06/11/2016 7:49 AM IST | Updated 06/11/2016 5:18 PM IST

Punjabi Identity Is Badal's Trump Card Against AAP

No matter how hard they deny it, the Delhi chief minister is the top-of-the-mind concern for the Badals.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
AMRITSAR, INDIA - NOVEMBER 1: (From Left) Bharatiya Janata Party National President Amit Shah, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Deputy CM of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal, being honoured by Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal during the 50th year of Punjabi Suba celebration rally on November 1, 2016 in Amritsar, India. (Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

With less than four months to go for polls, the embattled Badal family in Punjab is trying every trick possible to beat back the challenge from Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. From propping up Congress leader Amrinder Singh as their main opponent - although the Gandhis haven't yet declared him their choice for chief minister - to invoking Punjabiyat at a glittering golden jubilee celebration of Punjab Day, there's a desperate effort to brand Kejriwal an ``outsider'' with subtle reminders of his Haryanvi roots.

It was BJP state president Vijay Sampla who let the cat out of the bag by unwittingly revealing the deep anxiety rocking the ruling alliance. In his speech at the Punjab Day function in Amritsar on November 1, he pleaded for a crushing defeat to ``outsiders'' who are trying to pull down Punjab and tarnish its image.

The function itself was a telling sign that the Badals are worried. A party insider mused that Punjab Day was celebrated for the first time ever although it is a red letter day in the history of the Akali Dal which had led a tumultuous movement for the creation of a separate Sikh majority state. In 1966, Punjab, already wounded by Partition, was further divided with the creation of Hindu majority Haryana.

The popular storm kicked up by Kejriwal in Punjab is therefore truly ironic. The Badals are desperately trying to exploit this irony and sharpen the battle into Punjab versus Haryana, or local versus outsider.

The gala celebration was lavishly embellished with Punjabi subnationalism through the retelling of the state's grand history, its supreme sacrifices against invaders, invocation of forgotten Punjabi suba icons like Master Tara Chand who the Badals have rarely acknowledged in the past and an honour roll of prominent Punjabis who were presented with a plaque of recognition.

But there was a surprising omission. The most successful and famous Punjabi of all, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, was not invited to be honoured although his name apparently figured at the top of the draft list. There was no credible explanation from any Akali leader about this glaring gap. Politics clearly got in the way even as every effort was made to whip up Punjabi chauvinism.

The function was also used to showcase chief minister Prakash Singh Badal and his achievements. The personality cult being built around this veteran sits uneasily on his frail shoulders. ``Tell me, which government doesn't revolve around its leader?'' asked controversial revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia who is also junior Badal's brother-in-law. ``In Delhi, from dustbin to hoarding, isn't it Kejriwal?''

No matter how hard they deny it, the Delhi chief minister and AAP leader is the top-of-the-mind concern for the Badals.

There, Kejriwal again. No matter how hard they deny it, the Delhi chief minister and AAP leader is the top-of-the-mind concern for the Badals.

Outside the Amritsar Town Hall, where the Punjab Day celebration was held, is a new vista created by deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. A grand façade has been built of pink Dholpur stone to mask the old shops and restaurants along the road leading from Town Hall to Golden Temple. The architecture is a mix of Rajasthani, Mughal and Lahore styles, according to the architect who designed it. The area outside the Golden Temple is now closed to vehicular traffic and spruced up with marble flooring. In sharp contrast to the crowded, dirty and noisy area it used to be, there's a grand walkway, dubbed Heritage Walk, for visitors to mill around and enjoy the sights of the most holy of Sikh sites.

This is Sukhbir's showpiece achievement, built in just 333 days at a cost of Rs 250 crores. He says he intends to replicate this in other parts of Punjab to preserve its rich heritage. He sees this as a game changer in the upcoming election. ``We have shown what we can do for Punjab,'' he says proudly.

Interestingly, there is little mention of Amrinder Singh in all the chatter. He seems to be a mere blip on the electoral landscape although there is a perception that the Congress is gaining ground at the expense of controversy-hit AAP.

Still, it's early days, say most folk. The mood will become visible once the model code of conduct is in place, sometime next month. If the anxiety in the Akali camp is any indicator of voter sentiment, AAP is still a force to reckon with. It is widely believed that Kejriwal has beaten a strategic retreat hoping that the dust from the scandals swirling around his party in Punjab will settle down. The game is yet to begin