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Punjab: Bhagwant Mann is Hugely Popular in Malwa But AAP Faces a Few Obstacles

Can individual Congress & SAD candidates hold their own or will AAP sweep Malwa? Each seat may be different.

Published
Punjab Elections
10 min read
Punjab: Bhagwant Mann is Hugely Popular in Malwa But AAP Faces a Few Obstacles
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"I don't know the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate here very well. Whatever I've heard are mostly negative things. But I trust Bhagwant Mann and I'll vote for AAP only because of him," says Deep Singh, a resident of Mansa town in Punjab's Malwa region.

Deep's friends, sitting in his workshop with him playing cards, all voice similar opinions. One of them adds that he may consider voting for Congress candidate and famous Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala "if he campaigns with humility in the last few days of campaigning".

There is a Bhagwant Mann surge in many of the districts in Punjab's Malwa region, that accounts for 69 of the state's 117 seats. One may debate the degrees of this surge but it would be wrong to deny its presence.

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According to some estimates, given AAP's structural weaknesses in Majha and Doaba, it would need to win about two-thirds of Malwa's 69 seats to have a clear majority in Punjab.

It is greatly banking on the 'Bhagwant Mann factor' in Malwa, while in Majha, we found that Kejriwal's appeal is playing a more important role.

However, the Mann factor is working in different ways in different areas and the interplay of different factors may determine whether AAP is able to win the seats it needs in Malwa or not.

There are at least three different ways the Mann factor is operating in different seats in Malwa. There is also a fourth factor - a smaller, less visible surge among sections of Dalits for CM Charanjit Channi which we'll discuss later in the piece.

1. VOTE IS IN MANN'S NAME, AAP CANDIDATE DOESN'T MATTER

Mansa, where we met Deep Singh and friends, is among the more stronger cases of a sizable section of voters leaning towards AAP purely due to Bhagwant Mann, despite their reservations with the local candidate, Dr Vijay Singla in this case.

This is happening in varying degrees in a number of other seats.

For instance in Sangrur city, a number of voters said that they felt that Congress MLA and minister Vijay Inder Singla had done a lot of work in the area, but they are considering voting AAP to make Bhagwant Mann the CM.

Many of them said they didn't know the AAP candidate too well.

Interestingly, some of these voters even admitted that Mann had neglected the Sangrur city area as MP and focused more on rural seats falling under the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat.

In Malerkotla seat, shopkeeper Mohammad Irshad also praised Bhagwant Mann, despite his reservations about the local candidate - Mohammad Jamil-ur-Rehman.

"The AAP candidate has an arrogant reputation. But Bhagwant Mann is humble and people know him and like him here," he said.

Malerkotla is the only Muslim majority seat in Punjab and falls under Bhagwant Mann's Lok Sabha constituency Sangrur.

In Malerkotla, even the Congress candidate and minister Razia Sultana is suffering a bit due to her husband - former IPS officer Mohammad Mustafa - having a reputation of being "rude".

"He has been a police officer all his life. But even after retirement, he still thinks he's a policeman and speaks to people in that way," Irshad jokes.

The seat seems to be witnessing a close two-way fight between Congress and AAP.

(Bhagwant Mann is attracting good crowds in his public meetings)

(Bhagwant Mann Facebook Page)

In Barnala, the situation is slightly different but Mann's popularity stands out. Here AAP has a strong candidate in sitting MLA Meet Hayer. But voters say his work in the area hasn't been very impressive

"He has his own support of course. But if he wins with a big margin, it would largely be due to Bhagwant Mann," said Harjinder Singh, a voter in Barnala.

In several Malwa seats where AAP's candidate is either unknown or facing some negativity, the "Bhagwant Mann factor" is helping the party overcome these drawbacks. It's especially working in seats where Congress and SAD candidates are also not up to the mark or are facing even greater negativity.

The problem for AAP arises in seats like the next category - where Congress, SAD and at least three candidates from smaller parties are fighting a strong election.

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2. INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES FROM CONGRESS, SAD AND SMALLER PARTIES HOLDING OUT

One of the most fascinating cases of an individual candidate holding out in the middle of what seems to be a clear sentiment in favour of Bhagwant Mann, is Sanyukt Samaj Morcha candidate from Maur in Bathinda district - Lakha Sidhana.

The gangster-turned-activist who was an important part of the farmers' movement against the farm laws, is making an impact in Maur purely based on his personal popularity, with very little organisational support.

Not surprisingly, younger voters are his strongest support base.

"We want Bhagwant Mann to be CM but in Maur, it has to be Lakha Sidhana. He played a big role in the farmers' protest."
Happy Singh, first time voter in Maur

But it's not just the youth, voters say that Sidhana has worked for poorer sections as well.

"He does a lot for the poor and stands with us in our difficulties," says Tarsem Kumar, who owns a small stall near the highway.

In fact, Sidhana is said to be the strongest prospect of the SSM, much more than even the new party's chief Balbir Singh Rajewal who is said to be having a tough time in the Samrala constituency in Ludhiana district.

(Lakha Sidhana is fighting  a strong election from Maur)

(Photo: Facebook)

However, among older voters and in particular traders, Sidhana has a deficit.

"Our choice is between AAP and Congress. We like Bhagwant Mann, Kejriwal and also Navjot Sidhu. We don't support Lakha Sidhana and the Kisan Morcha," said a shopkeeper selling kitchen equipment who didn't want to be named.

A similar sentiment - of an individual candidate holding out - could be seen in Faridkot.

"Bhagwant Mann seems a good, honest leader. But many may vote for Kiki Dhillon (Congress MLA Kushaldheep Singh Dhillon). He has worked a lot in the area - be it by laying roads or building parks."
Narender Sharma, businessman in Faridkot

An interesting case in this respect is Bathinda Urban. Here sitting Congress MLA and Punjab's Finance Minister Manpreet Badal has been on a sticky wicket for quite some time.

But as the campaign has progressed, his prospects have improved, though it's still a tight contest. Bhagwant Mann is popular here but hasn't completely been able to overcome Badal's local connect.

(Manpreet Badal is facing a tough contest in Bathinda Urban)

(Photo: IANS)

"I am willing to travel a long way just to hear Bhagwant Mann speak. He's a brilliant orator and speaks from his heart," says Ashok Singhal, who owns a sweet shop in Bathinda.

Singhal is also a fan of AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal as well as of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, he plans to vote for the Congress in his seat.

"We have a personal equation with Manpreet Badal. He has worked in the city and is a decent and educated man," Singhal says.

This trend of individual candidates holding their own against an AAP surge is visible in a number of other seats in Malwa such as Gidderbaha (Amarinder Singh Raja Warring - Congress), Muktsar (Kanwarjit Singh - SAD), Fatehgarh Sahib (Kuljit Nagra - Congress), Amloh (Randeep Nabha - Congress), Khanna (Gurkirat Kotli - Congress), Guru Har Sahai (Vardev Singh Mann - SAD), Mohali (Balbir Sidhu - Congress) and Parminder Dhindsa of (SAD-Sanyukt, BJP ally) to name a few.

Then there are heavyweight seats like Lambi (Parkash Singh Badal), Jalalabad (Sukhbir Badal) and the two seats of CM Charanjit Singh Channi.

In some seats, AAP has been sidelined a bit due to strong candidates from more than one party, such as:

  • Abohar: Sandeep Jakhar (Congress) vs Arun Narang (BJP)

  • Rajpura: Hardial Kamboj (Congress) and Jagdish Kumar Jagga (BJP)

  • Dakha: Manpreet Ayali (SAD) vs Captain Sandeep Sandhu (Congress)

In Ludhiana city, AAP is growing but it is unclear whether it could win many seats. Ludhiana East seems to be its strongest prospect but a number of non-AAP candidates seem to be fighting strongly in their respective seats, such as:

  • Ludhiana West - Bharat Bhushan Ashu (Congress)

  • Atam Nagar - Simarjeet Bains (Lok Insaf Party)

  • Ludhiana South - Balwinder Bains (Lok Insaf Party)

  • Ludhiana Central - Surinder Dawar (Congress)

  • Ludhiana North - Rakesh Pandey (Congress)

This is not an exhaustive list and also doesn't mean that AAP is necessarily losing these seats. It is quite possible that a number of heavyweights could lose. But this list is indicative of how despite overall sentiment for AAP in Malwa, individual candidates could hold their ground.

In many such seats where AAP is up against a popular MLA, its supporters have been telling voters, "Gali-Naali da kam ko vi kar lenda eh (anyone can get roads and drainages made)," adding as a question whether the MLA has constructed any school or hospital.

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3. BHAGWANT MANN AND INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES' SUPPORT WORKING IN FAVOUR OF AAP

Ferozpur district was one of AAP's weakest areas in Malwa in 2017 but it has grown here significantly since then.

The party's strongest prospect in the district is Zira, where it has fielded former Congress MLA Naresh Kataria.

There is a significant resenment against current Congress MLA Kulbir Zira and Kataria is benefitting from AAP's own vote besides his own support base. Mann's popularity has also increased in the area.

"We want badlav this time. And Bhagwant Mann is the face of Badlav. Naresh Kataria is a good candidate so we don't have much doubt in this election," says Taranjit Singh, a vote in Zira.

"The MLA has done no work and he hasn't even been approachable," he adds.

In Amargarh seat of the newly formed Malerkotla district too, the AAP candidate has a good image and is getting a chunk of his own votes in addition to what's coming due to the party and Mann.

"The candidate (Jaswant Singh Gajjanmajra) is a local and has a good image. But people are also impressed with Bhagwant Mann," says Satnam Singh, a businessman in Amargarh.

However, the seat is witnessing a close three-way contest between AAP's Gajjanmajra, Navjot Sidhu's aide Smit Singh of the Congress and former Amargarh MLA Iqbal Singh Jhundan of the SAD.

Also in the fray is Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) chief Simranjit Singh Mann, who has his pockets of influence.

In Amargarh, he has openly been expressing solidarity with the protests against the Hijab ban in Karnataka. He has repeatedly urged people of Karnataka to visit Amargarh to witness the religious tolerance here.

(SAD-Amritsar chief Simranjit Singh Mann has openly expressed support for the Hijab protest in Karnataka)

(Simranjit Singh Mann Facebook Page)

Actor-turned-activist Deep Sidhu also came and campaigned for Simranjit Singh Mann.

Amargarh is only one among many seats where good candidate selection by AAP and the personal appeal of Bhagwant Mann is helping the party.

4. IS THERE A CHANNI UNDERCURRENT AMONG DALITS?

Despite travelling across Punjab, this has been a very difficult factor to ascertain because voters don't immediately open up on this. It also seems to be working in a very fragmented way.

For instance, Channi himself is facing a tough battle in both the seats he's contesting.

His decision to contest from Bhadaur has had an uneven impact in neighbouring seats, including reserved seats.

For instance in Mehal Kalan, another reserved seat to the north of Bhadaur, the Congress seems to be struggling even among SC Sikh voters.

However, one did find pockets of both Mazhabi/Balmiki and Ramdasia voters in Malwa who expressed admiration for CM Channi and hoped he would win.

Rajinder, a Mazhabi Sikh who votes in Kotkapura and works at a tailor shop says, "People around me say 'Jhadu' (AAP's symbol) so I also agree with them to avoid an argument. But I hope Channi wins. He has done a lot in 111 days".

On being asked what work appealed to him most, he says, "He waived our electricity bills. I saved thousands of rupees because of this".

A similar sentiment was expressed by Santosh and Nirmala, both from the Balmiki community and running a small tea and snacks stall inside a predominantly Dalit neigbourhood in Bathinda city.

"Electricity bills were a huge expenditure for the poor. But Channi cancelled the bills. He works for the poor. If he wins, things will improve," they say.

Gurpreet Singh, a Mazhabi Sikh in Moga district's Dharamkot seat, says he plans to vote for the Congress only because of Channi.

"Captain and Badals only worked for the rich. But Channi is different and works for the poor. Many around me will vote for Congress only because of Channi and his work," he says.

Punjab CM Charanjit Channi's 'Common Man' image is helping Congress undo some damage.

(Photo Courtesy: Charanjit Channi's Facebook Page)

It is not clear how widespread this support for Channi is among Dalits and how many seats it could impact. It seems that it may make a difference in seats where the Congress already has a good candidate. It may be unlikely that this vote would consolidate behind the Congress in seats where there is sizable resentment against the candidate.

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THE BIG PICTURE

In the end both Bhagwant Mann and CM Channi's appeal seems to be constrained to some extent by local dynamics.

However, at least in Malwa's AAP's dependence on candidates' own support is a bit less than that of the Congress and SAD.

It is quite possible that the Bhagwant Mann factor may help AAP win a few seats despite having weak candidates.

Due to some resentment against traditional parties, Congress, SAD-BSP and the BJP-led alliance may not have that luxury and would be hugely dependent on individual candidates' own support.

How many individual candidates are able to overcome a pro-AAP sentiment may determine the final result.

The advantage of strong local candidates and their strength among cadres, sarpanches and municipal councillors increases in the last few days of campaigning and on voting day itself.

Another X-factor would be the support of Deras. Despite the 21 day furlough to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the outfit hasn't yet voiced support for any political party.

However as The Quint had reported earlier, Dera support could help BJP in seats like Fazilka where the party has fielded senior leader and known Dera supporter Surjit Jyani. Then PM Narendra Modi met the head of Radhasoami Satsang Beas Gurinder Singh Dhillon but the Dera is yet to openly support any party.

The same is the case of Dera Sachkhand Ballan - the main Ravidassi Dera. However, some do believe that it may give tacit support to the Congress.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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