The Patiala peg this election is a lion.
In the middle of Patiala, the 17th Century seat of the former empire of the Jat Sikhs, a gigantic banner stares down at people. The image on the banner shows former chief minister, Patiala royal and Congress heavyweight Captain Amarinder Singh as part man and part lion, a modern day Narasimha of sorts. The "Punjab da sher" imagery of the Congress' presumptive chief ministerial candidate is reinforced everywhere. Slogans across the city say, "Captain ab daharega; Chitta Badal bhagega (Captain would roar, drugs and Badal will run away)".
At an election rally he addressed in the Pratap Nagar area of his constituency, Patiala, on Sunday night, the posters show him as a lion striding out to hunt down rivals. And in popular discussions, he is referred to as the king of the ongoing electoral rumble. So, when he got up to speak at the first rally in his own halka (constituency), you half expected Singh to roar. But, mercifully, he just spoke. In a steady and almost drab voice that pours cold water over the enthusiasm of his supporters, Singh spoke of the "loot and robbery'' in the state by the Badals, blasted Arvind Kejriwal and his "gang of outsiders" for trying to rule the proud Punjabis and presented himself as the only alternate this election against the corrupt and the tyros. "Pinda de pind mainu bahar aa ke kehnde, 'kooton ina nu, kaado ina nu bahar (village after village comes and tells me, beat them, throw them out)," Singh said.
This year's election in Punjab is not about choosing a government. It is more about discarding the one that has ruled Punjab over the past ten years, amassing huge anti-incumbency and managing to become hugely unpopular. Across Punjab, just two themes are playing out. One, the be-adabi (disrespect) to Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 that has driven the traditional panthic voters away from the Akalis. And two, the perception that the Badals are behind the surge in consumption of drugs, chitta, in the state. As a result, everyone — from the youth concerned about drugs to the older voters angered by sacrilege shown to the Sikh holy book — wants change.
In any other year, at any other election, Singh would have already been anointed 'Punjab da Captain', his appointment as chief minister would have remained mere formality. But, the entry of the AAP in the fray has put a question mark over the coronation of 'Patiala Maharaja' as chief minister. In Punjab's Malwa, which has 69 Assembly seats, a steady under-current of support for the AAP has forced Singh to not just campaign hard through the state but also contest from Lambi (apart from Patiala) against incumbent chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.
His decision to challenge the Badals on their own turf has quelled rumours of Singh's alleged proximity to the Akalis. It has also raised his profile among Punjabis, who see this as an act of "mardangi". Yet, his future is balanced on knife's edge. On the campaign trail, Singh has tried every possible card — emotional ("this is my last election"), religious (Congress poll jingles advocate strict punishment to those who dishonoured the holy book) and even regional (by branding AAP as a party of outsiders). But, voters are still confused. They still don't know if they want Singh as 'Punjab da Captain', the poll theme of the Congress.
To form the next government, the Congress needs to score well in Malwa and win at least 30 to 32 seats of the 69. But, the AAP is giving the Congress a tough fight in every constituency, making the outcome difficult to predict.
"Punjab is tired of the 'pehle saddi, pher twadi sarkar' routine. This time there is a third option and people want to try it," says Paramjit Singh, who works as an ATM guard in Patiala's Leela Bhawan area during the day and moonlights as an AAP worker after sunset. If there is one person who stands between AAP and an election victory, it is Singh. His presence in the poll fray is the only reason that the Congress is seeing a huge surge in popularity in Punjab, seeing packed grounds when its leaders organise meetings and rallies. He is the last man standing in the way of two men who want a Congress-mukt Bharat — Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
If he manages to win Punjab, the Captain will live up to his image. If he fails, he would be consigned to the fate of a lion in a long and painful winter.
Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 15:49 PM