SANGRUR, Punjab —Alcoholism, actor and comedian Bhagwant Mann has said more than once, is the occupational hazard of being in the entertainment business.
But politicians, Mann has learnt since he became a member of parliament for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from Sangrur, are expected to appear sober — at least in public. In the five years since he won his seat, videos of him addressing crowds in a possibly inebriated state have gone viral — providing fodder to opponents eager to see his party fail.
At a rally in January this year, Mann stood beside his mother, and Delhi Chief Minister and AAP nation convener Arvind Kejriwal, and said he had stopped drinking. His decision to publicly address a subject that many still consider taboo was marked by the candour of a comedian — an exacting profession that demands an unsettling mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence.
“It was a perception made by the opposition. I only drink alcohol but do not put others on it, or use drugs which is a more heinous offence,” Mann told HuffPost India one wintry afternoon in January as he toured his constituency. ”I am trying to quit alcohol. What other charges they will levy on me now?”
With the 2019 general elections drawing close, Mann and the Aam Aadmi Party must prove that the 2014 results — in which the party won four of 13 seats — was not a fluke. Since then, the AAP has been written off as a Delhi-centric party, which in many respects it is.
But, the party is also the largest opposition party in the Punjab state assembly with 20 seats, two more than the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) alliance.
This year, Mann has already begun campaigning in an attempt to get ahead of his much better resourced rivals in the Congress and SAD.
On the campaign trail
In Punjab, where even village-level politicians often travel in luxury SUV cavalcades, Mann’s three-car convoy sums up the near impossibility of breaking into Punjab’s entrenched two-party rule.
Maan first entered politics in 2011 when he joined the People’s Party of Punjab launched by Punjab’s incumbent Finance Minister Manpreet Badal. He fought his first Vidhan Sabha elections in 2012 and lost to the Congress’s Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who had served as Punjab’s Chief Minister from 1996 to 1997. Badal later merged the PPP with the Congress and Mann joined AAP.
The SAD and the Congress have dominated political life in the state for decades, and this time, neither party is likely to take AAP lightly.
At 10:30 one morning, Mann rolled into Ubhawal, the ancestral village of SAD’s Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa — an established political leader who Mann beat by over 2,00,000 votes in 2014. He wore a simple grey khadi kurta, white pajamas and a bright yellow turban, a reference to the revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.
“I was mocked, ridiculed and was ruthlessly attacked by the opposition but voters were by and large charmed by my fun side and believed in me,” said Mann, recalling how Dhindsa had called him a “clown” who would soon return “backstage” after the 2014 elections.
But Mann had cultivated an unusual fan base through his appearances on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star Plus, and popular shows like Jugnoo Hazir Hai, Bhagwant Mann Non Stop and Gustakhi Maaf.
At Ubhawal, Mann met with a group of young men who lined up for the obligatory selfie. Their demands, much like young people around the country, were for jobs. The absence of meaningful employment has become the biggest disappointment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure. A draft government report has estimated that the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 40 years.
“Modi ji talks about ‘Make in India’ but buys Sardar Patel statue from China and Bullet Train from Japan,” Mann claimed. “He asks Indian youths to earn their living by frying pakodas. Farmers in India do not want ‘karza maafi’ (loan waiver) but karza mukti (freedom for loans). Acche din seems to be a distant reality even today.”
As an MP, there is little Mann can do beyond spending his Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds on projects that will benefit his constituency.
“When Dhindsa was the MP, we were not aware about MPLAD grants,” said Satnam Singh, a final year student who was part of the selfie clicking crowd. “Also, we did not have courage to stop him on road as we do with Maan Sahib.”
Selfies taken, Mann hopped back into his car and the campaign moved on.
The AAP’s emphasis on improving education, healthcare and government services forms the basis of their pitch to voters across the country. AAP candidates often point to their government’s track record in improving basic service delivery in Delhi, where the party’s deep roots in the NGO sector are visible in initiatives like free neighbourhood clinics.
“While Delhi hospitals offer free medication and treatment irrespective of the financial status, the hospitals in Punjab do not have doctors and medicines,” Maan said, as his convoy headed to the village of Bhaini Mehraj. “Punjab produces electricity, but still sells each unit at Rs 10 while Delhi which buys power is selling it at Rs 1 a unit.”
The comparisons aren’t always fair. As the national capital, Delhi has long commandeered a disproportionate share of resources.
“The schools in Delhi have got lifts and swimming pools and its teachers are going to Harvard and Oxford universities to attend teaching courses on government’s expense,” Mann said, in one of the schools he visited that day. “In Punjab, the teachers instead of going to school can be seen on the water tank opposite it and ready to jump for not getting their salaries for months.”
Back in Bhaini Mehraj, Mann inspected a road that he said had been built with his MPLAD funds.
“You had voted for me in 2014 and I got roads constructed in your village,” he told the assembled villagers. “Now, get me elected again and I will add silver lining to them.”
If the Congress and SAD have sought to portray Mann as an alcoholic, Mann has hit back by accusing both parties of benefiting from the state’s raging drug menace.
Much of Mann’s ire has been directed at Punjab’s former Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia. In December 2016, Kejriwal had called Majithia “Punjab’s Drug Lord”. Majithia had responded by suing Kejriwal for defamation — prompting Kejriwal to apologise.
The apology did not go down well in Punjab, where Mann resigned from his post as AAP’s state president in Punjab.
“I was shocked when I came to know about Kejriwal’s apology through the media,” said Maan. “He should have discussed with me before tendering his apology but then later I found that it was the right thing for him to do at that time.”
The apology, Mann explained, was because Kejriwal was fighting 35 different defamation cases, putting a strain on the party’s resources.
“Kejriwal’s apology to Majithia does not mean that he has given a clean chit to Majithia,” Mann said. “There is enough proof against Majithia with the Enforcement Directorate and Special Task Force of Punjab Police.”
The Congress government and the SAD were playing “friendly matches”, Mann said, adding that the AAP would expose everything if comes to power.
Yet the fracas around Kejriwal’s apology revealed the AAP’s organisational fragility. AAP’s then Leader of Opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira moved a censure motion against Kejriwal. Khaira has since quit the party and started his own front, as has HS Phoolka, another prominent AAP member from Punjab.
Mann is now the party’s sole recognised face in Punjab.
“We may be struggling at present but we have the best bench strength in the country,” said Maan with a smile.
Some of the problems within the party, he said, could be understood as the teething troubles of an emerging political force.
“We may be struggling on the political front as a mere five years old party, but we have formed government twice in national capital Delhi,” Mann said. “We are the largest opposition Party in Punjab. We are the fastest growing party in the country.”
It was now late afternoon, and Mann’s convoy continued on its way. At each village, he slipped into his practiced routine — a short political speech sandwiched between a few sharp jokes at the expense of his opponents and a few lines of patriotic poetry that brought a smile to the faces of the assembled crowds.