DOWN TO THE WIRE

Three heavy­weights slug it out in Pun­jab on poll-eve. The Congress and AAP gun for the Badals, ac­cus­ing them of amass­ing per­sonal wealth. But the in­cum­bents re­main con­fi­dent of re­turn­ing to power

India Today - - NATION/PUJAB - By Asit Jolly

In what would un­ques­tion­ably be counted as the cold­est win­ter of the 10-year-old Shi­ro­mani Akali Dal-BJP coali­tion, it is un­com­monly scorch­ing across the Pun­jabi hin­ter­land—the fast ap­proach­ing as­sem­bly elec­tions rais­ing tem­per­a­tures like never be­fore. And nowhere is this more pal­pa­ble than in Lambi—the per­sonal po­lit­i­cal bas­tion care­fully nur­tured for two decades by 89-year-old Akali pa­tri­arch and five times chief min­is­ter, Parkash Singh Badal.

Here, the coun­try­side, freshly painted over with green wheat fields, is cloaked in an un­mov­ing fog. Yet Arvin­der Singh, a mid­dle-aged farmer in Fatuhikhera vil­lage, says he can feel the wind gain­ing strength: “Umeed ban di jaa rahi

hai, ais waar kujj wakhra hov­ega (hope is build­ing… this time will be dif­fer­ent),” he says. His con­fi­dence springs from the for­tu­itous ar­rival of for­mer chief min­is­ter Capt. Amarinder Singh. “After a very long while, vot­ers here (in Lambi) have the choice of two can­di­dates of com­pa­ra­ble stature,” he says, his eyes light­ing up.

But what is re­ally sig­nalling pos­si­bil­i­ties of change is that for the first time there is a cred­i­ble three-cor­nered race in what had al­ways been a bipo­lar face-off be­tween the Congress and SAD-BJP. The Aam Aadmi Party that won four out of Pun­jab’s 13 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tions, all in the po­lit­i­cally crit­i­cal Malwa re­gion, is in the fray. With 69 of the 117 as­sem­bly con­stituen­cies con­cen­trated here, Malwa is the clincher in any as­sem­bly elec­tion. Ev­ery sin­gle chief min­is­ter of Pun­jab, with the exception of Dar­bara Singh, was from here. In 2014, AAP led in 31 Malwa as­sem­bly seg­ments and was a close sec­ond in nine. It did well in as­sem­bly seg­ments across erst­while SAD and Congress bas­tions.

That the fledg­ling party could pull it off amid a coun­try­wide wave for Naren­dra Modi, where peo­ple voted for it think­ing it would cap­ture power in Par­lia­ment, has made the Congress and SAD-BJP sit up and take no­tice. No less wor­ry­ing for them is that AAP led in 14 of the 34 re­served con­stituen­cies in the state. Nearly 32 per cent of the Pun­jabi elec­torate is Sched­uled Caste, dom­i­nant in 44 as­sem­bly con­stituen­cies.

Spear­head­ing the party’s cam­paign, AAP na­tional con­venor and Delhi chief min­is­ter Arvind Ke­jri­wal knows Malwa will be cru­cial to edg­ing past the fin­ish line on Fe­bru­ary 4. He is pit­ting for­mer Delhi MLA Jar­nail Singh (whose claim to fame springs from the shoe he hurled at P. Chi­dambaram, fi­nance min­is­ter in the UPA-II gov­ern­ment) against Badal in Lambi. It may seem like David ver­sus Go­liath, but Jar­nail is ev­i­dently feed­ing the grow­ing in­dig­na­tion against

the in­cum­bent. On Jan­uary 11, a vil­lager threw a shoe at Badal in Lambi. Since then, there have been half-a-dozen in­ci­dents—protests and an­gry slo­ga­neer­ing—at his meet­ings.

Both Congress and AAP are seek­ing to reap div­i­dends from what they per­ceive as brim­ming pub­lic re­sent­ment against the rul­ing coali­tion, per­cep­tions that the rul­ing elites—in this in­stance the Badal fam­ily and its co­horts— have ap­pro­pri­ated it all, from po­lit­i­cal power to eco­nomic wealth and in­flu­ence over re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions. The prospect of a re­turn to power has gal­vanised Amarinder, spurring him from his laid­back 2012 cam­paign style into an openly ag­gres­sive, shoot-from-the-lip com­bat­ant, spoil­ing for a fight with the Badals. On Jan­uary 17, pre­par­ing to file his nom­i­na­tion pa­pers from Pa­tiala, he launched a broad­side against the Badals: “They mul­ti­plied their per­sonal wealth by usurp­ing con­trol over ev­ery­thing from drugs, liquor, sand min­ing, ca­ble TV to pub­lic trans­port. All this at the cost of the peo­ple of Pun­jab, who have been re­duced to drug ad­dic­tion and penury.” Up­ping the ante a day later, he drove through dense fog to file a sec­ond set of nom­i­na­tion pa­pers—chal­leng­ing Parkash Singh Badal’s supremacy in Lambi. “I am de­ter­mined to teach him a les­son,” Amarinder told in­dia to­day. Later, lead­ing an im­pres­sive roadshow that would have hith­erto been un­think­able in the Badal fam­ily bas­tion, Amarinder draws re­peated ap­plause at a rally at the spank­ing lo­cal sports sta­dium. He stays closely fo­cused on his op­po­nent, promis­ing to “throw the Badals in jail” if their role in in­ci­dents of des­e­cra­tion of the Sikh scrip­ture in 2015 comes to light.

The Congress and AAP are promis­ing Pun­jab’s vot­ers the sky—jobs for ev­ery house­hold, free smart­phones, un­em­ploy­ment al­lowance for the youth, farm loan waivers, fat­ter wel­fare pen­sions, de-ad­dic­tion clin­ics,

pind (vil­lage) clin­ics like Delhi’s mo­halla clin­ics, gov­ern­ment schools with swim­ming pools, cheaper elec­tric­ity and waiver of wa­ter charges...the list is end­less.

In their poll speeches, how­ever, Amarinder and Ke­jri­wal are sin­gu­larly fo­cused on the Badals, ac­cus­ing them of ev­ery­thing that is wrong in Pun­jab, and promis­ing to pun­ish them. No­tably, both have aban­doned any crit­i­cism of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and de­mon­eti­sa­tion. Rather, bor­row­ing from the class nar­ra­tive Modi ini­ti­ated with the move, Ke­jri­wal, too, is promis­ing to con­fis­cate the gains of cor­rup­tion: “Hum Badalon ke pet se bhrash­tachaar ka ek ek paisa kheench kar nikal lenge…usey Pun­jab ki garib janta par is­temaal karenge (will ex­tract ev­ery paisa of ill-got­ten

wealth from the Badals and spend it on the poor,” he tells a 3,000-strong gath­er­ing at Dharamkot.

Much of what he prom­ises—his plans to jail Sukhbir’s brother-in-law Bikram Ma­jithia, im­ple­ment­ing the Swami­nathan Com­mis­sion re­port on food­grain pric­ing, even send­ing an SIT to in­ves­ti­gate Amarinder’s al­leged Swiss bank ac­counts—would be hugely dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble to ac­com­plish. But after Modi’s blis­ter­ing Lok Sabha win in 2014 and his own stel­lar suc­cess in Delhi a year on, Ke­jri­wal’s learnt the value of rhetoric, or jum­le­baazi, as some call it.

“This is a per­cep­tion bat­tle that will have to be fought to the very end,” says Rishi Raj Singh, di­rec­tor of In­dian Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Committee (IPAC), the 250-strong group of young pro­fes­sion­als as­sist­ing mas­ter poll strate­gist Prashant Kishor in im­ple­ment­ing care­fully-crafted and tar­geted cam­paigns cen­tred around Amarinder Singh. “The real chal­lenge,” he says, “will be to bring in 50 per cent of the vot­ers who’ll make up their minds in the last week de­pend­ing on who they see form­ing the gov­ern­ment.”

Amarinder’s un­ex­pected foray into Lambi hopes to do ex­actly that—project him­self as the most-likely-to-suc­ceed chal­lenger. As also Ke­jri­wal’s fa­mil­iar spiel: “Pun­jab mein is baar kar­ishma ho raha hai…saare log kah rahe hain ki

AAP ko vote denge (Pun­jab is wit­ness­ing a miracle… ev­ery­one is say­ing they’ll vote for AAP).” He is not seek­ing votes. In a tried-and-tested tac­tic from the 2015 Delhi polls, he’s in­form­ing peo­ple which way ev­ery­one is vot­ing.

But un­like in Delhi where Ke­jri­wal was the un­ques­tioned leader, AAP’s Pun­jab cam­paign lacks a chief min­is­te­rial face. It is a touchy topic. Delhi deputy CM Man­ish Siso­dia’s oblique sug­ges­tion that Ke­jri­wal him­self would take care of Pun­jab pro­voked a storm, with ri­vals ac­cus­ing the AAP con­venor of eye­ing the state and ‘be­tray­ing’ the man­date in Delhi. It’s still a guess­ing game and the party has now cen­tered its cam­paign around its well-known poll sym­bol. “Jha­roo, jha­roo…jha­roo

nu vote dao,” is now AAP’s tagline in Pun­jab. So, is the anti-in­cum­bency ac­cu­mu­lated over their 10 years in of­fice now ready to bring down the SAD-BJP coali­tion? Not if you ask Sukhbir Badal. Supremely con­fi­dent in the mid­dle of what nearly ev­ery­one else sees as im­pend­ing doom, he says the “un­par­al­leled de­vel­op­ment” achieved by his gov­ern­ment will carry the al­liance to an un­prece­dented third term. “We’ll score a hat-trick,” he says, in­sist­ing, “this is a bipo­lar elec­tion with the Akali-BJP on one side and the Congress and AAP on the other.”

Sukhbir Badal proved con­vinc­ingly in 2012 that the long­est-held po­lit­i­cal trends can be bucked. Even though many young Sikhs, dis­en­chanted with the SAD or fired by the prospect of the new-kid-on-the-block AAP, are seen as mov­ing out of the party’s hith­erto un­wa­ver­ing, core pan­thik vote bank, many be­lieve that a sig­nif­i­cant sec­tion, par­tic­u­larly older vot­ers, will re­main loyal. Pramod Ku­mar, a Chandi­garh-based po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, says if SAD’s core holds, it could end up ben­e­fit­ting from a divi­sion of anti-in­cum­bency votes be­tween the Congress and AAP. “My sin­gle big­gest achieve­ment is I’ve de­liv­ered on what I promised 10 years ago,” Sukhbir tells vot­ers in Jalal­abad, where he faces a two-pronged chal­lenge from AAP’s Bhag­want Mann and for­mer CM Beant Singh’s grand­son, Ravneet Bittu.

Some­how Sukhbir seems un­af­fected by Mann’s full shows in Jalal­abad or the talk of trou­ble else­where. “Our work will bring us back to power,” he says, cit­ing the net­work of new high­ways, abun­dant power, cit­i­zen ser­vices, memo­ri­als to free­dom fight­ers, sol­diers and re­li­gious lead­ers and more. His con­fi­dence also springs from the knowl­edge that over the past five years, the SAD-BJP has man­aged to di­rectly ben­e­fit over 75 per cent of the 19.7 mil­lion peo­ple ex­pected to cast their votes on Fe­bru­ary 4.

On Jan­uary 24, SAD came out with a bag of poll prom­ises that mim­ics and bet­ters what ri­vals of­fer. Sukhbir’s new ‘Vi­sion Doc­u­ment’ bears the prom­ise of more doles for ev­ery sec­tion, in­clud­ing sugar and ghee un­der the on­go­ing Atta-Dal scheme and CCTV in all 12,000 vil­lages! With less than 10 days to go be­fore polling, both Amarinder and Ke­jri­wal hope Pun­jab will see winds of change blow­ing their way. Will they? Or will the un­mov­ing fog stay?

AMARINDER SINGH AT A PRESS CON­FER­ENCE IN AM­RIT­SAR

(LEFT) KE­JRI­WAL AT A RALLY IN DHARAMKOT, THE BADALS IN MOGA

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