Shekhar Gupta: Writings on the Punjab wall

Writings on the Wall is a metaphor that emerged from travels across India, and the neighbourhood, particularly but not necessarily during election campaigns (Click here for some earlier writings). Writings on the Wall because as you zip across the cities and the fast rurbanising countryside, your eyes and ears wide open, it's what is written on the walls, or echoes off them, that tells you what is changing, and what isn't. The subcontinent bares its heart on its walls.

And it isn't the "walls" in a limited physical, literal sense. It could also be the factory skyline along Gujarat highways, an inscription under an old bust of Periyar in Kanchipuram or just the smile on the faces of people as they watch an election campaign unfold.

Illustration by Binay Sinha

Smiles, not as in usual amusement, but something different, an undefinable mix of awe, admiration and optimism. When you see that in an election campaign, you know you are looking at affirmative change. We saw it in V P Singh's challenge in 1989, Narendra Modi's campaign in 2014, Nitish Kumar's in Bihar and Mamata Banerjee's in Bengal. Again, we noted it with Arvind Kejriwal's Delhi campaign in 2015. Each one of these produced change. It's time to validate that "smile" test of voter mood once again, in Punjab now.


Apply that test to the faces of men, Hindu and Sikh, along the streets, and women and children with faces--and phone cameras--hanging out over the walls, parapets, balconies and windows in Ludhiana, the entrepreneurial hub and biggest, richest city of Punjab. Arvind Kejriwal is on that most popular recent feature in election campaigning: a road show, where the leader usually doesn't speak a word, but stands atop the lead vehicle, waving, and folding his hands randomly left and right, to nobody in particular and with a fixed "tum mujhe vote do" smile. You will always attract some crowds, any tamasha does in India. But when human walls on both sides light up in smiles of awe and optimism, you are looking at change.

There is no empirical formula, no pathology test to help you read thousands of faces. How you interpret the smiles, therefore, is purely subjective. Opinion pollsters will sneer at this, and I dare not dismiss their science and through anecdotal reading of Writings on the Wall. So you won't catch me saying who is winning on March 11, but I am quite sure we have seen the rise of a new pan-state, if not national, party in our politics, the first after V P Singh's Janata Dal in 1989. Further, unlike Janata Dal which grew out of existing and established forces of socialist-caste politics, Aam Aadmi Party is an original, built from scratch, sui generis.

Punjab's political status quo survived 70 years through the state's linguistic (but also communal, Sikh-Hindu) partition in 1966 and the terror decade of 1983-93. Akalis and Congress alternated in power, yielding, only to spells of president' rule. Other national parties, Akali breakaway factions never really made an impact. The Left retained its old pockets for long--Harkishan Singh Surjeet was from here--but ultimately faded away. Kanshi Ram, also a Punjabi, rose from here but couldn't build a political force here, although the state has the largest percentage of Dalit voters in the country, at 32.4 per cent. Bhindranwale's bands, and then their successors rose in the terror decade, but couldn't catch popular imagination.

Given all this, the rise of AAP, an unapologetic party of outsiders, is remarkable. More so as its leader is a non-Punjabi speaking Hindu, from a caste that isn't particularly sizeable or dominant and hailing from Haryana, with which Punjab has many emotive disputes, including river waters. It's a party that fully fails the identity test, and whose ideology nobody understands. But the remarkable thing is, the number of people who don't seem to give a damn. "So what if he isn't' a Punjabi, he isn't from Canada or London, woh bhi Bharat se hai, hum bhi Bharat se," says Sehwat Singh, who, like a dozen others playing cards  at a trijunction outside Jatru village not far from Bhatinda, has made up his mind.

There are about half as many Congress supporters in his huddle as AAP's and only two Akali loyalists. Discussion is passionate, polarised, contentious, yet good humoured. Unanimity emerges only on one point: that demonetisation has hurt each one badly. This becomes a clamour as you wade deeper into the fertile cotton/wheat bowl. In Maur Charat Singh, on the outskirts of Maur Mandi where a car explosion killed six at a Congress meeting earlier in the week, Mithu Singh, owner of two-and-a-half hectares, speaks in some bitterness of having sold his crop for Rs 1.10 lakh, but being able to withdraw only piecemeal, Rs 10,000 at a time which "disappears" as it comes in.

But travelling and talking from Amritsar, to Ludhiana, then southwards into Bhatinda and Patiala, cutting through the entire heartland of a relatively small and marvellously well-connected state, you hear the words AAP and jhadoo (its election symbol) more often than Congress and Akalis, Captain (Amarinder Singh) and Badal together. It's rare to hear a good word about the Akalis, and it is possible that Congress, being an old, established party, still has silent reservoirs of support that reporters can't see but pollsters can. I won't fully count on that. Just as I would contest the notion that AAP's appeal is confined to one, although large, region of Punjab.

One collateral result of little Punjab attracting such massive attention from us in the national media is that the state has been divided neatly into three. That there are three somewhat distinct regions in Punjab is a reality. The districts to the west of river Beas including Amritsar, form the smallest of these, called Majha. The richest zone between rivers Beas and Satluj, including Ludhiana and Jalandhar is Doaba, literally the land between two rivers. Everything east of Satluj and then deeper into drier south bordering Rajasthan and Haryana is Malwa, which has 69 seats in the assembly, more than in the other two, 48. Rivals and pollsters say the AAP appeal is confined to Malwa. Analysts explain the sociology, how Malwa has been traditionally rebellious, Leftist, anti-establishment, poorer, drier, distant. It is difficult to believe, however, that an impulse as strong as you see in one region will be stopped merely by geography, or a river.

Look around this so-called dry land of Malwa and all you will find is lush wheat, blooming, spring-yellow mustard, irrigation channels, houses that will be the envy of villages anywhere in the country, great roads, schools, colleges and no complaints about electricity. This Malwa is a far cry from its arid, hopeless past, and Badals must have something to do with it.

But all that doesn't matter so much in Punjab of 2017. Congress would usually be the default option, promising more of the same. AAP is changing the game. Prime Minister Modi loves to create acronyms. Here is my effort at one for AAP's simple, single-message electoral strategy: CRY (Change, Revenge and Youth). You want change, what's the point of dumping tired Akalis for boring Congress, try something new. You are angry with everybody, wait, till we lock up all of them so-and-sos. And surely, we don't have a track record yet, but we are young, check us out once.

It is a heady mix and Punjabis love adventure. Even if pollsters are right and Writings on the Wall is merely dazzling the naked eye, there is no doubt that AAP will rise as a major national force, whether in the first or second position in Punjab. It will have pan-national implications, beginning, later in the year, with Gujarat.

Twitter: @ShekharGupta

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