Of the abundant campaign material -- pamphlets, posters, scarves, caps and flags -- that are distributed in any Lok Sabha election, one Hindi pamphlet has become a collectors’ item in the Amritsar constituency.
It carries a black and white photo of a debonair Atal Bihari Vajpayee in white kurta-pyjama and an embroidered scarf, a thick tuft of pepper and salt hair sweeping his forehead.
The photo was shot in Tokyo when Vajpayee was 53 years old, shortly after he had become Minister for External Affairs in the Janata Party government.
Standing respectfully, just behind Vajpayee, hands crossed at the wrists and in a lounge suit, is 25-year-old Hardeep Singh Puri, the Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development in the Narendra Modi government and the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Amritsar.
Amritsar is probably the only constituency, where a BJP candidate is seeking votes in Vajpayee’s name in this election, barring Vajpayee’s ancestral village of Bateshwar, about 60 km from Agra.
Besides references to the setting for the pamphlet photo of Vajpayee and Puri taken in 1977, the first BJP prime minister’s name often comes up along the campaign trail in Amritsar in other contexts as well.
An asset for Puri in this election is that in November last year, he was one of the two union ministers who crossed the border into Pakistan and represented India at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor.
Like many other issues related to Sikh religion, history and traditions, the Kartarpur corridor, which will facilitate visa-free entry of Indian Sikh pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib, evokes sentiments in Amritsar.
Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, near its border with India, was founded in 1522 by Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh guru, whose 550th birth anniversary will be celebrated in November this year.
In many of his election rallies, Puri recalls that it was Vajpayee as Prime Minister, who proposed the idea of the Kartarpur corridor to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in 1999 during his celebrated bus trip to Lahore which briefly promised a new era in bilateral relations. Vajpayee’s vision, says Puri, will be realized by the next Modi government which is committed to it.
Many wives canvass votes for their husbands during elections, but few offer to hold themselves accountable for their husband’s promises and performance if elected.
In Amritsar, Lakshmi Puri, the diplomat spouse of Hardeep Puri, who recently quit her job as an international civil servant in New York to be by Hardeep’s side, is telling women voters just that.
“I promise to come back,” she tells them in Punjabi, which is not her mother tongue when voters tell her that the two previous MPs whom they chose with big majorities over BJP candidates never visited their villages even once after being elected. Lakshmi is very different from political wives whom voters in India are used to.
Her great asset in this campaign is her remarkable ability to listen – and listen patiently. Voters are used to politicians lecturing or exhorting them and wives who deliver prepared speeches by rote. Vote-seekers usually say their piece in these villages and leave.
Lakshmi says listening to village stories and tales of tribal life became a habit for her during field visits to Africa and Latin America in her capacity as Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and as an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN. She was with the world body for 15 years after she left the Indian Foreign Service where the Puris were batch mates.
Her propensity to lend an ear to women in Amritsar – who account for nearly half of the Lok Sabha seat’s 14 lakh-plus voters – has been a boon to Hardeep on the campaign circuit.
With her feedback from nukkad or corner meetings, Lakshmi has brought home tales of how state authorities in Punjab have refused to complete construction of toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which is implemented by her husband’s ministry.
The grapevine says delays are because the local authorities have been told to wait till the Lok Sabha polls are over as the Congress government in Punjab does not want any credit to go to Hardeep or for Modi for such initiatives.
Lakshmi says that when she returns to Amritsar as the local MP’s spouse, she will implement welfare schemes that she picked up during her 15 years at the UN.
(K.P. Nayar is a strategic analyst.)