Saturday, March 25, 2023
HomeThePrint ProfileFrom ‘masterji’s son’ to stand-up star & ‘Pegwant’, how dropout Bhagwant Mann...

From ‘masterji’s son’ to stand-up star & ‘Pegwant’, how dropout Bhagwant Mann became Punjab CM

Punjab’s new chief minister has suffered failures, enjoyed unexpected successes, and weathered personal struggles — all quite publicly — during his political ascent.

Text Size:

Sangrur: Everyone in Satoj village claims to be a close friend or relative of Bhagwant Mann, who is set to be sworn in as Punjab Chief Minister Wednesday.

“We went to school together and we’re best friends”, “He used to tell me I’m his favourite aunty”, “Whenever he’s in the village he comes to the guru ghar (gurudwara) and touches my feet”, “I have grown up in his arms”, “He’s grown up in my arms”, “Wo toh bhai hai apna (he’s my bro)” — such declarations resounded from every street corner and doorstep as ThePrint traversed Satoj.

It is, of course, understandable that everyone wants to establish their association with Mann.

In Punjab, he was the face of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has come to power with a resounding majority, winning 92 out of 117 assembly seats in the state.

With Mann and party chief Arvind Kejriwal leading the way, AAP also broke traditional voting patterns, made short work of the footprint of the Akali Dal and Congress, and witnessed one incumbent and three former chief ministers losing their seats.

Bhagwant Mann looms large in Satoj, where cut-outs and photos adorn his family home | Photo: Reeti Agarwal | ThePrint

This victory has also put the AAP on the national map and helped party chief Arvind Kejriwal finally cross Delhi borders to form government in another state.

The 48-year-old Mann was not an overnight success in politics, but his acquaintances say he demonstrated his potential early on.

“The seeds of Bhagwant’s achievement were sowed 10 years ago when he made his debut in politics,” Kanwaljit Dhindsa, a college friend of Mann, said.

“When he contested elections for the first time from Lehragaga in 2012, and then from Jalalabad against Parkash Singh Badal, he lost — but the message he sent was that the status quo can be challenged. These stalwarts can be defeated. And he has finally done it.”

Also Read: Prodded by Bhagwant Mann, AAP Punjab MLAs rush to constituencies, focus on schools & hospitals

A ‘defiant’ streak

When he was a child, Bhagwant Mann would perch on the backseat of his father’s cycle to go to school every day, 10 kilometres from his home.

Known as masterji in the area, his father Mohinder Singh was the principal of a three-room middle school, and urged the young Mann to study, read, and become an educated man.

But, Mann was always more interested in singing and telling jokes. As a young boy, he’d mimic his classmates, teachers, even vehicles in the village, and everyone listening would crack up.

Pictures of a young Bhagwant Mann, displayed at the family home in Satoj | Photo: Reeti Agarwal | ThePrint

This talent got him recognition in college. “I remember the first time I met him was in 1991, at the canteen of Shaheed Udham Singh College. There he was, telling jokes and mimicking the sounds a tractor makes. He sounded really natural!” Dhindsa recalled. A college senior, Dhindsa used to organise many youth festivals, and ensured that Bhagwant Mann was always in the line-up.

“His creativity was unbeatable. The first college fest he won was where he was imitating a kabadiwala (scrap dealer) and telling the audience about his day. For this, he spent hours sitting with a kabadiwala, trying to understand his life, pain, and problems,” Dhindsa said. “He brought an actual kabadiwala cycle on stage. He won the first prize.”

Mann’s father didn’t approve. He wanted his son to finish his degree and get a government job, Dhindsa said. But Mann continued to sit in the stable of his house practising singing, writing jokes, and dreaming of being a performer.

He ended up dropping out of college after his first year but saw success quickly.

Breaking into showbiz

Bhagwant Mann’s first big break came in 1992, when he was only about 19 years old. Jarnail Ghuman, a music producer in Ludhiana, took note of a song Mann had parodied and asked the youngster to put together an album of similar satirical tracks. He then took Mann to Ludhiana to record a cassette called Kulfi Garma Garam, which parodied popular Punjabi songs.

According to Karamjit Anmol, a noted singer, actor, and producer in Punjabi cinema who once participated in college fests with Mann, this album was a runaway success.

“Fifty lakh copies of Kulfi Garma Garam sold in India. If you count pirated copies the figure runs in crores. It was a superhit album, and first of its kind, where Mann didn’t leave any social issue to talk about through his parodies,” Anmol told ThePrint.

Bhagwant Mann entertaining his friends during his college days | Photo by special arrangement

By 1994, Mann was being invited for stand-up shows across India and before long he was also performing in the UK, US, and Canada, often accompanied by co-performers Karamjit Anmol and comedian Binnu Dhillon. One of their most popular acts was titled ‘No Life with Wife’.

Also in the 1990s, Mann co-created a comedy skit show called Jugnu Kehnda Hai, which ran on Alpha ETC Punjabi for almost a decade. However, his co-writer Jagtar Jaggi, who had also contributed to Mann’s first album, left the show saying he wasn’t given enough credit.

A few years down the line, Mann made it to the national stage when he participated in the stand-up comedy show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, in which one of the judges was current Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Also Read: The Great Indian Laughter Challenge is making a ‘comeback’. Thanks to AAP’s CM candidate

Audacious politician 

Mann’s leap into politics came almost without warning, according to his friends.

“One day in 2012, he called me from Delhi airport, and said, ‘Dhindsa, I’m contesting elections from Lehragaga’. My jaw dropped, he was at the peak of his career,” Dhindsa recalled.

At the time, the Lehragaga assembly seat was held by former CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal of the Congress. She had won the seat consecutively since 1992. Dhindsa advised his friend to contest from a safer seat, but Mann was determined to be a giant-killer. This time, though, he failed.

In 2017, Mann tried again, this time as a candidate of the AAP in Jalalabad. He faced off against an incumbent CM — Parkash Singh Badal — and lost again.

However, Dhindsa believes that Mann successfully sowed the seeds for a change in Punjab’s politics.

“He lost both those elections. But he led the party to this sweeping victory today because as an individual he showed the way. He showed the courage that Punjab leaders are not infallible, that they can be challenged. And on that conviction today the Aam Aadmi Party has won so many seats,” Dhindsa said.

Even within the AAP, Mann is reputed to be unafraid of conflict and challenging the leadership. In 2018, he resigned in protest when Arvind Kejriwal apologised to an Akali leader for accusing him of being involved in the drug trade. He was back as state party chief 10 months later.

‘Politics cost him his marriage’

In 2015, Mann announced that he and his wife, who had helped him in his earlier campaigns, had filed for divorce because he had chosen “Punjab over family”.

“An artiste has time to dedicate at home. But a politician’s job is 24×7. He couldn’t give time at home properly and that cost him his marriage,” Binnu Dhillon said.

Behind Mann’s glib utterances, there was heartbreak, Dhindsa added.

“He could bear the loss of his father, but losing his children was too much. In 2014, when we campaigned, Mann’s wife was here, and so were his children. The next time, it was just him. We could see how that bothered him. He misses his children, who are both in the States now, immensely,” Dhindsa said.

Politics also caused financial troubles for Mann. According to his friends, he had to sell a lot of land to follow his political ambitions, and at one point didn’t even have enough money to put petrol in his car. He currently has declared assets of Rs 1.64 crore.

‘Pegwant’ Mann: Allegations of alcohol abuse

Accusations of Mann turning up drunk to Parliament first came from within the AAP. Former AAP members Yogendra Yadav and Harinder Singh Khalsa both alleged that he “smelled of alcohol” in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Mann was also accused of turning up drunk at a funeral and a gurudwara, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi made fun of his drinking habits in the Lok Sabha.

Lok Sabha MP from Sangrur Bhagwant Mann outside Parliament
File photo of Bhagwant Mann outside Parliament | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Because of these incidents, Mann, who lost his father to alcoholism, earned a cruel nickname: Pegwant Mann.

In 2018, Kejriwal publicly announced that Mann had sworn to give up alcohol, but his ‘alcoholism’ was also a target of rival parties during this election.

When asked about the alleged alcohol abuse, Mann’s friends said that the issue had been blown out of proportion.

“Who doesn’t drink in Punjab?” Dhindsa asked.

“He’s not doing anything illegal. If he drinks, he buys from a theka (liquor shop) and drinks, what’s wrong with that?” Dhillon chimed in.

Well-read, Bhagat Singh fan

Mann may be a college dropout, but his friends say he is very well-read.

“In the old days, if Bhagwant wasn’t reading or telling jokes, he would be listening to the news on the radio,” Anmol said.

Other areas of interest were sports and certain periods of history.

“He was always fascinated by the heroes of Punjab. In school, he used to sing songs about Shaheed Bhagat Singh whenever there was a function,” Jodha Singh, who went to school with Mann, said.

This affinity continues to this day: Mann wears a yellow turban as a tribute to Bhagat Singh and even took oath in the freedom fighter’s ancestral village Khatkar Kalan rather than at the Raj Bhavan.

The Punjab mandate is believed to be a mandate for revolutionary change in the state’s politics, and Mann’s fans can only hope that he follows through.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: After AAP’s Punjab win, cow carcass case is CM-to-be Bhagwant Mann’s 1st law & order assignment


Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular