By Smita Prakash, Punjab , Jan.31 : In villages and towns in Punjab, there is an Aam Aadmi Party onslaught that has stunned both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress, the two behemoths who have ruled the state by turns, which was created after Partition in 1947 and recreated in 1966.
Today, a Haryanvi, Arvind Kejriwal, has captured the imagination of Punjab. The state lost its Haryanvi-speaking Hindu dominant areas in 1966. A Haryanvi might return to rule. Today, for the first time in history, a third party might form a government or be the cause of a hung assembly, not allowing either the Congress or the SAD to form a government.
The AAP is the only political party generously spending money in campaigning and recruiting volunteers to ride their motorcycles into village interiors and knocking on doors, speaking to the marginalized and hitherto ignored. You may or may not believe in their ideology, you may even be critical of their revolutionary style of politics, but you have to give them credit for striking a chord with the masses in Punjab.
They have managed to communicate and show empathy with the people, more than the traditional players. A former journalist tells me, "Jo pareshaan hai, vo AAP kay saath hai."
And there are lakhs of people who are 'pareshan'. In Fazilka, I met with more than 30 people standing in line in front of a bank waiting for a token. They would have to return a day later with the token to withdraw Rs 4,000 or 5000. Nobody standing in the line had withdrawn more than that in the past two months. Each and every one said they would vote for "jhadu" (broom), the AAP symbol. The reasons ranged from "Akaliyaan nu mazaa chakana ae" (will teach a lesson to Akalis) to "Raajay nu kii khabar" (what does the Raja know i.e. Capt. Amrinder Singh is clueless).
Is the former Maharajah of Patiala, Capt. Amrinder Singh really clueless? I asked him whether he accepted the fact that people saw him as an elitist because he was born into a royal family and the Badal family too rich to empathize with the poor.
He said, "I can't change the family that I have been born into and I disagree that I don't understand my people." He then went on to list the number of times the people of Patiala have elected him to represent the state in the Centre as well as state. The Captain is probably right. In fact, he is the only one who seems to have a credible plan of action on how to tackle the agrarian crisis afflicting Punjab.
In the verdant green fields of the Malwa region, the AAP's prominent candidate, H S Phoolka, is contesting from the rural Ludhiana belt. His supporters say that he is a probable chief ministerial candidate, but many others wonder if Arvind Kejriwal would migrate to Punjab and edge out the Supreme Court advocate. Both Sukhbir Badal and Captain Amrinder Singh warn the electorate that a non-Punjabi would be their chief minister if they vote for the jhadu and Kejriwal.
But sick of the back breaking agricultural debt burden and drug menace, the people of Punjab seem to be in the mood to repeat the Delhi experiment.
"That sneaky little fellow" as the Captain Amrinder Singh calls Kejriwal smiles at you from hundreds of village walls as you crisscross the countryside in Punjab. The posters don't have Kejriwal in a faux turban or the AAP cap, the latter made popular during the Anna Andolan and Delhi election.
In the tractor wholesale market in Malout, both buyers and sellers say they are sick and tired of the ill effects of demonetization. One seller said he hasn't sold a single tractor in two months. A buyer says he has been trying to buy a second hand tractor but nobody will accept a cheque. And both of them blame the SAD-BJP combine for their state. They will vote for the 'jhadu'. Enough of these entrenched politicians they say.
In Mansa rural, where the ground water has turned cancerous, there is a deathly pall. I visited three homes in Kotdharma village in Mansa district where farmers had committed suicide unable to pay agricultural debts. Naseeb Kaur's eyes well up with tears when she recalls the day she found her husband hanging from the tree in her courtyard. He had taken a loan of Rs 2 lakhs from an 'arthiya', agrarian moneylender, and when the cotton crop failed he went into a deep depression and killed himself. Son Gursevak Singh works as a farm labourer. He has cut down the tree on which his father hanged himself. Beyond that there is no act of rebellion or anger. Neighbor Rani says, "Nobody has come to help this family, no panch, no politician, no relief package. I won't be voting for anybody and certainly never for the Akalis. This is their entire fault."
In Ludhiana, a former chemist says, "pehle meri davai kii dukaan thii, bechna pad gaya. Ab naukri karta hun. Is baar Captain ko vote doonga." Why not AAP or SAD I ask him. He bristles in anger even at the mention of SAD, "yeh to kisi say miltay hii nahi, koi kisi ka beta ho ya VIP ho to miltay hain." Not AAP because he dislikes the Bains brothers who are contesting from his village. They have changed so many parties that they may not stay with the AAP either, he says.
Kejriwal senses victory. It is an open secret that the Delhi chief minister is frustrated with the situation in the capital where he is unable to implement what he had promised. Punjab would give him the elasticity to implement AAP's agenda as well as build himself up as a satrap with larger ambition for the 2019 general elections. But in the AAP, there is also the comedian-turned MP Bhagwant Mann who draws massive crowds wherever he goes. He cracks his jokes and doesn't pretend to hide the fact that he likes the good life, a tipple or two and some naughty jokes. Popular he is, there is no doubt, but does he have the gravitas expected of a chief minister? Clearly not. The Delhi High Command of the AAP, oh yes, they are like any other party in that respect, is holding its cards close. They are holding their breath to see that the AAP wave sustains till this weekend.