High stakes battle in Badal bastion between CM’s estranged nephew Manpreet and daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur

He is perhaps the only regional leader being supported by two national parties in this election. Though the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) he founded in 2011 is floundering in the State’s choppy political waters, Manpreet Badal has done better for himself by getting the support of the Congress and the Communist Party of India in this Lok Sabha constituency where he is contesting on Congress symbol. The CPI, incidentally, has no truck with the Congress anywhere else in India.

But Manpreet is no ordinary candidate. As Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s estranged nephew who resigned as Finance Minister to form the PPP, the soft spoken, lover of poetry is pitted against his sister-in-law and sitting MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

Sitting down to talk in a nearly deserted Congress office at the end of a hard day of campaigning, he says, “I am up against not only Harsimrat but the entire SAD and the might of the State government, whose many arms are working to neutralise me. The police officers, the returning officer and the administration are all fearful of the consequences of not toeing the Akali line. This makes it an unfair election.”

Referring to an Independent, with the same name as his, who has been given the PPP symbol of kite, Manpreet said: “Minions of the same officialdom that works for Harsimrat Kaur informed me in advance that they will put up such a candidate. I have also been told that on the penultimate day, this other ‘Manpreet Badal’ will withdraw in her favour and they will advertise this to further confuse the voters.”

Manpreet has always been the odd man out in the Badal family. With an aversion for the trappings of power, he prefers to drive his car and has a modest personal style. Bhatinda, being the pocket borough of the ruling Badal family, is a matter of prestige for it to retain. Manpreet sees his election as one that “will signal the end of the Badal family’s rule in Punjab.” That, he says, is what Punjab requires and why this election is important for him.

How did the arrangement with the Congress come about? “For some time now our experiment of collaborating with the Congress in local body elections has been successful. The PPP now has 1200 panches and sarpanches and 43 Zila Parishad members. Contesting on Congress symbol gives us more punch.”

Harsimrat, who is battling people’s anger against her family’s seven-year-old government, is seeking votes in the name of Narendra Modi and her personal work in the constituency. She rues the stopping of the State government’s popular atta-dal scheme, (wheat at Re. 1 and dal at Rs. 4 a kg) by the Election Commission saying, “They have stopped people from getting the basics of life.”

As for Manpreet, the woman is dismissive. “This is a far easier contest for me than 2009 when I was pitted against Capt. Amarinder Singh’s son. Manpreet has changed three parties in the last three elections, has lost two elections and is thoroughly discredited before the people.”

In an area where cancer is endemic, three power plants and an oil refinery add to the environmental hazards. And ground water is polluted with heavy metals but successive governments have done little to alleviate these problems. In recent years drug abuse among youth has become serious.

At the moment, however, both Manpreet and Harsimrat are waiting for Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi to give their respective campaigns a leg-up. That both star leaders are likely to address meetings here in the coming days is an indication of how important the Bhatinda battle has become in the political history of the State.