The location is historic but the subtext is political. Held in honour of 40 Sikh soldiers who were martyred in the 1705 Battle of Muktsar, the annual three-day Maghi mela - Punjab’s biggest fair - has over the years been hijacked by political conferences, with the crowds being a referendum on the popularity of the Congress and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
But the old warhorses of both parties - Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and state Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh - face a new challenger and battle cry in Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who sounded the poll bugle for the 2017 assembly elections at Muktsar on Thursday.
Linemen protest at Akali Maghi Mela rally in Muktsar
Chaos prevailed at the Shiromani Akali Dal rally when unemployed linemen raised anti-government slogans soon after Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal began his address at the annual Maghi Mela in Muktsar on Thursday.
Police swung into action and detained several unemployed linemen as they raised slogans to embarrass Badal, who, however, continued with the address.
The Akali rally had thinner attendance as compared to previous years.
AAP had been mobilising crowd for the past three weeks
The rookie party that has caught the imagination of the youth, Punjabi diaspora, farmers and radicals alike had been mobilising crowds and funds for the Kejriwal show since the past three weeks. Its leaders and army of volunteers had been visiting villages, holding public meetings and using social media to put up a grand show. AAP leader Himmat Singh Shergill had claimed that the party rally would see a turnout of more than 5 lakh. The audio clip of Punjabi-speaking Kejriwal asking people to come and meet him at the Maghi mela had gone viral on social media, raising the hackles of the Congress and the SAD.
Congress attack on ‘non-Punjabi’ Kejri
Besides the customary Badal-bashing, the Congress attack was mainly on Kejriwal’s “non-Punjabi” roots. Amarinder told HT, “Have they (AAP) got no Punjabi leaders? Their entire leadership handling Punjab affairs, be it Kejriwal, Sanjay Singh or Durgesh Pathak, are either from Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Kejriwal had to speak in Punjabi to invite people. Why would those from UP and Haryana be interested in Punjab’s future? Non-Punjabis cannot be allowed to take over the state.”
He also ridiculed AAP’s fund-raising dinners. “Asking people to pay Rs 5000 for a plate is rubbish. Kejriwal’s advertisement budget has grown six times and they have put posters in every house in the town and villages. Is this his brand of honesty?” Amarinder said.
With Kejriwal making the headlines, SAD president and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal was busy playing the perception game. He has dismissed AAP as a contender in 2017 and predicted the clash will be between the SAD and the Congress.
War over acres
The AAP and Congress pandals were on the same road. The AAP had claimed it had 40 acres, but the Congress said its pandal will be biggest.
Amarinder said, “It is not about how many acres you take. Overall, we have also taken 36 acres as there will be hundreds of buses, cars and other vehicles. The AAP pandal is spread over only 8 acres but Sukhbir panicked and ordered his pandal size to be increased. But they will not be able to match our numbers. Learning lessons from the Bathinda coronation rally, where people were stuck till night, the party has this time erected three exit gates.”