Kanwar Sandhu, one of Punjab’s most well-known journalists, is also the chairman of the Aam Aadmi Party’s manifesto committee in the state. Yet, in the constituency of Kharar, where he is contesting elections from, Sandhu is an unfamiliar face. Kharar is one of the Punjab’s largest constituencies, with close to 1.75 lakh registered voters—many of them migrants—and 184 villages. Sandhu’s quandary is instructive in understanding the depth of the language divide in India, and the gap that those from the English-speaking, largely urban press must bridge to capture and convey local imagination.
On 24 January 2017, Sandhu spoke at a rally in Chahar Majra—a village located less than 10 kilometres from the state capital Chandigarh. Before the AAP released its manifestos for the youth, farmers, industrialists and Dalits, Sandhu and the rest of the manifesto committee had conducted several open discussions across the state in a series called the Bolda Punjab dialogues. During his speech at Chahar Majra, he rattled off a litany of the hydra-headed problems that had been plaguing Punjab for the past few years. He referred to the rising farmer suicides; the necessity of loan waivers and compensation for crop loss; the need to eradicate drugs; and the multiple incidents of the desecration of holy texts. Sandhu also offered a list of the promises that the AAP would fulfil if it came to power. These included: the revival of public schools with additional staff; provision of free check-ups at local dispensaries, which would be equipped with laboratories and the requisite medicines; the creation of more jobs; state support for dairy farming; compensation for the old, infirm and disabled; and the settlement of the dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. Given its ambitious commitments, it is clear that the AAP is treading on thin ice. Any slip could be fatal.
Sandhu wasn’t the only AAP candidate to place an emphasis on the incidents of sacrilege. It was an issue that several AAP leaders raked up during their rallies. At Bhaini Sahib village, the nerve centre of the Namdhari Sikhs, whose matriarch Bibi Chand Kaur was murdered in April 2016, Harjot Singh Bains—the 26-year-old president of the AAP’s youth wing in Punjab and its candidate from Sahnewal—was speaking to an audience of about 250 members. He brought up the attack on the Sikh preacher Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale, the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib across villages in Punjab and the killing of two young men in Behbal Kalan in October 2015, when the police opened fire on a demonstration protesting the desecration, in Bargari village. The AAP leaders seemed determined to leverage the distress of the voters over the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal’s lackadaisical response to these incidents.
At the end of his speech in Chahar Majra, Sandhu said that he would not be able to offer any bribes—in the form of either liquor, opium or cash—to the voters. At both Chahar Majra and at a subsequent rally at Paintpur, he refrained from targeting either Jagmohan Singh Kang, the Congress candidate and the current MLA from Kharar, or Ranjit Singh Gill, the real estate businessman who is the Akali Dal’s candidate. While Sandhu took a few digs at the The Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort and Spa—a luxury facility owned by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s son—and the amphibious bus that Sukhbir had launched in December 2016, he made no mention of the havoc that illegal gravel mining had wrecked on the people and roads in Kharar.
On my way back to Chandigarh, I could see the city encroaching upon the villages: farm lands bought and colonies cut; empty plots that stretched on for kilometres. In the midst of the long road dotted with withering palm trees, stood one structure—a tall building with black glass on its façade, which belonged to Omaxe, a real-estate company. It was a dystopian image. The crisis in Punjab is tangible and demands immediate attention.