He is the Aam Aadmi Party’s lead star campaigner in Gujarat after Arvind Kejriwal, holding rallies from Ahmedabad to Kutch. For over a month now, every weekend finds Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann in Gujarat.
The Opposition in Punjab has dubbed him an “absentee” CM. But AAP, which has few faces with national recognition, is counting on Mann, a comedian-turned-politician who was an indefatigable campaigner for the party in the Punjab elections, regaling audiences as he held up to 10 rallies a day.
With its campaign slogan “Ek Moko Kejriwalne (one chance to Kejriwal)”, AAP is also projecting Mann as an extension of the kind of administration a Kejriwal-led party government can provide.
Malwinder Singh Kang, AAP’s chief spokesperson in Punjab, said, “For now, Mann is only taking out road shows and addressing meetings on weekends. But after November 20, the party will intensify its campaign in Gujarat.”
However, on the ground, it is contentious how successful AAP’s strategy is, as far as Mann goes. Gujarat has a minuscule Sikh population of roughly 50,000, concentrated in Gandhidham, Lakhpat in Kutch, Vadodara and Surat areas, some of which Mann has covered in his campaign. Apart from this, they are scattered across Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, Jamnagar, Valsad, Navsari and Vapi.
As per Jasbir Makhija, the former president of the Gurdwara Gobinddham in Ahmedabad: “The Sikh population in Gujarat is not supporting AAP but the BJP.”
At least at some public meetings, audiences struggle to follow his Hindi, with a heavy Punjabi accent.
An AAP leader says Mann’s importance for the party is at a deeper level. “After Kejriwal, Mann is akin to a brand ambassador for the party, having delivered in Punjab within six months of coming to power. When Mann goes and tells the electorate that his government has given jobs, announced a return to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), given 300 units of free power, it resonates. He is also targeting corruption. He is needed in Gujarat.”
The leader adds that they believe that irrespective of the “language barrier”, Mann has a gift of connecting with his audience. “He strikes a chord as soon as he speaks… gets a huge applause. Recently, he took on leaders of traditional parties saying he was content being a TV personality and did not want to be a politician, but had to do so to change the system. His video went viral.”
Portions of Mann’s speeches are also translated into Gujarati and run on AAP social media handles, especially the ones that counter the BJP directly.
AAP has also been highlighting that it picked Mann by a public poll, just like they had done in Gujarat. Isudan Gadhvi was declared AAP’s CM face in Gujarat after the party asked people to send in their preference, and 76% reportedly picked Gadhvi.
In his speeches, Mann invokes revolutionary leader and his idol Bhagat Singh, and urges youth to emulate the freedom fighter who died at 23 years, “the age when youngsters are demanding a motorbike from their parents”. During the Navratri festival, he along with Kejriwal attended a garba at Rajkot, where he shook a leg, much like the Punjab campaign.
In Nikol and Shahibaug areas of Ahmedabad, where sanitation workers, outsourced employees, ASHA workers and contractual workers were in attendance, Mann spoke about “20,000 government jobs” given in Punjab under him, and the fall in electricity bills to zero for some 69 lakh people.
Mann has campaigned in Kutch, Junagadh, Surendranagar, Sabarkantha, Dahod, Vadodara, Valsad, Surat, Panchmahal, Banaskantha, Navsari and Bharuch districts of Gujarat, and after the declaration of the election dates, held his first roadshows in the Muslim-dominated constiuencies of Ahmedabad city, which suffered in the 2002 riots.
Incidentally, while Mann would have been more at home in the Himachal Pradesh, which borders Punjab and just finished voting, AAP has used his services more sparingly there, with its campaign focused on Gujarat.
The Congress has attacked AAP over using Mann as a star campaigner, and leaving Punjab to bureaucrats and to “the mercy of God”. Calling Mann the “most ineffective CM” of the state, Leader of Opposition Partap Bajwa said law and order in Punjab had “collapsed”, citing murders of kabbadi players Sandeep Singh Nangal Ambian and Dharminder Singh, as well as singer Sidhu Moosewala.
“The people of Punjab are reeling under a constant sense of insecurity because of rising crimes and gangsterism… This isn’t the kind of badlav (change) the people wanted when they chose the AAP government,” Bajwa added.
With inputs from Ritu Sharma