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Chandigarh: Dhuri, a sleepy town in Punjab’s Sangrur district, has become the star of the upcoming assembly polls in the state after the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann entered the fray from there.
In the previous polls, the seats of Patiala and Lambi – from where former chief ministers Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal had contested respectively – were the usual hot seats. However, with Mann’s entry, the hitherto politically alienated Dhuri (no MLA from this constituency has ever been made a minister in any government) has stepped into the limelight.
Mann officially kicked off his party’s campaign trail from his new constituency on Sunday, January 23, where he was welcomed by a huge crowd of people who put garlands across his neck as his cavalcade passed through several parts of Dhuri.
“It is not my election, it’s yours,” Mann said to the crowd swelling around his vehicle. Then, standing on the bonnet of his car, he told the crowd: “Politicians in Punjab made castles, bought expensive cars, earned crores in the sand and liquor mafias. The time has come to pack them home.”
Mann, who was a satirist before he entered politics, cheered his crowd on, saying, “Hakoomat vo karata hai jinke dilon pe raaj hota hai. Kahne ko to murge ke sar pe bhi taaj hota hai (The real ruler is the one who wins the hearts of the people. Otherwise, even a chicken can have crown on its head.)
Dhuri is among the nine assembly segments within the Sangrur parliamentary constituency which Mann has been representing as Member of Parliament (MP) since 2014.
In the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, Mann had secured leads of 34,000 and 24,000 votes respectively from the Dhuri segment; a fact which, no doubt weighed heavily on the AAP’s decision to field him from there since they considered it a ‘safe’ seat for him. Moreover, Mann has local connections here. Dhuri is not far from Satoj village, where Mann was born.
In the 2017 assembly polls in the state, Mann had contested unsuccessfully from Jalalabad in the Fazilka district against Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) heavyweight Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Mann’s candidature from Dhuri, meanwhile, has upset local party leader Ashok Kumar Lakha, who was expecting a ticket from here. However, Mann even went to Lakha’s home to pacify him.
AAP lost Dhuri to Congress in 2017
In the last assembly polls, AAP candidate Jasvir Singh Jassi Sekhon lost the Dhuri seat to Congress first-timer, student leader Dalvir Singh Goldy, by the narrow margin of 2,800 votes (2%).
AAP’s Sangrur district president Gurmail Singh told The Wire that with the kind of overwhelming response Mann got on his first visit, there is no doubt that the party would win the Dhuri seat by a heavy margin of 50,000 votes, or even higher.
All party leaders in region, be it 2017 candidate Sekhon or local party leader Lakha, are working passionately behind Mann. “Not only this, Mann’s candidature from Dhuri will boost the party’s chances in the entire Malwa region,” said Gurmail.
Malwa is Punjab’s biggest region in the polls, accounting for 69 (58%) of the total 117 assembly segments.
In its debut election in 2017, AAP had managed to break into the SAD’s traditional rural vote bank in Malwa, winning 18 seats. However, from Punjab’s Doaba (which has 25 seats) and Majha (which has 23) regions, the party managed to win only two seats.
Reacting to AAP’s prediction of an unprecedented victory to come, Goldy, the present Congress MLA from Dhuri told The Wire, “Only the result will tell who wins with 50,000 votes or more.” He further said that he is confident of a win again because of his work in the constituency over the last five years.
However, in his speech on Sunday, Mann alleged that Goldy had a share in the toll plazas. Even the interlock tiles which Goldy claimed to have laid down in cities and villages came from his own factory, which he set up after becoming an MLA, Mann further alleged.
“Look at me. I had the same vehicle when I came to Dhuri for canvassing in 2014, 2017 and then 2019 while he (Goldy) made hay in sunshine,” Mann claimed.
Goldy, on the other hand, dismissed Mann’s allegations in an interview for Punjabi portal Pro Punjab TV and even alleged that Mann had ignored Dhuri despite representing the constituency twice as MP. He even challenged Mann to a debate.
On Saturday, Goldy’s wife Simrat Kaur Khangura was met with protests from farmers in the Balian village in the Dhuri constituency while she was out campaigning for her husband. The villagers, holding BKU Dakaunda flags, stopped Khangura, saying that SAD and Congress candidates would not be allowed to enter their village.
Subsequently, Khangura, in a Facebook Live video, alleged that the men holding the farmers’ union flags were actually AAP supporters.
Residents say key issues remain unsolved
As this high voltage fight takes place, the people of Dhuri say they are disappointed that several key issues have lingered for years and that no one has addressed them.
Dr Ranjeet Singh Bhullar, a local medical professional, told The Wire that Dhuri has been the major railway junction for a long time. Due to this, a major railway crossing goes within the city and for the last 20 years, residents have been demanding a railway underbridge, since there are often long traffic jams at the crossing. However, no one was addressed this problem, he said.
Bhullar further said there is no proper bus stand in the city and that people are forced to board buses from a small stoppage point.
Bhullar also said that medical facilities in Dhuri are poor. “The local civil hospital lacks doctors. The diagnostic facilities are also poor. Dhuri residents travel 17 km to Sangrur for a CT-scan or ultrasound. There is also no specialist to handle accident or head injury cases. The patients are taken to Ludhiana, over 60 km from here,” said Bhullar.
Gurpreet Singh Batth, who runs local NGO Parivartan, told The Wire that Dhuri is in need of a library for students preparing for competitive exams. Presently, they either shift their base to Patiala or Chandigarh while preparing.
“Another major problem in Dhuri is waterlogging. The local MLA claimed to lay new sewage lines, but the problem remains unsolved,” he said.
The Wire talked to a few more locals, including a teacher who feels that Dhuri, unlike Sangrur, has remained politically irrelevant because it has never had a minister in any government. With Mann, AAP’s CM face, contesting from here, they hope the town would be given some prominence, should he emerge victorious.
“It was therefore not surprising when people came out of their shops and homes to see Mann when he came here to campaign on Sunday,” said a government teacher, not wishing to be named. He said that no politician earlier had touched upon the issue of Punjab’s youth settling abroad or plunging into drugs. “People have high hopes from Mann to address the perennial issues of Punjab as well as this city,” he said.
AAP leaders are looking for a rented accommodation for Mann in Dhuri. Gurmail told The Wire that earlier, Mann had a base in Sangrur but he will shift to Dhuri soon.
Meanwhile, vote turnout in Dhuri has been impressive. In the 2017 assembly polls, 81% of the total electorate came out to vote. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls too, vote polling was impressive at 76%.
With Mann in the race, the vote percentage may go even higher.
In Dhuri, the main fight is said to be between AAP and the Congress, even as the SAD has given a ticket to former Sangrur MLA Parkash Chand Garg.
The constituency is a mixture of both urban and rural segments, housing 80 villages besides a large city area.