RESUR­GENT CAP­TAIN

While the SAD-BJP al­liance strug­gles with an­ti­in­cum­bency, the Congress is mak­ing head­way. The AAP ap­pears nowhere in sight

India Today - - COVER STORY PUNJAB - By Asit Jolly

On the morn­ing of Jan­uary 8, as Pun­jab deputy chief min­is­ter Sukhbir Singh Badal’s mo­tor­cade was leav­ing the venue of an elec­tion meet­ing in his assem­bly con­stituency of Jalal­abad, a 25-strong group of an­gry vil­lagers emerged out of nowhere and be­gan pelt­ing it with stones. Though deputy CM Badal was un­harmed, the in­ci­dent sent rip­ples across poll-bound Pun­jab.

For­mer Pun­jab chief min­is­ter Cap­tain Amarinder Singh (20022007), who is spear­head­ing a resur­gent Congress cam­paign in the state, promptly called the at­tack a sign of mount­ing pub­lic anger. “It’s the sim­mer­ing rage of a pop­u­la­tion in­censed by ten years of mis­rule by the SAD-BJP,” Singh said on Jan­uary 9. In­ter­est­ingly, just two days be­fore the in­ci­dent in Jalal­abad, San­grur MP Bhag­want Mann, the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP’s) best known Punjabi face, who has been pit­ted against Sukhbir in the south­ern Pun­jab con­stituency, had un­ad­vis­edly sug­gested that peo­ple would greet Akali lead­ers with “dalle (baked clay pel­lets)”.

Some 250 km away from where Sukhbir Badal and Bhag­want Mann are bat­tling each other is Bassi Pathana, a ru­ral con­stituency in Fate­hgarh Sahib district. It has been key to the over­all vote­share of the Akali Dal, which has won from here 11 times. But that seems set to change now. Out in Bassi Pathana’s main bazaar, a small group of young men spell it out: “Ten years,” Manin­der Singh, 26, says, “is much too long to bear the same old faces in govern­ment when there is no change in our own lives.” Pawan­deep Singh, 32, who runs a mi­nor auto ac­ces­sories kiosk after he failed to find a job, agrees. “Beroz­gari (un­em­ploy­ment),” he says, “is the big­gest prob­lem fac­ing peo­ple.” It is easy to see why this is a big is­sue in this elec­tion. A whop­ping 52 per cent of the 19.7 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers in Pun­jab are young peo­ple, aged 18-39. That is why un­em­ploy­ment and drug abuse, an­other is­sue that pre­dom­i­nantly im­pacts young peo­ple, are big­ger is­sues in Pun­jab than de­mon­eti­sa­tion.

Fur­ther down the bazaar road, a shop­keeper, Sham­lal, 60, and a truck driver, Man­deep Singh, are en­grossed in a card game in the sun. They say that, in a sense, they too are ‘job­less’. “There are hardly any cus­tomers,” says Sham­lal, blam­ing the sit­u­a­tion on the poli­cies of the state govern­ment rather than de­mon­eti­sa­tion. Man­deep Singh agrees, saying that de­mon­eti­sa­tion is, in fact, “an hon­est move by the PM to drive black money out into the open”, and is only a mi­nor hic­cup in an “al­ready bad sit­u­a­tion”.

Vot­ers across Fate­hgarh Sahib district have been struck by the clos­ing down of the once-thriv­ing steel

mills and arc fur­naces in neigh­bour­ing Mandi Gobindgarh, which till less than a decade ago, was counted among the big­gest rolled steel mar­kets and pro­duc­tion cen­tres in the coun­try. With thou­sands of jobs lost, the col­lapse of Mandi Gobindgarh also shat­tered the lo­cal econ­omy, af­fect­ing the liveli­hoods of scores of petty traders and small shop­keep­ers. Sukhbir Badal’s ex­pla­na­tion that “the Gobindgarh fac­to­ries shut down be­cause of a global slow­down in the steel sec­tor and the fact that mill own­ers failed to up­grade or modernise their units to stay com­pet­i­tive,” cuts no ice with those af­fected. The deputy CM still has a lot to show though, par­tic­u­larly from the last five years of the SAD-BJP coali­tion. Be­sides ex­ist­ing sub­si­dies like free power for ir­ri­ga­tion tube­wells, which now costs the state up to Rs 5,000 crore an­nu­ally, Sukhbir talks of mak­ing Pun­jab power sur­plus, and of build­ing an un­par­al­leled network of six- and eight-lane high­ways; but most of all, he likes talking of the “grand new in­ter­na­tional air­port in Mo­hali”.

Up in the Doaba re­gion’s Balachaur con­stituency in Nawan­sha­har district, Ka­maljit Singh, 63, a for­mer po­lice­man-turned-farmer, is not im­pressed. “What dif­fer­ence can a new in­ter­na­tional air­port make in a poor man’s life?” he asks, in­sist­ing that “the lot of the poor and mid­dle class has only wors­ened over the past 10 years”. He says that the dig­ging of sewer lines was the lone de­vel­op­men­tal work ever taken up in the con­stituency, which elected Nand­lal, an Akali can­di­date, four suc­ces­sive times. And even that’s been halted now.

It is in places like Balachaur that the por­tents of a change of guard in Chandigarh are most ev­i­dent. The Gu­j­jar-dom­i­nated assem­bly seg­ment, which has al­ways elected a Gu­j­jar can­di­date, has a choice of three in the com­ing polls. The SAD, Congress and the AAP have all nom­i­nated Gu­j­jar can­di­dates, but the lat­ter’s Vi­jay Ku­mar, a re­tired bri­gadier, seems ahead, at least in kerb­side con­ver­sa­tions. “The Akalis only talk of doles, the bri­gadier is speaking of cre­at­ing roz­gar. Also, he meets ev­ery­one,” says Jowan­preet Singh, 25, an IT grad­u­ate.

The dis­ap­point­ment with the in­cum­bent, it ap­pears, has also led to sig­nif­i­cant sup­port for the Amarinder Singh-led Congress, no doubt helped by the tar­geted, sin­gleis­sue cam­paigns crafted by mas­ter

poll strate­gist Prashant Kishor and a team of some 250 IPAC (In­dian Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Com­mit­tee) vol­un­teers. Work­ing round-the-clock from a sprawl­ing of­fice floor in Mo­hali, IPAC direc­tor Rishi Raj Singh talks par­tic­u­larly of ‘Har Ghar Cap­tain’, a cam­paign launched some months ago to connect with young peo­ple. IPAC claims that “3.4 mil­lion youth have al­ready reg­is­tered”, no doubt lured by the cam­paign’s prom­ise of jobs, and an in­terim Rs 2,500 beroz­gari bhatta (un­em­ploy­ment al­lowance) in the first 100 days, should Amarinder be­come CM. Rishi Raj says that through a suc­ces­sion of cam­paigns launched since March 2016, “Cap­tain Amarinder has been able to di­rectly in­flu­ence over 6 mil­lion vot­ers.” And this, he says, is not count­ing the crowds who come to lis­ten to the Congress chief at elec­tion meet­ings and voter en­gage­ment ral­lies.

On Jan­uary 10, the AAP rolled out its own ver­sion of ‘Har Ghar Cap­tain’, which also prom­ises jobs for Pun­jab’s youth through an iden­ti­cal regis­tra­tion process—us­ing smart­cards and smart­phones— but with Ke­jri­wal’s face re­plac­ing Amarinder’s. But the AAP ap­pears to be strug­gling. In San­grur’s Lehra assem­bly seg­ment, Congress stal­wart and for­mer CM Ra­jin­der Kaur Bhat­tal, who had all but dis­ap­peared from pub­lic dis­course thanks to the AAP’s blis­ter­ing rise in March last year, is once again the most vis­i­ble face. “The AAP made some very prob­lem­atic can­di­date choices,” ex­plains Ka­maljit Dhindsa, who runs a school in Lehra Gaga. Be­sides the ex­o­dus of lo­cal Punjabi lead­ers and vol­un­teers from the AAP in the wake of for­mer state con­venor Sucha Singh Ch­hotepur’s ex­pul­sion last Septem­ber, Dhindsa tells in­dia to­day that “many sup­port­ers have since be­come even more dis­il­lu­sioned with Ke­jri­wal ap­prov­ing tick­ets to highly du­bi­ous in­di­vid­u­als”.

In Chabbe­wal, vot­ers like Sat­nam Singh, 60 and Teerth Singh, 50, say, “We voted for [AAP] in the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tion, but this time he [Ke­jri­wal] hasn’t given us a halfde­cent choice.” How­ever, they don’t ex­plain why they won’t vote for AAP nom­i­nee Ram Ku­mar. This is a story be­ing re­peated across the state. Omi­nously for the party, not one of the prospec­tive vot­ers in­dia to­day spoke to across four vil­lages in Kharar— Jhan­jeri, Rasan­hedi, Wadala and Nawan­shahr—could even re­mem­ber the AAP can­di­date’s name.

For the mo­ment, it ap­pears that a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the SAD’s core vot­ers will re­main loyal. On Jan­uary 7, Sukhbir Badal told a large au­di­ence of opin­ion-mak­ers in Chandigarh’s Hy­att Ho­tel, “Elec­tions are a tough game, but I love a fight.” Many are well aware of the SAD pres­i­dent’s un­canny abil­ity to snatch vic­tory from the jaws of de­feat, and they say the saf­fron al­liance is very much in the race. As Pramod Ku­mar, a se­nior po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist based in Chandigarh, says, “The SAD-BJP could well end up ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a di­vi­sion of anti-in­cum­bency votes be­tween the Congress and AAP.”

PUN­JAB CONGRESS CHIEF CAP­TAIN AMARINDER SINGH AT A ROAD SHOW IN GHANAUR, NEAR PA­TIALA

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