Barapind Sardaran (Gurdaspur): Sunny Deol is merely 20 days into his political career in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency along Punjab’s border with Pakistan, but he is learning the ropes fast.
The 62-year-old Bollywood actor and BJP candidate shouts his famous dialogue from Gadar: Ek Prem Katha — “Hindustan zindabad hai, zindabad rahega” — and the gathered crowds cheer. But is BJP’s national security-centred campaign working, especially in a region where residents will be most affected if a war breaks out with Pakistan?
For all his Bollywood bluster, in the early days of his campaign in Gurdaspur, Deol looked as if he did not know about the Balakot air strikes. But now, he has smart comebacks ready for difficult questions.
“We need peace. We don’t need terrorism. I hate it when innocents are killed, any country, any religion,” he tells ThePrint under the hot sun of Gurdaspur, dressed casually in jeans, a pink shirt and sunglasses.
“But if anyone challenges you, you have to give it back. Yes, peace should be the goal, and politicians need to sit on that and find a solution.”
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Pakistan not an issue in border villages
Wherever he goes, people ask Deol to deliver his patriotic movie dialogues. But to voters like Vishal Kumar, who runs Sudha Bakery in Dorangla village three kilometres from the border, that’s all they are — dialogues.
“People are coming to hear his dialogues, but the Balakot air strikes are not an issue at all here in these elections. Our farmers meet Pakistani farmers when they go to cut the wild grass for fodder on no man’s land. They are just like us. But the armies on both sides drill into us that we are enemies,” he says.
Vishal is not the only one who thinks this way. “Politicians can talk about Pulwama and Balakot. It’s election time and the battle is of words; everything is being said. The sharper the battle, the taller the claims,” says Joginder Singh, a shop owner in Kalanaur, seven kilometres from the India-Pakistan border.
Ramandeep Singh of Dhariwal says it’s high time politicians stopped “stunt-baazi” about national security. “Why don’t they talk about setting up industries in border areas or giving youth jobs?” he asks.
Arjun Singh, a resident of Dera Baba Nanak, says instead of talking about war with Pakistan, leaders should promise them peace.
“Parties should work towards increasing trade with Pakistan so that the economy of border areas picks up. That is what we want. Not war-mongering. Our areas are backward. Government schools and hospitals are non-functional. We need the economy to pick up.”
Deol, too, says he is beginning to understand the issues on people’s minds.
“The drug problem, for instance. I hear a lot about that wherever I go, and I really want to get to the root of the problem and see what I can do. I think there is a dearth of opportunities for the youth, and that could be one of the reasons. I intend to work,” the actor says.
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Neta versus abhineta
Gurdaspur sent Vinod Khanna, a peer of Deol’s father Dharmendra, to Parliament on a BJP ticket four times before his death in 2017. In his first election, in 1998, Khanna had defeated five-time Lok Sabha MP Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, who was considered invincible.
In his own campaign, Deol invokes Khanna as someone to emulate.
“I know my intentions are good and I want to do something. Vinodji was MP from here four times. Wherever I go, people remember him and say I should be like him. He is called the king of bridges here,” Deol says.
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra took on Deol at a roadshow in Pathankot, asking the people if they wanted a neta (leader) or an abhineta (actor). He responds by saying: “If netas did their work, there would be no need for abhinetas to come in.”
Deol’s father Dharmendra has also spent the last few days campaigning for him. Surrounded by young and old fans, some of whom have even come from the family’s ancestral village Sahnewal in Ludhiana, Dharmendra says: “The love of the people for Sunny has moved me. I am amazed how the people of Gurdaspur are showering love on him.”
However, this love will not work without performance, says Gurdaspur resident Gurjeet Singh. “The star magic works only the first time. After that, you have to perform to stay in the hearts of people. Vinod Khanna, for example, got so many bridges constructed in this area,” he points out.
The new and improved version of Sunny Deol the politician seems to be aiming to do exactly that.
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