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Ignored for long, Batala hoping to revive its fortunes

It’s a very entertaining battlefield, what with two actors, one career politician, his estranged brother and nine other contenders. Batala, once defined by its foundries and now by its slushy streets and filthy drains, is hoping this election will not merely entertain but also revive its fortunes.

assembly elections Updated: Jan 27, 2017 19:07 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times
Gurpreet Waraich,Aam Aadmi Party,Raunki Ram
AAP candidate from Batala Gurpreet Singh Waraich campaigning ahead of elections on Wednesday. (Keshav Singh/HT Photo)

It’s a very entertaining battlefield, what with two actors, one career politician, his estranged brother and nine other contenders. Batala, once defined by its foundries and now by its slushy streets and filthy drains, is hoping this election will not merely entertain but also revive its fortunes.

Which is why Gurpreet Waraich, aka Ghuggi, state convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its candidate from Batala, finds a ready ear when he goes from door to door to tell people in the Radha Kishan colony that he will usher in change. His style of campaigning is also different — freewheeling comedy by Raunki Ram, a well-known Punjabi comedian who is here post chikungunya, and his protege Harbilas Sangha, who pedals a rickshaw mounted with a loudspeaker. As Ghuggi, sombre in a black turban and white kurta-pyjama, focuses on shaking hands with the voters, the two marshal the crowds and bring smiles as they take potshots at the ruling government. “Jhadoo, jhadoo, jhadoo, aan wali elections wich beimaani nu khunje waado,” belts Raunki Ram. A road overflowing with rainwater prompts Sangha to ask a chemist: “Tuhade kohl koi fa aye hai pain sukaan layee...Eh hudd hai, eh nayee Capt Saab tussi rok sakde.”

Gurpreet Waraich passing through a road overflowing with rainwater while campaigning in Batala on Wednesday. ( Keshav Singh/HT Photo )

By the time, Waraich stops at the house of a well-wisher for tea, the rickshaw has acquired quite a motley fan following, which includes neighbouring foundry workers taking the mike to shout “inqlab zindabad”. A motorcyclist stops to belt out Bhagwant Mann’s ditty on the Badals. Waraich, as Ghuggi likes to be known in his political avatar, claims politics is not his cup of tea, but after campaigning for a month he is determined to stay put. “There is so much that is wrong here, Batala needs to start from the scratch. The last one month has been an eye-opener, I am more than ever determined to fight for the rights of this town.”

The actor-comedian claims he is getting a rousing response from the people. “People are desperately seeking a change and they see it in our party.” He doesn’t see any threat from his two main opponents. “I would have been worried had BJP fielded its candidate, but as things stand, I have the upper hand.”

Ravi Dutta, a businessman, who’s taken out a paper ‘on the ills plaguing Batala, agrees with Ghuggi: “Both Congress and BJP are a house divided. Ashwini Sekhri, the incumbent Congress MLA and candidate, was almost absent from the constituency during this term. His brother, who used to be his poll manager, is pitted against him from Aapna Punjab Party, a breakaway faction of AAP. As for the SAD-BJP candidate, Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal, his own alliance partner BJP is trying to ensure his defeat.”

Congress candidate Ashwani Sekhri campaigning in Batala on Wednesday. ( Keshav Singh/HT Photo )

Around the bend, Sekhri, whose family has dominated the Batala politics for the last 40 years, is seeking a vote for continuity in a huge hall brimming with Congress workers. The light goes off in the middle as the thundering clouds finally begin to pour, and the emcee announces that star campaigner Navjot Sidhu won’t be able to make it. While the hall starts emptying out fast, Sekhri promises to make up for his absence from the constituency in the coming term. “My children are settled, now I will be here to give you all my time.” He signs off by urging the voters to increase his victory margin from 18,000-plus last time to 25,000. Sekhri had lost the 2007 elections by a mere 87 votes.

This time, he claims, he will win by a bigger margin. “I have the support of all segments of society, “ he says. By all he means the BJP as well, a supporter explains. The BJP got the presidentship of the Municipal Council with Sekhri’s help. The triangular contest, claims Sekhri, will work to his benefit. “Ghuggi to udd jayegi (Ghuggi will fly away),” he smiles, saying an actor should stick to acting.

Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal, the Akali candidate who cuts quite a figure in his long black coat and fancy rings, has been combining politics with acting quite successfully. “Acting is just a shauq (hobby), politics is my passion,” says Lodhinangal, who claims he sells off some of his land every time he contests an election. The man who lost to Sekhri in 2012, says he’s toiled hard as the halqa in-charge to win over the city. “Traditionally, Akalis have dominated the villages, I tried to change it by improving our presence in the city.” For the first time, Akalis broke the alliance to fight the 2015 MC polls on their own and won 14 of the 35 seats, while the BJP bagged 11. BJP’s Naresh Mahajan was, however, elected president because of Sekhri’s vote.

Shiromani Akali Dal candidate Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal ( Keshav Singh/HT Photo )

Lodhinangal admits the Mahajan faction is not with him, but claims full support of the faction led by Suresh Bhatia, Batala BJP president. Pankaj Puri, a young businessman, admits Lodhinangal is not a walkover. “He’s done a lot of work, you can’t dismiss him.”

Dismissing Ghuggi as “saada bacha” (a child), Lodhinangal claims he is 101% sure of his victory.

In a city where ‘Hanuman ka akhara evam gym’ sits pretty with Lakme beauty salon and a coffee lounge, residents are wary of sweeping statements. Tirath Singh Virdee, a retired executive engineer, rues that all the parties are to blame for the city’s plight.

“Around 2,000 foundry units are lying closed. The government is imposing all kinds of cesses, including octroi and cow cess, on our electricity bill, but we don’t even have decent roads continue to grow, there is no drainage and the roads are broken.”

Pinki Pamma, a former Congress councillor, admits people want to see some real work. “It will be a very tough fight this time.”

In the green fields outside the city , Kashmir Singh, who runs a tyre-repair shop, says people want a change but are keeping their cards close. “Ralwan milwan kam hai ji (it will be a mixed affair). Every vote will count this time.”

First Published: Jan 27, 2017 19:04 IST