more than even khand (sugar). I will decontrol sand,” he declares to applause.
Training guns at the Badals, he says, “Sukhbir likes to set up hotels. I don’t know from where they get the money. As for senior Badal, when we formed our government in 2002, my Youth Congress chief Vijay Inder Singla wanted to gift a cake to him on his 80th birthday and I said okay.
Now 12 years later, he says he is still 84! It is time he goes to a gurdwara to does sewa, and spares us.”
He forgets to even mention his rival. “Jaitley nu taan main bhul hi gaya. Oh te mera virodhi hai,” he jokes, before accusing the BJP leader of doing nothing about Sikh farmers “thrown out of Gujarat, from where he is a Rajya Sabha member”.
At the next rally, he continues with his disjointed, but crowdpleasing, aggressive attacks in his trademark style. Though running two hours late, he is in no hurry, moving at a leisurely pace even if that means skipping one or two meetings.