Can Channi win in Bhadaur, home turf of AAP’s Bhagwant Mann?

Voters appear unwilling to buy the Congress’ ‘distinct’ spin on the Channi and Amarinder governments 

February 17, 2022 08:42 pm | Updated 09:45 pm IST - Bhadaur 

At the penultimate hour, just before the deadline for filing nominations, the Congress announced that Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi will contest from a second seat, apart from Chamkaur Sahib, which he has won thrice since 2007. The Bhadaur Assembly constituency in Barnala district was chosen. Bhadaur is one of the nine Assembly segments under the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency, which the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann has won twice. Mr. Mann is the sitting Member of Parliament from this seat.

On paper, the decision comes across as bold. In the last 55 years, the Congress has won the seat only twice — in 1967 and in 2012. The Congress looks willing to take on the AAP on its turf. Moreover, Mr. Channi has proved that he is a serious contender for the crown. 

But there’s a yawning chasm between the backroom strategising and ground realities. While voters are happy that their constituency is receiving attention because of Mr. Channi’s candidature, they feel they have little else to thank the incumbent Congress government for. Two strands of conversation are repeated over and over again. One, that Mr. Channi is an “outsider” who is “here only temporarily”. While they appreciate Mr. Channi’s 111-day-long tenure as CM, they do not see it completely divorced from the four-and-a-half-year reign of former Chief Minister Captain (retd.) Amarinder Singh. The desire for change that’s the overriding narrative in these Assembly elections echoes here, too. 

They have a litany of complaints. The predominant fear is that their agli nasal (next generation) faces the twin dangers of widespread drug abuse and diminishing employment opportunities.

At Talwandi village, Gurmeet Singh points out that every alternate house is locked and its residents have migrated abroad. “Our villages are slowly emptying out, my neighbours are gone, and I too shall go whenever I manage to save enough money,” he says. Mr. Gurmeet Singh is in his early 40s. His peers in the same age group agree. Buying “permanent residency” for Canada is the final goal. “What is left here? The schools have no teachers, the hospitals have no doctors, the roads are not repaired…” his friend says.

At Jangianna village, Ajmer Singh asserts that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi does not get to decide who will become Punjab’s CM. It’s up to the voters here. “Yes, Mr. Channi waived off loans. He also reduced our electricity bills. But at the end of day, he is from Congress and we have tested them already.” Wouldn’t the constituency benefit from such a celebrity candidate? “We will benefit if he decides to stay here. He came only yesterday and he is here for another week or so till the polling,” Mr. Ajmer Singh adds. 

At Majju village, not far from the main junction at Bhadaur, the asphalt on the road runs out, leaving just a dirt patch where vehicles trundle past with a cloud of dust in their wake. Development here is just an empty promise, repeated by many but not fulfilled by any. “Captain [Amarinder] sat at home for four-and-a-half years and now they are saying Mr. Channi will deliver,” Sukhdev Singh, a Jat Sikh says. He rues that the Congress can’t get over its internal “ kalesh” or disputes, the cost of which was borne by voters. 

Nirbhay Singh, a Ravidassia at Alkara village says that they have tried everyone. “For 70 years, the power alternated between the Congress and the Akalis. But we got nothing. We have really reached the very end. Now it’s time for change,” he says.

In 2017, the AAP’s Pirmal Singh Dhaula won the seat. Since his victory, he has moved to Canada along with his family and deserted the AAP. But Mr. Nirbhay Singh is not bothered by Mr. Dhaula’s desertion. He dismisses him as “ nikamma” or useless. Neither can he remember who the AAP has fielded this time. The candidate remains immaterial, he says. With Bhagwant Mann’s nomination as the Chief Ministerial candidate, he rules out a repeat of 2017. 

Mr. Channi does have his share of admirers, who are convinced that the Congress will pull through. Shiv Charan Singh, a Mazhabi Singh, had a long list of reasons why he chooses Mr. Channi over others. For one, the “ loyi” (shawl) wearing CM is as one among the people, and that he understands the pain of the poor. “See, in 111-days, he reduced fuel prices, brought down electricity and water bills. Our area has always remained backward and after a long time, we have got an able candidate,” Mr. Shiv Charan Singh says. He recalls having voted for the Congress for as long as he can remember, and will once again do that, he says. 

The Congress machinery is working overtime, in the seat, to ensure that the likes of Mr. Shiv Charan Singh grow in numbers, that admiration for Mr. Channi’s work translates into votes. Congress workers are crisscrossing the constituency distributing pamphlets and posters. Since February 9, Mr. Channi has visited Bhadaur half-a-dozen times, holding 14-15 meetings each time. When he is unable to come, his son Navjeet Singh camps out here, campaigning door-to-door. The stakes are certainly high for the Congress and for Mr. Channi. The voter remains the ultimate arbiter for each of their futures. 

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