Chandigarh: In the past month, much of the political discourse between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress in Punjab has been reduced to a personal slugfest between Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and his Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal.
Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Punjab in 2022, and both leaders are eager to prove themselves the real “aam aadmi“, in a bid to tap into the common man votebank. The rivalry between Channi and Kejriwal also extends to benefits that both are promising the public.
From Channi calling Kejriwal and the AAP “kaale angrez” or “dark Britons” Wednesday (an implication that they were looting the state like the colonial rulers), to Kejriwal tagging the Punjab CM “fake Kejriwal” last month, personal attacks are also growing more bitter.
Political analysts describe the almost-daily war of words between the two leaders as “theatrical”, adding that competitive populism won’t do any one in the state any good. However, they point out that the “aam aadmi” discourse is a vital sign of change in Punjab politics.
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Reacting to Channi’s “kaale angrez” barb, Kejriwal retorted Thursday that he was “indeed dark” because he was “used to moving about in the sun”, unlike Channi (he has been using a helicopter for his travels within the state since he took over as CM).
Speaking to the media at the Amritsar airport, Kejriwal said, “This man, who is dark and wears dirty clothes, is clean in his intentions and will deliver the promises he is making.”
The reference to his clothes was a response to an earlier remark by Channi, when the Punjab CM said Kejriwal had a salary of lakhs, but did not spend even Rs 5,000 on clothes.
“That is because he has to do a drama that his shirt is loose and his shoes are torn. It’s only show and to fool the public. First, he said that MLAs should not take salaries. Now Delhi MLAs and CM have the highest salaries. Why are they lying?” Channi claimed in an interview aired on 4 October.
While the war of words between the two seems to date back to Channi’s remark on Kejriwal’s clothes, the Delhi CM was quick to pick up the gauntlet. He is believed to have started targeting Channi after the latter started announcing benefits with the same votebank in mind that Kejriwal had been focusing on.
“Kejriwal’s target group was the low middle class urban voter and Channi took the steam out of his campaign,” pointed out a Congress leader in Punjab, who did not wish to be named.
In June this year, Kejriwal had announced that Punjab will get uninterrupted power supply 24X7 and 300 free units per month if the AAP won the state assembly elections. On 29 September, Channi announced reduction of power rates by Rs 3 per unit. The Punjab CM followed this with announcements like reduction in petrol and diesel prices in the state, slashed water and sewerage charges, waiver of arrears on power and water bills, and five-marla plots for the poor.
This prompted Kejriwal to brand Channi a “fake Kejriwal”.
“There is a fake Kejriwal roaming around in Punjab. Whatever I announce, he copies it and says he has done it. But in reality, he doesn’t do it because he is fake. He only announces it,” said Kejriwal, addressing a gathering in Moga on 22 November. “Today I am going to meet autorickshaw wallahs in Ludhiana. The moment he came to know that I am going to meet them he reached their office early morning… it is important to steer clear of this fake Kejriwal,” he added.
Channi hit back by challenging the Delhi CM to be the “aam aadmi” he claims to be and compete with him in weaving a manja (a rope bed commonly used in rural bed), an activity that is part of village life in Punjab, and one that Channi claims to be adept at. “These people (Kejriwal and his team) don’t know anything. They are fooling the people,” he said in an interview on 18 November.
In another interview last week, Channi challenged Kejriwal to put up a tent if he really knew how the working class made ends meet. “Kejriwal will not even know what we are talking about. Has he ever painted chairs, put up tents, cleaned carpets? I have, because I worked with my hands in my father’s tent shop,” said Channi.
In yet another interview this month Channi challenged Kejriwal to milk a cow. “Does he have any idea of the life of people in Punjab?” questioned the Punjab CM.
Kejriwal retorted to Channi’s challenges by saying, “I might not know how to play gilli danda and marbles (like Channi), or milk a cow, but I know how to build schools and I know (how) to build the future of our children.”
Professor Jatinder Singh, a member of the political science department at the Patiala-based Punjabi University, feels, however, that “the definition of aam aadmi as Kejriwal understands it in Delhi is different in Punjab”. “And that is where this battle stems from,” he said.
He added: “The aam aadmi in Delhi wears a pant shirt and a muffler in an urban setting. Here, since the setting is predominantly rural, the aam aadmi is one who can milk cows, weave beds.”
Battle beyond barbs
The tug-of-war over the “real aam aadmi” image is not restricted to a battle of words. Channi is making sure that his self-professed “down-to-earth habits” are suitably showcased.
There are media reports of the Punjab CM stopping his cavalcade to greet newly weds, of him going to people’s houses in villages and sitting on the floor to eat with them, and of him helping rescue a cow that had fallen in a ditch.
While meeting autorickshaw drivers in the run-up to the elections, Channi sat on a bench outside the office of the autorickshaw drivers’ union and drank tea with them.
Kejriwal, too, made it a point to travel to Punjab by train on 28 October for one of his meetings in the state.
During his meeting with autorickshaw drivers, Kejriwal was invited by one of them to eat at his house. The Delhi CM not only accepted the invitation, but travelled to his house in his auto and sat on the floor to eat.
“It’s theatrical no doubt. But we need to see that politicians are being forced to act like the common man because it resonates with their voters,” said Professor Singh.
He added: “This was not the case earlier. The use of words like the ‘aam aadmi‘, ‘fakir‘ are being used because they convey a message which otherwise in a democracy should have been [a] given. But the fact that politicians are compelled to associate themselves with them is significant.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)