My first introduction to Punjab was Bhagwant Mann. Of course, Delhi had its share of Punjabis, many of whom are good friends but there was something unique about Punjab that they didn’t really represent. It was my school bus driver in primary school, Apeejay Sheikh Sarai, who listened to Bhagwant Mann’s cassettes, who introduced me to his satirical genius. Our driver saab was kind enough to translate and contextualize the content for us, the six fifth graders who sat right up in front with him, regaling and translating Bhagwant Mann’s stories on the system of government and politics in India. He was my introduction to politics and policy along with the brilliant Pankaj Kapur’s Office Office on Sab TV, the show about the quintessential common man stuck with bureaucracy.
Punjab is unique: with its ancient brush with the Indus Valley civilization and the Vedic age, historical place with the origins of Sikhism and the bloody partition of India and Pakistan and its modern reputation of both feeding and protecting India. And yet, in the era I grew up in, I saw it losing prestige, power and position amongst Indian states. Mann’s Sadi Billi Sanu Miaun, Jugnu Haazir Hai, Gustakhi Maaf and Kulfi Garama Garam explained Punjab and Indian state governance far better than any historian or writer. He was the original long-form podcast and Tiktok rolled into one. My father and I rooted for him through the Great Indian Laughter Challenge along with our other favorite Raju Srivastava. Sadly, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Shekhar Suman and the audience, sadly, had other plans.
College happened. Internet, LANs, quizzing as a hobby and hard disks that went into terabytes had exposed me to a world of content. Punjab fell out of my radar for more than half a decade. It returned through two physicists in Raghu Mahajan and Rajiv Krishnakumar, who brought back the joy of Gurdas Mann, Bohemia, Asa Singh Mastana, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Jazzy B and Sukhbir, all at the same time in my life. Raghu, in particular, introduced me to the writings and poetry of undivided Punjab which moved me immensely.
He and I got interested in alternative politics and started supporting and helping the newly founded Aam Aadmi Party with fundraising and research support. After a swashbuckling entrance in 2013 came the tumultuous defeat in the Lok Sabha election of 2014. On results night, it felt like Delhi was lost and so was the dream of the alternative. And then came a light of hope. Punjab had elected 4 Aam Aadmi Party candidates to the Lok Sabha. It had stayed true to its habit of adopting the innovative and giving a chance to a few good men in its history. And among them was Bhagwant Mann.
I came to Delhi with renewed vigor to help a few good people striving for political change and do my bit towards making an Indian Republic we could be proud of in the face of the daunting duo of the BJP juggernaut led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. And lo and behold, my first assignment (albeit only for a few months before I got to work on the Delhi manifesto) in the party was to assist Bhagwant Mann, the Member of Parliament with research. My limited but fun time interacting with him showed me his passion for Punjab’s welfare, indefatigable energy for public good and the lack of any crony capitalist influence in his public life.
He was fearless and wide-ranging in his interventions in Parliament. He intervened in 107 debates in his first term as MP, more than double the state average of 49 debates and 40% more than the national average for an MP (source: PRS Legislative Research). His first special mention in Parliament was on the issue of drug addiction in Punjab and the steps needed to curb its supply to Punjab’s youth. He supported agitations against unemployment for Punjabi youth, urged remedial measures and health facilities for Punjab’s cancer patients, raised issues of police excesses against teachers in Amritsar and threw a spotlight on non-payment of dues by the government to paddy growers of Punjab.
He made interventions urging the government to implement the Swaminathan Commission report for agriculture, flagged human rights violations by the Punjab Police, raised the issue of non-payment of scholarships for SC/ST/OBC youth and deteriorating quality of education in Punjab, spoke about Punjab-Haryana’s water disputes and spoke rationally on the charged topic of the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. He even raised relatively unseen issues like the dignity of prisoners and undertrials as well as the Punjab foodgrains scam. His questions (starred and unstarred) questioned the ruling government’s ministries on everything from the SIT on Black Money, power tariffs, crimes against women and children, solar energy, solid and liquid waste management and problems in public hospitals. All of these interventions made a dent on the policy landscape and generated governmental/bureaucratic responses because someone was finally shining a spotlight on these issues.
He also navigated his duties representing AAP’s views and Delhi’s issues dutifully in his own style. His interventions flagged Delhi’s issues with the DDA, problems with the Delhi budget, the unconstitutional amendments by the Government of India with Delhi’s governance structure via executive order, inadequacies of the Delhi Police. He adeptly navigated national and international issues as well speaking on the Rafale deal, Apache helicopter purchase, GST, J&K, Aircel-Maxis scam and bills related to minerals, education, land acquisition, motor vehicles and prevention of corruption. And when time wasn’t enough, he made his presence felt through his legendary satirical poetry which became an annual feature as a commentary on the Government of India under PM Narendra Modi. His multiple mentions in the Wit and Humour section of the Lok Sabha website are no mere co-incidence.
Politically, he remained a loyal friend and ally of principle to the AAP despite generous offers of cash and kind from the BJP and Congress to join them. When most people had left AAP or lost hope in the Modi era, he was a star campaigner and crowd puller for AAP in the 2015 Delhi election victory doing as many public rallies as Arvind Kejriwal did in the city. As a Parliamentarian, he utilized his local area development funds for public good especially in health and education. At the same time, he broke the myth of the unapproachable king that Punjab’s politics had created in the Badals and Captain Amarinder Singh by being an approachable and friendly people’s representative.
After the surprise Lok Sabha victory in Punjab in 2014 and Delhi whitewash in 2015, the 2017 elections seemed obvious as AAP and Mann’s next step towards scale. Internal jousting by now former AAP representatives, political inexperience in a rural state, media misinformation, social media propaganda, a crony capitalist war chest and a secret deal between BJP, Akali Dal and Congress prevented AAP from winning the 2017 elections. Mann, however, pulled more than his own weight, leaving his safe seat to take on the prince of Punjabi crime Sukhbir Badal in Jalalabad, his home turf, and campaigned for AAP candidates across the state. Despite the loss, Mann soldiered on for the party and the people of Punjab. It is no surprise that in the 2019 Lok Sabha election amidst Modi’s electoral tsunami, Mann was the only candidate from AAP to return to Parliament, that too with a victory margin of over 100,000 votes.
The opposition space shrank further but Mann’s voice grew louder. He questioned fund allocation to Panchayat schemes in Punjab, urged for new railway projects in the state, raised the issue of water pollution in Satluj and Beas, flagged issues of housing, daily wages and renewable energy in Punjab and threw spotlight on Dalit brutality and farmer non-payment of dues. Several colleagues in the opposition yielded time to him to lambast the government since he was equally effective in logos, pathos and ethos. He was the voice of people of Punjab, both on the streets and in Parliament. Before the pandemic hit and Parliament stopped , he was intervening twice as much as the average Punjabi MP. Mann was He continued to fight for Delhi too and was instrumental again in the 2020 election victory for AAP in Delhi through his campaigning skills, doing 3-4 rallies in a day across the city.
2022 has brought us back to the same moment from 2017. Wiser from past experience and by discovering true allies of principle over the years through victory and defeat, AAP is fighting elections in Punjab with a positive agenda of good governance and honest politics with a track record of demonstrable success in Delhi which has made Punjab’s voters take them seriously. Similar to last time, the Congress, Akalis and BJP have coordinated their attack on AAP with slanderous statements, malicious attacks and the propaganda of misinformation.
For four decades, the Congress and Akali Dal have conducted “organized loot and legalized plunder”, to borrow a phrase from our former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, on the citizens of Punjab. The Badals have created a family-run private monopoly in every sector running public goods to the ground and got Punjab’s youth hooked to drugs. Captain Amrinder Singh, a king who had no interest in good governance or citizen-centric policy was focused only on self-interest. Navjot Singh Sidhu has gone on from judging comedy to becoming a joke whilst the current Chief Minister punts each Congress mistake conveniently on the Captain. A broom (jhaadu) is desperately needed to clear this filth.
This time, however, there is a clear and viable option for Punjab in Bhagwant Mann. Mann saab, as he is affectionately known, has led a lifetime of being a voice of the voiceless; first in comedy, second in politics and third in Parliament, even as his public service cost him his family life. His track record of probity and performance as a politician and Parliamentarian shows how much his roots to Sunam, Shaheed Udham Singh’s birthplace and the yellow Bhagat Singh turban that he wears, influence him. One can only hope that Punjab will adopt transformative change that Delhi experienced with Arvind Kejriwal and regain its lost Shaan (glory) by voting for Bhagwant Mann, the only politician in Punjab for whom CM means Common Man before it means Chief Minister.