He is not the underdog or the outsider in Punjab any more. As Arvind Kejriwal, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) national convener and Delhi chief minister, moved across three villages in Gurdaspur, visiting families of the Pathankot terror attack, Punjab’s air smelt of victory to him.
His party, which gave the Akalis and Congress a run for their money in the 2014 parliamentary polls, grabbing 24% of the total vote share and winning four seats, is clearly chasing a singular target: to sweep the 2017 assembly polls.
But the stress of the challenge does not show on the man who has to lead the battle. “Punjab is beautiful,” he says as he settles down for a short tea break at a roadside dhaba near Jayantipur on the outskirts of Amritsar, on the way to Bathinda.
“Any special preparations for your first public rally at the Maghi mela on Thursday?” we ask. “I know Punjabi. I can understand it. But I will have to get more comfortable speaking it. I’ll be addressing the rally in Hindi,” he says as he greets people who start queuing up to get pictures and selfies clicked with him.
The enthusiasm among the people is palpable. “Please save Punjab,” begs Jasbir Singh, a Batala resident who sits down next to him, holding his hand.
Accompanied by party leaders Ashutosh Kumar, Sanjay Singh, Sucha Singh Chhotepur and HS Phoolka, Kejriwal is, however, not ready to spell out the poll strategy. What about giving the party a CM face? And what about your agenda? We have many questions.
“Samay aane par sab pata chal jayega (everything will be known when the time comes),” he says smilingly.
Expected to blow the poll bugle at the mela on Thursday, Kejriwal soaks in the sun and tries to catch the straws in the wind. “Will Amarinder’s return as the state party head improve the Congress’ position here?” he asks, keenly listening to the people who crowd around him.
But his team has no doubts about the outcome of the 2017 assembly polls. “AAP is going to repeat Delhi in Punjab. It will be a clean sweep. While one party will go totally down under, the other will put up some resistance,” says Ashutosh. As of now, for them it seems the Akalis are on their way out.
“The Bargari episode has broken the Akali party’s backbone -- the Panthic Sikhs. Their core vote bank lies shattered and it is shifting to AAP,” points out Chhotepur.
But the fact that AAP has emerged as a major contender, if not a front-runner, for the assembly polls is obvious. Jhanda Gujjran, a nondescript village in Kahnuwan where resides the family of Honorary Captain Fateh Singh, who died in the Pathankot terror attack, has in the past week seen VIPs come and VIPs go. But it’s now pulsating with hope and expectation. “Today, it is different. People are coming out on their own to see Kejriwal. They only know him as the big leader of the jhaduwaali (broom) party,” a local resident said.
“I think he is the Prime Minister of Delhi,” says another resident, not sure who Kejriwal is. But he has walked from the other end of the village to Fateh Singh’s house to see the ‘jhaadu’ leader. “I am completely with him. He will rid us of the 10 years of Akali rule,” he adds.
And what’s wrong with the Akali rule? Interestingly, drugs and unemployment are not on the list of complaints. “The Akalis have given atta-dal and crop loss compensation only to their supporters and to those who are rich and don’t need them,” he claims.