Unlike the ‘short-of-stamina’ male royals of her clan who rarely give ‘darshan’ to the public, member of Parliament Preneet Kaur, who also dons the mantle of ‘Maharani of Patiala’, remains religiously connected to her citadel.
Always raring to hit every nook and corner of her constituency and never disappointing those knocking at her doors in distress are probably her major weapons helping in captivating voters and beating anti-incumbency.
Despite sustained hammering by the traditional rival Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) at her stronghold, Preneet has emerged as the Congress’ formidable candidate who is vying for a record fourth straight win in the Lok Sabha elections.Having won her maiden Lok Sabha election in 1999 by an impressive margin, her simplicity, coupled with personal rapport built carefully by doing at least little-little things, if not the big ones, of the constituents have seemingly contributed to her three wins in a row. The 2009 victory, by a big margin of 97,389 votes, over SAD veteran Prem Singh Chandumajra had catapulted her to the union cabinet as the minister of state for external affairs.
But, this time, the size and scale of her electoral fortunes will undoubtedly depend on the performance of her ‘foreign-bug-bitten’ charismatic husband and Punjab Congress strongman Capt Amarinder Singh.
“I don’t remember when I last took a holiday in the past 15 years. I am on the move always, shuttling between my constituency and the national capital,” she says before being interrupted by a Punjabi-origin caller from abroad, seeking her help.
Rescuing trapped Punjabis
Preneet has endless stories to recount about rescuing/helping Punjabis stranded on foreign shores or legalising illegal immigrants.
For example, when Libya was on the boil, she received three missed calls from an unidentified foreign phone number. “I reluctantly called back,” she says. “The person at the other end said in a choked voice that he was from Hoshiarpur and one of the 800 people from Punjab trapped in Benghazi, a coastal town of Libya.”
This call, she says, triggered a flurry of activities to help these labourers hired by a bankrupt foreign firm. “They didn’t have money for food,” recalls the minister. The Indian ambassador was sounded and medicines, food etc. were rushed from Tripoli — around 2,000 km from Benghazi — to around 2,000 Indians, including 1,200 from Kerala.”
The airfare expenses of all 800 people from Punjab, Preneet says, were borne by the Centre “at my request” as the travel agent from Jalandhar went underground.
On another occasion, an enterprising Punjabi from Italy reached her on her phone to inform that the Italian government had launched an amnesty scheme, an opportunity illegal immigrants from Punjab wanted to grab. But the time was short. “Within hours of receiving this call, I went up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi as well,” she says. “We waived certain preconditions in no time and rushed our officers from Jalandhar to Italy the next day to prepare documents.” Camps were held in gurdwaras of Italy to get their papers ready. About 40,000 family members of the Indian diaspora benefited, of which around 16,000 were Punjabis.Not much done as MP
Apart from distributing her MPLAD (local area development) funds almost equally in all nine assembly segments, Preneet couldn’t do much. "Residents of Patiala had high expectations from her. She could not improve civic amenities even in her hometown, what to say of the plight of the villages," says Mandeep Kaur of Guru Ramdas Nagar.
Similar views are aired by Harish Kumar (45) of Tripuri: “Our MP failed to bring any industry to generate a source of employment.”
On the other hand, the MP claims credit for pumping `150 crore for upgradation of Government Rajindra Hospital; `250 crore to set up a coaching centre of the Sports Authority of India; `30 crore for the overbridge; and the `500-cr Footwear Design and Development Institute, to be set up at Banur.
“Anything we try to bring to our constituency is shifted to Bathinda by the state government,” Preneet alleges, admitting that her term as MP was the most productive when the Congress was also in power in Punjab. “Even MPLAD funds were not used properly by state government agencies this time.”
Giving financial help to needy, either through the government or friends, has been at the core of her policy to “connect with people you represent.”
“Not many know that in the past five years, I helped a large number of people get financial help from the Prime Minister’s office for critical medical treatment. This assistance ranged from `3 lakh to `10 lakh. “Once the PMO told me that they had helped largest number of people in the country on my recommendations,” the MP claims.