Politics

From The Ground In Punjab: In Patiala, The Maharani Is All Set To Reclaim Her Fortress

Preneet Kaur, wife of Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh. 
Snapshot
  • Even after two years of a relatively weak term under the Congress state government, Patiala looks upbeat about the prospects of Preneet Kaur.

    AAP, which was seen as the future of Punjab in 2014, is not a force to reckon with anymore.

Even before one enters Patiala, the writing on the wall is clear. Connecting Patiala to the crucial Delhi-Chandigarh national highway, the Patiala-Rajpura-Banur-Zirakpur state highway, a 60-km stretch, wears visible signs of the imminent victory of Congress’ Preneet Kaur.

Wife of Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, and elected thrice to the Parliament from Patiala, Kaur is popularly called Maharani Sahiba because of her royal antecedents. She held the seat for three terms from 1999 to 2014 and was displaced by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wave in the state during the 2014 elections. However, even in 2014, her margin of defeat was only of around 21,00 votes when the entire constituency witnessed a voter turnout of more than one million.

The Patiala constituency comprises of nine Assembly segments. These are Dera Bassi, Ghanaur, Nabha, Patiala, Patiala Rural, Rajpura, Samana, Sanaur, and Shutrana. The state elections of 2017 saw seven of the nine seats going to the Congress except that of Dera Bassi and Sanaur that were held by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The victory margin for SAD in Dera Bassi and Sanaur was at 1.08 per cent and 2.96 per cent of the total votes polled.

The Queen Reigns Across The Constituency

Even after two years of a relatively weak term under the Congress state government, the constituency of Patiala looks upbeat about the prospects of Preneet Kaur. Driving from Zirakpur to Patiala, via Rajpura and Banur, Swarajya spoke to the owners of brick kilns, a booming industry in this part of the state.

Gurbaksh Mann, owner of one of the biggest kilns in the region, spoke about the regional loyalties for Preneet Kaur. “We (speaking about his family) have always voted for Maharani Ji. In 2014 too, we voted for Preneet Kaur, but somehow Dharamvira Gandhi scraped through, and that has been a loss of five years for Patiala”.

Upon asking if the contrasts between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi influenced voter choices in the region, he said, “Kaptaan Saab is not like the Congress leaders in Delhi, and that is why our vote is with him. He has always fought for the betterment of the state even if it meant going against his own party leadership”.

About Modi, he remarks, “Our business was hurt by demonetisation. For many weeks, the cash flow was disrupted, and that slowed down trade. It was for every kiln owner in Punjab and Himachal. Gradually, we have recovered, but we won’t vote for Modi because we can’t let our votes go to SAD. Maharani saadi apni hai (Preneet Kaur is one of our own) and she will get projects to Patiala, irrespective of whoever is in the Centre,” he hopefully adds.

However, the smooth sailing for Kaur shall not be without a few political icebergs.

In Dera Bassi, an Assembly segment which is closer to Chandigarh than Patiala, SAD appears to be having an advantage. Strengthened by the participation of the wife and daughter of late Kanwaljit Singh, a renowned SAD leader and remembered even today with fondness, the campaign for SAD’s candidate, Surjit Singh Rakhra, is set to attain some success here. Dera Bassi, a town on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway, is home to farmers and hosts many industries.

Speaking to Swarajya, a local from Dera Bassi remarked, “Here everyone is voting for SAD. When they were in power in the state, they got industries to this place, connected it to the city. The farmers are with Akalis too”.

Upon asking if Modi was a factor in their town, he added, “Yes, we want to see Modi as our Prime Minister again. Their government has done some great work, especially on this highway (referring to the 250-kilometre stretch between Delhi and Chandigarh). Also, the farmers are angry with the government of Kaptaan Saab because they have not done anything for us as they had promised in 2017”.

Ghanaur, another town within the constituency, has no signs of a visible Modi wave. “For the people here, there are no jobs, and we have to go to other cities. Connectivity has been a problem, but the new state government has made roads, so our vote is for them”. Upon asking if Modi was a factor in these elections, he added, “We do not have BJP here, but Akalis, and we have seen them for 10 years. Had BJP fielded a candidate from Patiala, we would have considered them, but this time, our vote is for Maharani Sahiba”.

The biggest headache for Kaur came from Nabha. Some senior Congress workers with over 2,000 juniors from the local cadre were up in arms against Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, the Minister of Forests and Social Welfare in the Government of Punjab, for ignoring local demands. Last week, they carried out a rally for Dharamvira Gandhi, the sitting MP who is now contesting from the camp of Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA).

Eventually, it took the presence of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to calm things down. A two-time MLA from Nabha, Randeep Singh, was ultimately sent to settle the dispute as it threatened to derail Kaur’s campaign. Even though the cadre has been appeased, Kaur would hope for their anger to not reflect on the voting choices later this week.

In Samana, Kaur seems to be preparing her successor for the Patiala seat as her son, Raninder Singh, is taking over. Even after over two decades in active politics, Singh is yet to make a mark. He lost the 2009 general election from Bathinda to Harsimrat Kaur Badal, and in 2012, lost the Assembly election from Samana, where he is actively campaigning for his mother.

At The Nucleus Of This Political Conflict

As much as this electoral battle is about the Maharani reclaiming her fortress, it is also about a disruptor laying waste to the opportunity he earned in 2014, and about the downfall of a party which was once seen as the political future of Punjab.

Dr Dharam Vira Gandhi, the sitting MP from Patiala, who won from the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014, was sacked in 2015. Having raised concerns against the tendency of the party leadership to micromanage affairs from Delhi, Gandhi’s sacking followed that of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan amongst other leading names.

In hindsight, the decision is one of the many wrong ones taken by Kejriwal’s kitchen cabinet within the party, and for now, the party finds itself without a credible face in Patiala. Even though the party leadership has fielded Neena Mittal, she stands little chance of causing any disruption to the political resurrection of the Maharani.

“Our vote is for Gandhi, for jhadoo,” a shopkeeper said. Upon telling them about Gandhi’s sacking, they offered a confused look. Contesting as the founder of the Nawan Punjab Party, one of the many parties that make up the Punjab Democratic Alliance, Gandhi may find himself losing many votes to the AAP as he is still recognised as the local face of the AAP.

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Walking through the main bazaar of Patiala, Swarajya came across many volunteers from the Gandhi camp. It turns out, they were informing people about the party Gandhi was contesting from, merely three days before the city goes to polls. Most traders and other residents in the vicinity were unaware of Gandhi being sacked from AAP four years ago.

The downfall of the AAP, however, has not reflected badly on Gandhi. Before jumping into active politics, Gandhi was a renowned cardiologist with his clinic only a short distance away from the personal residence of Amarinder Singh. Having garnered goodwill across the decades spent in the city, Gandhi, even today, commands loyalty amongst certain sections of the population.

“No one is questioning the intelligence of Doctor saab,” a local auto driver says. “I have spent the last 12 years in the city. Today, Gandhi is asking for votes while riding a rickshaw as he wants to showcase his modest background against that of Kaur, but 10 days later, if he wins the election, he’ll again be in his expensive car, and again not be present amongst us. This is what happened when we voted for him the last time,” he finishes.

Gandhi has a lot of factors going against him. One, it is the downfall of the AAP. Even though he was sacked from the party early in his tenure, the residents identify him with the party, and not independently. Two, even with his modest persona, Gandhi lacks the political connect that Kaur has, and thus, people will be inclined towards the latter.

Three, the Amarinder Singh-led Congress has been in power in the state since 2017, and as residents of Patiala, they shall find the tide in their favour. Four, the popularity of the three-time MP, Kaur, adds to her prospects. Even in 2014, amidst anger against the UPA government and the strong AAP wave in the region, she only lost by a margin of 1.8 per cent of the total votes polled. She is to Patiala what Modi is becoming for the people of Varanasi.

What The Royal City Needs From Its Queen

In Punjab, politicians are fond of playing a long innings. However, at the age of 74, Kaur could well be looking at a term that goes on to define her legacy as the Maharani of Patiala.

Speaking to many residents of Patiala, Swarajya learned that the aspirations were homogenous across the rural and urban population. Infrastructure, industry, and more prospects for employment is what everyone hopes for.

With the four-laning of the road from Patiala to Chandigarh complete, the major regions of the constituency find themselves with access to seamless connectivity to Chandigarh, Mohali, and Dera Bassi, areas of high employment density. The commute between Patiala and Chandigarh has come down from 150-minutes to a mere 45-minutes.

In the last few years, the Mohali-Chandigarh region has emerged as the lobbying point. Therefore, the growth of the services industry in Mohali would enable better employment prospects for the youth of Patiala, along with that of the state.

Kaur’s legacy shall be dictated by the number of projects she can bring to the city. Already, some real estate projects, private and commercial, are in development on the outskirts of the city.

Another problem which she must solve is the one that the region has inherited by the ways of nature. The river Ghaggar, a part of the now extinct ancient river system of Ghaggar-Hakra, has been a source of misery in the Patiala belt for farmers for decades now.

The gravity of the problem can be measured by the fact that in the parliamentary elections of 1998, SAD candidate Prem Singh Chandumajra’s campaign slogan was “tussi Congress chaka do ta mein Ghaggar nu chaka daan (you remove the Congress from power and I shall remove Ghaggar from Patiala).

Passing through Ghanaur, Samana, and Sanaur along with other regions within the district of Patiala, the river results in regular flooding and is a major source of pollution and hosts many cancer causing agents. Since the past few years, the region has been experiencing flash floods and unpredictable spells of rainfall that damage the paddy crop. With the fields flooded, farmers find themselves in substantial losses and at the mercy of the state government.

With that flashy campaign slogan, Chandumajra secured a short tenure for himself. From 1999 to 2014, Kaur held the parliamentary seat, and from 2007-2017, SAD-BJP reigned in the state, and yet, the problem was not solved. Even Dharam Vira Gandhi’s recent campaign met the ire of the residents in Patiala, for even he failed to offer a long-term solution to the problem of flooding.

It will come down to Kaur’s political understanding to solve a problem that has disrupted the life of the citizens in this region for decades. Its solution, if attained, could well go on to become the defining virtue of her political legacy.

The Final Word

Driving through the newly built Rajpura-Patiala highway, a hub of leading private universities in the region, Swarajya came across Gandhi’s roadshow. The lack of support was clearly visible, as the only audience was the dozen-odd vehicles that followed Gandhi. A local shopkeeper summed up the political atmosphere saying, “People do not know the party he belongs to, and they go to vote on Sunday. Doctor Saab is too late”. Proudly, he shows off the Congress party flag on the roof of his shop.

This may not be the end for Gandhi, but he now finds himself on a road he wouldn’t have intended to be on when he wrested Patiala from the queen herself in 2014. On Sunday, he will garner some votes across some towns and regions, for there are still takers in this constituency of almost two million people. However, the 32 per cent vote share he debuted with last time will now be shared amongst the Congress, SAD-BJP, and the alliance of other small parties, leaving him with the third, or if he is lucky, the second spot.

However, the more significant loss comes for the AAP, which must surely regret wasting away a political opportunity few can earn. Patiala, in 2014, was being anticipated as the garh of the new political force of Punjab. Today, there are no visible signs of AAP. As one local correctly remarked, “unha da ta wajood hi nahi reya” (they are now without an identity).

What also works for Kaur, and the state unit under Amarinder Singh, is that they are perceived independently of their Congress contemporaries in Delhi. Thus, the poor leadership of Rahul Gandhi does not deter the prospects of Kaur in Patiala. The question is, can she make it count this time.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details

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