Punjab Election 2017: AAP's Bhagwant Mann might be enough to sway voters away from Sukhbir Singh Badal

Punjabis follow the law in letter and spirit. On 26 January, a 'dry day', liquor shops remain shut throughout the day. But, unlike everywhere else in India, they open soon after sunset.
"Dry day hai ji, dry night di ki load hai (only the day is dry, what is there to worry about dry night)?" quips a shop owner on the outskirts of Amritsar.

In a state that loves it Patiala pegs and hates dry nights, it does not come as a big surprise when discussions on one of the biggest contests in the election, in Jalalabad, veer immediately around to liquor. "Chitta (cocaine) is the issue, daaru (alcohol) is the decider," says Herkanwaljit Singh, editor of vernacular daily Ajeet. Jalalabad is a tehsil in Fazilka district of Punjab. Named after the son of a Nawab, Jalalabad is known to be one of the most prosperous towns in Punjab.

Several years ago, the Rai Sikhs of the area were defeated by the Nawabs and ousted as its rulers. This year, Rai Sikhs are caught in an electoral battle that may depend on their vote. This year's contestant is Sukhbir Badal, son of chief minister Prakash Singh Badal and the man who, as deputy chief minister, is known as de facto ruler of the state. Pitted against him is the Aam Aadmi Party's Bhagwant Mann and the Congress young turk Ravneet Singh Bittu.

For opposition parties, Sukha, as his rival Mann calls him derisively, is the symbol of Akali power. Both the Congress and the AAP believe that Sukhbir's defeat would be a huge blow to the Badals and may set the dynasty back by several years. Like in a war, putting down the leader would be half the battle won.

 Punjab Election 2017: AAPs Bhagwant Mann might be enough to sway voters away from Sukhbir Singh Badal

Bhagwant Mann. File photo. IBNlive

So, the AAP has pitted its most popular local leader against Sukhbir. The Congress too has asked Bittu, son of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh and current Ludhiana MP, to join the fray.

With Mann in the fray, liquor naturally becomes the talking point. But, not in the way you would imagine if you know Mann's colourful history. There are 60,000 Rai Sikh votes in Jalalabad. The community is linked to the liquor trade in the area and, thus, considered both wealthy and influential. For years, it has always voted as a bloc, and almost invariably for a Rai Sikh candidate. But this year, the force of the Rai Sikhs is with Mann.

"They see Mann as one of their own. There is an instant connect with Rai Sikh voters," says Herkanwaljit Singh. "In 2012, Sukhbir had decimated rivals with a margin of 50,000 votes. The Congress was not even in the fray. An independent candidate came second with nearly 30,000 votes compared to SAD's 80,000."

If the buzz in the area is any indication, Sukhbir is caught in a tough battle. Many voters see Mann as the front runner, with Sukhbir as his closest rival. The Congress is languishing in the third place. The trend is consistent with the buzz within Malwa, a geographical region of Punjab with 69 seats, where the AAP is the talk of the town, a rage in rural areas.

There is broad consensus within voters and analysts that AAP may do well in Malwa, though it is not generating the same kind of buzz in Majha and Doaba, the other two geographical regions of Punjab. Jalalabad, part of Malwa, reflects the popular opinion.

The only issue of any significance in Jalalabad is Sukhbir's fate, and by proxy, the future of the Badals. When votes are cast on 4 February, the only questions Punjabis would be answering are these: Do they want the Badals to rule them for five more years and, if not, who should replace them — the Congress or the AAP?

The outcome in Jalalabad, thus, could be a pointer to the battle of Punjab. If Sukhbir is defeated, the Akali Dal could be reduced to a rump. And the party that wins may, in all likelihood, go on to win the election, or, at least, become the largest political group.

Mann — undoubtedly the biggest crowd puller for AAP and a maverick whose popularity now rivals that of Captain Amarinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu and the Badals — is running a whirlwind campaign across Punjab. But, Mann also returns intermittently to Jalalabad to connect with his voters. In speeches laced with wit, humor and scalding saracasm, he attacks "Sukha" with charges of corruption, facilitating the drug trade and running Punjab into the ground.

The junior Badal counters this with claims of development and an appeal to Punjabiyat. "Punjab ch bahari log aana chohnde hain. Quam di izzat da sawal hai. Ina do bolo bhajjo, Dilli jao (Outsiders want to rule Punjab. It is a question of our honour. Ask them to run away to Delhi)," he exhorts voters.

Bittu, the only candidate who has enough time to camp locally and talk about local issues, laments the lack of development. At election rallies, he says Jalalabad is the moneybag of Punjab, yet there is no water to drink. "In Sukha's Punjab, even his own constituency is sukha (dry)," the Congress candidate claims. He hopes voters would do something to end the endless dry days in Jalalabad.

And with Mann in the fray,

dry nights di ki load hai?

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Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 10:57:46 IST