On an empty road on the outskirts of Punjab’s Sangrur constituency, a few dozen bikes are speeding away. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Bhagwant Mann, who is seeking re-election from the constituency, is perched on the footrest of one of them, his arms spread like that of Kate Winslet in Titanic.
A truck mounted with a “DJ”—music system with monstrous speakers—is playing Mann’s campaign song, others won Dilli (Delhi), but you won dil (hearts). As the beat picks up, Mann starts drumming the bald pate of his driver with an impish smile. And the caravan moves on, pind to pind (village), satth to satth (village gathering).
The image of Mann delicately perched on the pillion of a bike is an apt metaphor for the AAP. In all of India, other than a few pockets of Delhi, he is literally the last man standing for the AAP, a poignant reminder of a movement that started with a lot of hope but faded away in a very short time.
Five years ago, when elections for parliament were held, the AAP party had caught Punjab’s fancy with its street-fighting brand of politics captured by imaginative slogans like, ‘Chalegi jhadoo, uregi dhool, na rahega panja, na rahega phool. (Broom, its symbol, will wipe out the dirt, and with it the Congress and the BJP). Though the party was wiped out of every other state, including Delhi, it had won four seats in Punjab and emerged as a serious alternative to the Congress and the Akalis.
This promise was alive till the Assembly elections in March 2017, when the AAP was considered a frontrunner when the campaign started. Its campaign resonated across Punjab and the party appeared set for big gains, with some opinion polls even predicting a victory for AAP. But, it could win only 20 seats in the 90-member assembly.
Since then the party has imploded, getting reduced to a marginal player in the state’s politics. On the campaign trail, nobody talks about the AAP any more. Arvind Kejriwal, who, it was once speculated, was contemplating a career in Punjab’s politics and its possible chief minister, is rarely mentioned.
It was once said of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sultanate that it was reduced to a small strap between Delhi and Palam. Today, the AAP’s arc of influence is limited just to Delhi and Sangrur, an obscure district in Punjab’s Patiala division. But here too, the AAP is alive only because of Mann’s personal charisma.
In his constituency, he is a star whose mere appearance is enough to create a delightful pandemonium. Mann blitzes through Sangrur’s villages riding pillion or driving a tractor, accompanied by the bass and boom of Punjabi music. As his cavalcade enters a village, young men run alongside his bike, women clamber up the roofs of their houses and men gather under a tree or in the middle of a square. Mobile cameras come out and there is a frenzy for selfies with the MP, who is also a comedian. When everyone settles down, Mann climbs up the roof of a car, holds a mike and the show begins with the trademark chant of ‘Inquilab Zindabad.’
Mann’s speeches are a mix of jokes, crackling barbs at his rivals—mainly the Badal family that leads the Akali Dal—and some real heavyduty stuff on unemployment, drug abuse and falling income of farmers. Like a trained thespian, he makes people laugh, introspect and sometimes even cry.
He predicts, Na Modi di ban rahi hai na Congress di, teesra morcha ban raha hai (the third front is forming the next government, not Modi or Congress). Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu chaali-chaali seat le ke aa rahe hain (Mamata and Naidu are winning 40-40 seats).”
Then he changes his voice dramatically: “Una de saath apni yaari hai (they are my friends). Let them form the government once and like in Anil Kapoor’s film Nayak, we will sort out all the problems you’ve faced in 70 years.”
Mann was once the butt of jokes for what many considered his inability to hold a drink. During the 2017 campaign, he would stumble into meeting venues, and then stare into nothing with his wide, button-like eyes. His alleged “drink problem” earned him the uncharitable sobriquet of Pegwant Mann. But, this year, Mann appears to be completely in control, not just of the narrative but also his motor functions, after having vowed to never touch alcohol.
The problem, however, is that AAP is no longer in control of the four Ds that influence voters—drugs, deras (seats of powerful leaders of religious sects), doles and what is locally referred to as dhakka (use of muscle power and clout) politics. Till 2017, the AAP’s crusade against chitta, a shiny synthetic drug consumed across the state, was its political identity. Because of its rising influence, some deras were also eager to support its candidates. The drug campaign has since lost its shine and the deras too have lost interest in the party. As a result, its supporters have been devoured by the Congress and the Akalis. And most of its legislators have either changed loyalties or are waiting for an opportune time before the next elections. The AAP, except for the last man standing in Sangrur, is dead.
Aware of the importance in its last bastion, the entire AAP leadership is scheduled to land in Sangrur once votes are cast in Delhi. Till then, Mann is carrying on gamely, singing, dancing, cracking jokes, riding into the sunset on a pillion and winning “dil” even if Delhi seems far, far away.