May 31, 2020
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Broomstruck In Bathinda

Akalis are seen as useless amid economic distress; the Congress is patchily popular. It’s the AAP many in Punjab are turning to.

Broomstruck In Bathinda
Indian File
AAP Supporters raise slogans at Sunam, in Punjab
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
Broomstruck In Bathinda

From the fog that descends on winter nights over Punjab’s yellow and green mustard fields emerges a glimpse of an unpredictably theatrical electoral verdict. Cruising through the state’s verdant Malwa and Doaba regions, where lie about ninety of its 117 assembly constituencies, it seems the Aam Aadmi Party has parachuted deep into the electoral terrain here.

Two months ago, the usual pre-election debates dominated Punjab: The scourge of drug abuse, the related grouse over lack of employment and the decline of agriculture. From contributing almost 60 per cent to the state GDP in the ’70s, the share of agriculture declined to under a quarter in the last decade, while the agricultural growth rate twice plunged into the negative zone.

These factors were steadily eroding the Shiromani Akali Dal vote bank, and creating support for the Congress and AAP. But then, the Centre’s demonetisation, announced in early November, dramatically changed scenarios. Where discontent and anti-incumbency were alr­eady writ large, the war on black money added another deep wrinkle to the pre-electoral process.

In several villages in the Mansa, Moga, Sangrur and Bathinda districts, many people say that they will shift allegiance in the upcoming state polls to the ‘jhadoo wali party’ due to dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition. A good many say they are undecided, but are also considering AAP.

These districts are part of Punjab’s Malwa region, with people considered to be boldly outspoken. The reason they cite most for considering a party with no track record in Punjab is their anger against existing alternatives, which they perceive to have fostered a wide chasm between the rich and poor. The Congress is popular, especially in Patiala—Amarinder Singh’s hometown—but many more seem to hold the view that even that party has allowed the poor to turn poorer and the rich richer.

“There was an AAP wave here two months back but not now,” says Paramjeet Singh of Jogipura, near Ghanaur in Patiala. “We are with the Congress, at least 30 per cent votes here are religious and the rest will go where the wind blows,” puts in Gurminder Singh.

Another Patiala resident, a native of Lambipur village, Amreek Singh, says people are getting by with mutual cooperation in the post-demonetisation cash crunch. “It’s like if there was a curfew. Or like when Partition happened,” he says quite seriously. “Right now, little children are crying for even toffees, but let’s wait for the end of 50 days and see what tohfa (gift) we get,” he adds.

As opposed to Malwa, in parts of the Doaba region—Nakodar, Jalandhar and Banga—people are said to be taciturn and less forthcoming. However, even here there is a great interest in the ‘Dilliwali party’ and its supremo, Arvind Kejriwal. In Doaba cities there’s talk of all parties: The Congress, SAD and the BJP, but amongst the poor, there’s an unm­istakable surge in favour of AAP. These cities and towns are the nerve centre for an awakening in subaltern political assertion by Dalits and the Delhi-based party has captured their conversations, if not imaginations.

“The party that works will get the votes,” says Harminder Kaur, a middle-aged housewife at Bhiki, a kasba of Mansa district in the Malwa region. “Earlier, Akalis used to get votes here. This time people haven’t decided. They are discussing it amongst themselves. They are talking about jhadoo.”

The drug menace and economic stagnation have been eroding the SAD votebank. The demonetising war on black money has added another wrinkle on this scenario.

Everyone, even those who pledge support to the Congress, SAD or others, seems to be talking about the jhadoo, or broom, AAP’s election symbol. The Valmikis, who relate the broom to their caste-based occupation, are a bulk of Punjab’s roughly 32 per cent Dalit populace and relatively prosperous among the community in Punjab. For them, the jhadoo signals exactly what the AAP intends to convey to every Punjabi: That it means to cleanse the political system of corruption and eradicate drug abuse.

Malakpur in Sangrur is an instance of a village where the broom has acquired a wider appeal among the poor and richer alike, regardless of caste. “They have stopped currency notes from circulating. They couldn’t stop alcohol from circulating,” says Harpreet Kaur, a Jat Sikh. She is saying what most others in the Malwa say, that the SAD failed to tackle the drug menace while the BJP, its ally, made life tougher for the poor. “This government did nothing for the people, so we will go for Kejriwal. In the last two elections we voted for Akali,” she says. Gulab Kaur, a Jat farmer’s wife says, “Our electricity bills are so high. It is breaking our backs. Let’s see what the Delhi party does.

Jagdeep Kaur, a housewife, says, “We go to the bank in Bathinda to withdraw cash. There is no money there mostly. They should have prepared for noteba­ndi. In all of Punjab, in every village, people will vote for jhadoo.”

Kanwar Singh, a Jat landowner, says he initially supported demonetisation, but not since he couldn’t withdraw cash for his own medical treatment, after an accident left him unable to work on his farm. “Modi had earlier asked for 100 days for black money to come back. He had said, ‘open bank accounts, I will give you money’. Now, the rich are not standing in line, the poor are.”

Jaspreet Singh, an unemployed youth and his friend Harbans say they’re both vot­­ing for jhadoo because they’re tired of filling job applications without success.

Among Malakpur’s Dalits, whom both SAD and Congress are trying to woo, the jhadoo dominates conversation. Jagdish Singh, a BSP worker, says Dalits are angry about demonetisation, but the Congress, the traditional alternative to BJP or SAD, is still not gathering moss. “Sixty years later, the poor are getting poorer. People don’t feel that the Congress does groundwork. I’m in Kanshi Ram’s party but people here are talking about jhadoo,” says Jagdish.

Najar Singh, the village numberdar, is, however, immune to shifting winds. “See me in a month. Once the code of conduct kicks in, all those talking about AAP will move to Akali. Badal ki hi baarish na ho jaaye,” he says.

On the rural outskirts of Bathinda, still in the Malwa region, lives Harvinder Kaur Ruby, whose husband and she are farm workers. “This Akali government simply takes no dec­isions. After notebandi, it took us 15 days to withdraw Rs 2,000. We just want a third party now. Even the Congress is the same as Akali or BJP. We have to vote for the Dilliwali party,” she says.

Many villagers are taking electoral cues from city-dwelling relatives, explains Moti Singh, a daily-wage worker. “All our relatives in Bathinda, Ludhiana say we should not vote for anybody but jhadoo. We lost our means of livelihood with notebandi, and NREGA is ineffective. Modi and Badal give speeches but don’t work on implementation.”

Sikandar Singh, who runs a small ration store, says he will vote for the Congress again. “Only ten out of a hundred talk about AAP party here,” he says.

Nakodar, a small town en route to Jalandhar from Moga, falls in a strange in-between zone—a kind of bridge bet­ween the Malwa and Doaba regions. The situation in Nakodar is tense. This is largely on account of the state’s atrophied economy, which has failed to create jobs. Ten years ago, Punjab’s debts were at Rs 50,000 crore, but have now swelled to around Rs 2 lakh crore. People here are palpably more silent, or secretive, than in adjoining Malwa villages. There is also a big division of voters among Sikh and non-Sikh sects and deras, each regularly visited by politicians of all hues.

Kala, who makes a living sweeping streets, says, “We are with the Dera Sachcha Sauda and Pitaji has asked us to support the party that puts an end to nasha,” he says. Of course, all parties promise to do so, and Kala prefers to keep his own selection shrouded in mystery.

Political Scales

An Akali Dal symbol forms a patch of colour at Sunam

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

It is this fog that Kejriwal and the AAP are parachuting into, often stumbling upon complex issues, such as how the waters of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas are to be distributed among riparian states. The divide among voters becomes very apparent in Jalandhar city’s famed leather market, Boota Mandi. “Work here has ground close to a standstill,” says Desh Raj, a leather industry worker. “The atmosphere is dominated by Congress and AAP,” says he.

The situation in Nakodar is tense, largely because of the state’s atrophied economy. Voters here are divided amongst Sikh and non-Sikh sects and deras.

This is almost a refrain among Dalits, whose economic resurgence was owed almost entirely to the multi-thousand crore raw leather trading done at Boota Mandi. “First, Congress ruled for five years and then Akalis, but people are now looking for a new party,” says Hans Raj, a shoe-maker. “The children of the poor are literally dying of hunger since demonetisation,” says Ghulam Nabi Pehalwan.

Almost 45 per cent of the population in and around Boota Mandi comprises Dalits, giving it a Congress-AAP tilt among them in these impending polls. The Akali and the BJP have supporters among the traders too, thus making the floating vote critical. “Earlier, I had eight workers, now I have two. I could not afford to pay them Rs 1,000 each when there’s no business coming my way,” says Akali supporter Chandrakumar Mahey, who runs a leather business which has all but stopped functioning since demonetisation.

Most units here have sent their workers, largely Dalits, back to UP, with assurances of reemployment later. In Mahey’s case, the support for SAD is also incumbent on him, for his brother, is set to contest on an Akali ticket. “If my brother is with Akali, so am I. Go to any shop here and you’ll see. Nobody likes Kejriwal,” he declares vehemently.

“Once money re-enters the system, notebandi woes will be over. The poor are getting poorer and the rich richer, but if we face any problems under Akali rule, we will take the issue to the government to get it resolved. That is how it works,” he says.

Wary of the AAP’s bold entry, there’s always the possibility of SAD asking its cadres to switch votes to the Congress, or creating situations where Congress sco­res in constituencies where SAD is not well placed to beat AAP. The Congress not only has supporters in Punjab but also has a more comfortable relationship with SAD, whereas the AAP might try to prove its credibility by pursuing a campaign against the corrupt in power. The youngest claimant to political power in Punjab, brandishing its jhadoo, has the aged warhorses reaching for an old tactical ploy.

By Pragya Singh in Punjab

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