Kanwar Sandhu, one of Punjab’s most well-known journalists, is also the chairman of the Aam Aadmi Party’s manifesto committee in the state. Yet, in the constituency of Kharar, where he is contesting elections from, Sandhu is an unfamiliar face. Kharar is one of the Punjab’s largest constituencies, with close to 1.75 lakh registered voters—many of them migrants—and 184 villages. Sandhu’s quandary is instructive in understanding the depth of the language divide in India, and the gap that those from the English-speaking, largely urban press must bridge to capture and convey local imagination.
On 24 January 2017, Sandhu spoke at a rally in Chahar Majra—a village located less than 10 kilometres from the state capital Chandigarh. Before the AAP released its manifestos for the youth, farmers, industrialists and Dalits, Sandhu and the rest of the manifesto committee had conducted several open discussions across the state in a series called the Bolda Punjab dialogues. During his speech at Chahar Majra, he rattled off a litany of the hydra-headed problems that had been plaguing Punjab for the past few years. He referred to the rising farmer suicides; the necessity of loan waivers and compensation for crop loss; the need to eradicate drugs; and the multiple incidents of the desecration of holy texts. Sandhu also offered a list of the promises that the AAP would fulfil if it came to power. These included: the revival of public schools with additional staff; provision of free check-ups at local dispensaries, which would be equipped with laboratories and the requisite medicines; the creation of more jobs; state support for dairy farming; compensation for the old, infirm and disabled; and the settlement of the dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. Given its ambitious commitments, it is clear that the AAP is treading on thin ice. Any slip could be fatal.
Sandhu wasn’t the only AAP candidate to place an emphasis on the incidents of sacrilege. It was an issue that several AAP leaders raked up during their rallies. At Bhaini Sahib village, the nerve centre of the Namdhari Sikhs, whose matriarch Bibi Chand Kaur was murdered in April 2016, Harjot Singh Bains—the 26-year-old president of the AAP’s youth wing in Punjab and its candidate from Sahnewal—was speaking to an audience of about 250 members. He brought up the attack on the Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale, the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib across villages in Punjab and the killing of two young men in Behbal Kalan in October 2015, when the police opened fire on a demonstration protesting the desecration, in Bargari village. The AAP leaders seemed determined to leverage the distress of the voters over the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal’s lackadaisical response to these incidents.
At the end of his speech in Chahar Majra, Sandhu said that he would not be able to offer any bribes—in the form of either liquor, opium or cash—to the voters. At both Chahar Majra and at a subsequent rally at Paintpur, he refrained from targeting either Jagmohan Singh Kang, the Congress candidate and the current MLA from Kharar, or Ranjit Singh Gill, the real estate businessman who is the Akali Dal’s candidate. While Sandhu took a few digs at the The Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort and Spa—a luxury facility owned by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s son—and the amphibious bus that Sukhbir had launched in December 2016, he made no mention of the havoc that illegal gravel mining had wrecked on the people and roads in Kharar.
On my way back to Chandigarh, I could see the city encroaching upon the villages: farm lands bought and colonies cut; empty plots that stretched on for kilometres. In the midst of the long road dotted with withering palm trees, stood one structure—a tall building with black glass on its façade, which belonged to Omaxe, a real-estate company. It was a dystopian image. The crisis in Punjab is tangible and demands immediate attention.
Sandhu’s campaign is being managed by his son, Tanveer. Although Tanveer believes that Sandhu is staking his reputation as a veteran journalist with these elections, he deemed the risk necessary because “the system has to change.” He told me that the number of people volunteering with the AAP has increased over the past 12 weeks. “Yet, there remains a shadow of the ruling powers on our campaign,” he said. “People are hesitant to support [us] openly.”
Maninder Singh, an AAP volunteer who runs Transport Times, a highly circulated newspaper that covers the transport sector, and who oversees Sandhu’s road shows, appeared to agree with Tanveer. “The silent support we sense on the ground is great. But we are a new party and we need volunteers,” he said. Maninder is engaged in organising poll-booth agents for 4 February, the day on which Punjab will vote. “While organising booth agents, I noticed that for us Punjabis, the image is important. People feel being inside a booth is less important than being in the flying squad or being outside canvassing the public to come and vote.”
In Ludhiana West constituency, Ahbaab Singh Grewal—a first-time contestant, from the AAP—will be taking on Bharat Bhushan Ashu from the Congress, who is the serving MLA from the constituency and a former Ludhiana Municipal Corporation councillor. On 24 January, after attending Sandhu’s rallies, I went the jago—conventionally, a Punjabi wedding ritual during which the groom’s family and friends celebrate the arrival of the bride a night before the wedding ceremony—that Grewal’s team had organised for him, at Phuwara Chowk in Ludhiana. The event was held daily, for over two weeks, as a part of Grewal’s campaign.
Slogans were blaring out of a portable loudspeaker. One of them referred to Amarinder Singh, the Congress’ leader in Punjab, and the Badals, “Captain–Badal dhoka hai, Punjab bachalo, mauka hai”—The Captain and Badals are frauds, save Punjab, this is your chance. Another urged the voters, “Niklo bahar dukanon se, jung lado baimaano se”—Step out of your shops and homes, fight the war against the corrupt. About 150 volunteers, dressed in white caps and scarves, had formed two files on either side of the road at the roundabout at Phuwara Chowk. The mood was festive, and commuters waved back at the volunteers, who were waving white flags.
As I spoke to Navi Grewal, Ahbaab Singh’s wife, a passing rickshaw-puller shouted, “Kejriwal, saara Punjab tere naal”—Kejriwal, all of Punjab stands with you. Navi told me that their family had returned from London a few years ago and that Ahbaab had joined the AAP out of a desire to “do something for Punjab.” Although she conceded that Ashu is a “heavyweight,” Navi appeared to be optimistic. She said, “The constituency of shopkeepers and retailers tell us their staff, their workers are with us. It is the same in colonies. People tell us they are putting up Congress stickers but they will vote for us. As long as they support us we are not asking them to display it.”
About twenty of the volunteers at the jago had come from places such as Dwarka and Delhi. Saab Raj Singh, one among them, said that it was his first visit to Punjab and that many of the outstation volunteers were going to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar once the elections were over. Kanav Vats, a 25-year-old man from Punjab who has been a part of the AAP since its inception, said, “We are a small party. Delhi has not forgotten what Punjabis did for the AAP in their state in the last two elections. They want to pay it back.” Poonam, a middle-aged volunteer, told me that during the AAP’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, her son had quit his job in the information technology industry to assist the AAP. He had done so now as well. She supported him, she said, because she believed in the idea of change.
Some of the other volunteers I spoke to had also been a part of the AAP since 2014. One elderly man told me that he had campaigned for Dr Daljit Singh, who had unsuccessfully contested from Amritsar during the general elections. In July 2016, Daljit was ousted from the AAP for questioning the leadership at that time. He joined the Congress on 14 January 2017. Harminder Singh, a volunteer who spends three to four hours at the jago every evening and often goes for door-to-door campaigning, told me he had been working for the AAP “since Phoolka”—referring to the senior AAP leader HS Phoolka—who had contested from and lost the Ludhiana Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Their continued support for the party, these volunteers told me, was emotional; they were committed to the idea of the AAP.
Subhash Goyal, a volunteer I met during another rally, echoed their sentiments. In 2014, Goyal had worked closely with Yogendra Yadav, a senior member in AAP at that time, and had retreated from the party when Yadav was removed from the AAP in 2015. Late in 2016, however, Goyal returned from his self-imposed exile. He is now handling the campaign of Harjot Singh Bains. “I came back because this is Punjab’s last chance,” said Goyal. Those who had left the party, he believed, had gone because they realised they had nothing to gain personally, and had not benefitted in the form of either tickets, positons, or fame. According to Goyal, the situation in Punjab needs to be addressed immediately, “and no other party is willing to do that. That is why I came back to the AAP.” “The reason I bat for Kejriwal is because he is himself like us, a common man,” Goyal continued. “He may even say something wrong but will come back and apologise. That is what I like about him. The appeal is instinctive.”
It is difficult to evaluate such support objectively. Yet, the hope that the AAP will alter the conundrum that Punjab finds itself in after years of misgovernance, appears to be the plank through which several people are flocking to a party whose campaign has been fraught with turbulence. The party has been mired in a range of controversies: the removal of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan in 2015, which led three of the party’s MPs—Patiala’s Dharamvir Gandhi, Fatehgarh’s Harinder Singh Khalsa and Faridkot’s Sadhu Singh—to drift away from the central organisation as well; the dismissal of Sucha Singh Chhotepur, the former convenor of the AAP Punjab; the breaking away of its cadre; the formation of splinter groups by Chottepur and Gandhi; and the allegations that the party is selling seats and collecting undisclosed funds. However, it seemed to me that, despite the AAP’s myriad of problems, as well as a national discourse that has been shifting right-ward, the idea of the party and what it claims to stand for—anti-corruption and pro-people governance—still found credence amid its volunteers.
Despite their belief in the party, many volunteers told me, their work had not been easy because of the hostility the AAP faced as a new entrant in Punjab. Rajdeep Gill, a local lecturer and the youth president of the AAP in Fatehgarh Sahib, said that he faced discrimination at work because Amar Singh, the Congress’ candidate from Rajkot is part of the college trust. According to Maninder Singh, members from rival parties regularly tear down the posters of the AAP candidates. “We don’t retaliate,” he said, “We just post more posters. I remain thankful that the campaigns not only here, but all over Punjab have remained largely peaceful.’
Meanwhile, the support for the AAP from Non-Resident Indians appears to be surging. Dr Sarika Verma, an ENT specialist, is the joint secretary of the AAP Punjab and the head of the Chalo Punjab movement, aimed at Indians living abroad. According to her, around 5,000 NRIs and hundreds of people from across India have come to Punjab to campaign for the party. Justifying the support the AAP was receiving from those outside the state, she said, “Ours is a new party, a small party. For most volunteers in Punjab, this is their first election. We don’t have structures like traditional parties. We needed every bit of support and expertise we have gathered over the last four elections: two in Delhi, one general, and now this and Goa.”
I met many such volunteers, who had travelled from other countries to work for the AAP. Ravinder Singh, whose father left Punjab for Texas in 1984, joined him only in 1997, after the Badals won the state elections. Since then, he supported one party or the other in the elections that followed, but this year, he believes that Punjab finally has a credible political alternative. Ravinder is hopeful, and has already brought his school-going children back to Punjab. He said, “We finally want our Punjab to develop, for our children to do better than us and do it here.” On the other hand, Fateh Singh, a volunteer from New Zealand, whom I met in Paintpur, told me that he did not intend to return but wanted Punjab to do as well as democracies abroad. Surinder Singh, a Toronto-based volunteer who has come to campaign for the AAP along with seven of his family members, said he felt the same way.
Talking to me about the issues of the lack of intra-party democracy and transparency that are plaguing the AAP, Kuljiner Sekhon, another volunteer from Texas, said, “When the Chottepur issue came up we went into a huddle. We discussed and debated and some of us wanted to pull back. Then we realised that the AAP’s final aim is a good: a functioning democracy.” Both Sekhon and Ravinder had been involved in raising funds for the party when they were abroad, and had participated in its phone campaign by calling and speaking to voters. For the time being, Sekhon believed that given the diverse responses on the ground, “Kejriwal had to be a bit of a dictator.” “Until now it was still too early for party elections. We needed to stabilise,” he told me, “If the AAP wins Punjab, then it will be time for transparency and the AAP better do it. Else, it will be like the right-wing.”
If the party came to power, Sekhon continued, “They will face immense challenges in dismantling the current official and contractor nexus, managing the police and the Mandi boards. There remains a hostile centre, and there will be a loud clamour for positions and benefits inside the AAP ranks. Then there remains the question of chief minister.” He added, “We have to keep the pressure on the AAP to perform.”
While the AAP appears to be regaining some lost ground, garnering silent support from the voter base that the Akali Dal may have alienated, the Punjab elections remain too close to call. In the one city, half-a-dozen towns and 25 villages that I visited in central Punjab, many people were tight-lipped about which party they would vote for. The AAP, with the many missteps that it made in Punjab, has not yet earned the electorate’s whole-hearted support, much less an assured victory. If voters gravitate towards the party, it would be because it is their last resort, not their first choice. Even for the AAP’s volunteer base—which has grown across the 117 constituencies it is contesting from—supporting the party is a leap of faith. One that has been propelled by the devastation wrought by the Badals in the last decade, the gravity of the state’s drug problem, the anxiety surrounding the desecration of religious texts, and the lack of any other viable political formation.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.