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Patients are dying in the ambulances on the way to hospital, but who’s the one grinning outside?, Bhagwant Mann, the AAP candidate in Sangrur, asks. The crowd remains quiet, somewhat stumped, so he asks another question. “Haven’t you seen the ambulances?” “Yes, we have,” say the crowd. “Then you have seen CM Parkash Singh Badal grinning, haven’t you?”
The gathering breaks into guffaws, having figured out that Mann was alluding to the photograph of a smiling Badal Sr painted on ambulances bought under the National Rural Health Mission. Mann continues to take digs at political leaders and their penchant for plastering their own faces everywhere.
Mann, a successful actor and popular comedian, had joined hands with the Punjab CM’s estranged nephew Manpreet Badal and contested the assembly elections in 2012 on a Punjab People’s Party (PPP) ticket. Which is when he made the Punjabi version of Kolaveri di the most popular song on the election trail in the state. But he still came only third. This time, as the AAP candidate, he appears confident of doing better. If the laughter track is any indication, he does appear to have drawn a reaction at meetings. But will it translate into votes?
His rivals are dismissive. Bhagwant, they insist, is only drawing teenagers out to have a good time. “Many of them are not even registered voters,” is the refrain at the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) offices. Rivals are also reluctant to give much heed to Mann’s growing following on social media. But in private conversations, some do betray a hint of nervousness. Appearances can be deceptive.
The nervousness in the ranks of the Congress and SAD is manifest in the two parties hiring stand-up comics themselves to blunt Mann’s edge. While SAD has requisitioned the services of Bhajana Amli (literally, an addict), the Congress has fallen back on Gurdev Dhillon aka Bibo Bhua. Both are Mann’s seniors in the Punjabi entertainment industry and hence claim to be Mann’s gurus. Indeed, Amli often chooses to hit out and tell audiences that since Mann had not been “loyal to his guru”, he couldn’t be trusted.
As the comedians slug it out in Sangrur, Punjabi lyricist and singer Jagsir Jeeda provides a welcome diversion. His couplets, imbued with black humour, are apparently aimed at building awareness among voters. “Muhre aundian dekhke chona, sevadar bane lokan de (Politicians fall over backwards to serve people before every election),” he sings, “Bhed vik gayi 1,760 di, 400 vich vote vik gayi (While sheep cost 1,760, in this election, votes are cheaper at just 400).”
His songs take a swipe at Sukhbir Singh Badal’s much vaunted sports policy, which vows to produce outstanding athletes in Punjab. On the one hand, the government organises international kabaddi tournaments and spends money like water to promote sports, a song reminds you, while on the other the government goes on increasing the number of liquor vends. Targeting the irrigation minister, he sings that the man remains insatiable even after getting the post (“Piyas bujhi na munafekhora teri, banke sanchai mantra”). Asked whether his interventions can make a difference, Jeeda tells Outlook, “All artistes are not on sale...many of us are standing by the people, rather than the political parties.”
Now not everyone’s out to be just a good samaritan. Many of these comedians/singers have lost their rustic audience with the decline of Doordarshan. The elections have temporarily revived their appeal. The stand-up acts and popular songs also leave several questions blowing in the wind. Have these entertainers enriched democracy, as they claim, or have they trivialised politics as their peevish critics like to argue?
Daljit is an independent documentary filmmaker and editor-in-chief of Global Punjab TV