The Veteran Debutant

Arun Jaitley plays the Punjabi to perfection in his maiden parliamentary battle from Amritsar. Indrajit Hazra gets a ride in the BJP leader’s campaign Toyota
Homecoming
WELCOME MAT Arun Jaitley is greeted by party supporters on arriving to campaign in Amritsar on 18 March 2014 (Photo: RANA SIMRANJIT SINGH/EXPRESS ARCHIVES)

Arun Jaitley is fighting a tough contest and a bad throat. There’s a palpable look of worry on his face as the first-time candidate in the Lok Sabha polls fishes into his kurta pockets, comes out empty and asks his fellow passengers inside the white Toyota SUV for throat-relief lozenges.

As a minor panic ensues, with two of his people in the backseat trying to conjure the much-needed palliative from thin air, I check my pockets to see whether I can provide some succour to the man being considered the BJP’s second-most important poll candidate. I have no Vicks or Halls lozenges on me and even before Jaitley tells me that he’ll need something sugarless—he is diabetic and has high blood pressure—I put the Alpenliebe caramel toffee back in my pocket. The BJP’s star candidate from Amritsar, embroiled in a high-stakes battle with the Congress’ Amarinder ‘The Captain’ Singh, will just have to grin and bear it as he sets off on another day packed with campaign meetings and roadshows that will hopefully pay off on 30 April, Election Day.

Earlier, I had noticed a stone pillar bang in front of the entrance of Chadha House, the sprawled-out building on Dhuni Chand Road in central Amritsar that’s usually hired out for parties and weddings but which has since 18 March become the campaign headquarters of Team Jaitley. ‘Har samasya ka hal 100% guarantee sey (For every problem, a solution, 100 per cent guaranteed),’ the vertical scrawl on the pillar reads. In the car next to Jaitley, I wondered whether the services of Bijli Pahalwan, whose problems- solving advertisement I had read on the pillar an hour before, could have come handy for Jaitley.

In a starched white kurta, Jaitley looks under the weather. For the BJP’s top strategist and organisational man, fighting his first parliamentary election means straddling the two disparate but intersecting worlds of state and national politics. Even as a former Cabinet minister, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha must have had to shift a gear or two to get the hang of being the proverbial bride and not the bridesmaid for a change.

“I may have not contested in an election before,” he replies, looking sideways at me, “but I have not been alien to elections or to public meetings and rallies. But yes, this time it means addressing rallies, meeting people and reaching out myself. It’s enjoyable.” And a bit tiring for a 61-year old who has been attending, on average, some 10-12 programmes a day since he landed in Amritsar from his hometown Delhi on 18 March. Tiring at least for the throat.

Back in Chadha House, as Jaitley was still getting ready to hit the road, there was a pre-wedding sangeet (musical gathering) aura to the whole proceedings. People walking in and out, sitting on black cloth-covered sofas in the shamiana (tented) area in the back, cooling themselves with the gusts from pedestal fans, and women’s voices calling out for ‘Nita Mausi’ and ‘Naveen Uncle’.

I spot a heavily made-up woman in heels and what looks like bridalwear walking slowly with Jaitley’s 30-year-old lawyer daughter Sonali as two cameramen accompany them like speech bubbles. I am told she is Ruby Dhalla, the Sikh Canadian parliamentarian who has been hired by Times Now to host the show Politics Uncut. Even as Sonali is replying to Dhalla’s permanently smiling face, I hear a din with the word ‘bhrashtachar’ (corruption) rent the air. It’s a loud auto plastered with Aam Aadmi Party posters and a non-stop blaring message that phut-phuts outside Jaitley HQ. I am suddenly made aware that it is election season in Amritsar, with other parties swimming out there.

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On Sunday 13 April, the spread-out lawns and footpaths of Jallianwala Bagh are filled with people: families, couples, friends, schoolchildren. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that 95 years ago at 5.30 pm this same garden was littered with bodies and filled with cries of the dying, all gunned down by Indian soldiers after receiving orders from a representative of the British Raj.

I overhear a young man joking with his friend as both stand in front of the preserved wall with bullet marks framed in white paint: “If I paint white frames like these around the holes on our wall, our house can also become a museum.” There’s a children’s sit-and-draw contest taking place under a shamiana commemorating the 1919 Baisakhi Day massacre and former Punjab Health Minister Laxmi Kanta Chawla is giving a sound bite near the main memorial. Sonali Jaitley, spearheading a BJP youth campaign programme, had earlier come to distribute yellow roses.

Outside the brick wall facade of Jallianwala Bagh, in front of a Pizza Hut outlet, two strapping policemen with their semi-automatics dangling are cracking jokes with a youngster selling T-shirts from a makeshift table. I see the T-shirt seller crumple a Rs 100 note and push it into the palm of one of the policemen. The other cop has already moved on to the next roadside stall.

Farther up the road, away from the nearby Harmandir Sahib, youngsters in yellow T-shirts with Narendra Modi’s stencilled face printed on them are hanging out like college students making some pocket money. They yap with each other as they stand under the shade of big saffron-coloured umbrellas, the kind you see next to hotel swimming pools. Except these ones again bear Modi’s face and the slogans ‘Har har Modi; ghar ghar Modi’ (vanquish evil, Modi; in every home Modi) and ‘Namo Namo, PM bano’ (Namo Namo, become PM).

Despite this cornershow of faith in the BJP prime ministerial candidate, here in Amritsar, it’s an old-fashioned two-way electoral fight between two ‘state’ leaders; the ‘Modi factor’, so prevalent in other states, is hardly visible. After he returns to the car having addressed a group of young BJP workers campaigning in slum areas, Jaitley admits as much. “It is a choice between two candidates, between two personalities: the Captain and me. So in that sense, this is a more assembly- style election.”

“But,” he adds, “the Narendra Modi factor does also impact voters. There’s a discernible groundswell of support for me and the BJP. Also, 16 days away from voting day, as people realise that it’s reasonably certain that there will be an NDA government at the Centre, voters here would like someone with direct access to the Central Government in Delhi.”

I ask Jaitley whether he thinks he has hitched himself to a ruling ally—the seven- year-old Parkash Singh Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal—that finds itself facing serious anti-incumbency sentiments. After all, even with a nationwide anti-incumbency wave facing the Congress, many are seeing Amarinder Singh as ‘the change’ here in Amritsar.

The ‘national leader’ turns to me in his seat looking discernibly the ‘Punjab politician’ now. “Look, there are certain features of all alliances that one must acknowledge. A large part of this constituency is rural. The Akali Dal has strong support all across these parts and it has the ability to transfer these votes easily. There may be some segments in the urban areas who are dissatisfied with the current dispensation. In the overall analysis, though, even as far as Amritsar city is concerned, the Captain is not liked,” he says, seemingly more out of faith than belief.

Ever since the Congress nominated a reluctant Amarinder Singh, the Amritsar seat has crackled with the promise of a Goliath versus Goliath contest that’s been rare in these elections. The politics has also become, at times, singularly personal. If the Captain has accused Jaitley of being “an outsider”, the BJP leader has described the former Punjab Chief Minister as being “stand- offish”, “remote” and “unapproachable”, as well as being an anachronistic ex- royal participating in the rough and tumble of a democratic exercise.

But it’s somewhat evident that Jaitley has been affected by Amarinder’s barbs. He has accused the Congressman of cancelling campaign meetings and can’t resist telling me that “the Captain doesn’t think anyone’s fit to contest from Punjab unless one has had a few Patiala pegs.” He’s met Amarinder on a few social occasions and finds “his tu-tu, main-main (personal) attacks very surprising, considering the kind of legacy he has. I’d rather be talking about constructive issues, rather than engage in negative campaigning.”

Jaitley speaks—and writes in his election diary blog—quite passionately about the need to improve the roads and infrastructure of Amritsar, to open up trade with Pakistan, and turn Amritsar into a tourist destination a la Jaipur. As the car rolls down the highway, dusty streets and cratered side-roads running parallel, he points to a gorgeous, sprawling red stone structure on my side of the window. “Now look at that building. That’s Khalsa College and to my mind it’s one of the finest educational institutional buildings in the country.” I look at the dusty, cobbled up field in front of the palatial facade. “I have been suggesting that this field be beautified and there be a son et lumiere show started there.”

The car turns moments later and we find ourselves at the mouth of a knobbly lane in the hardscrabble main market of Mustafabad in north Amritsar. Jaitley is ferried on to an open jeep bedecked with rose petals. In fact, the whole area smells of roses even as the lanes are lined by crumbly houses and shops from whose fronts and rooftops I see women leaning out to catch a glimpse of the visitor in his starched white shirt.

The dholaks (drums) that are rolled out to welcome the dignitary drown out all other sounds as a visibly cramped Jaitley sits next to the standing figure of state BJP minister Anil Joshi, whom I recognise from posters. I see a young girl placing her hand against her heart to feel it thump to the drum beats. She smiles at me, a confirmation that elections are also a festival. Even in this festive atmosphere, with buntings strung with fluttering BJP lotuses, posters of ‘Captain Maharaj’ look down imperiously from the walls of some of the houses. By the time Jaitley reaches the dais in a space that suddenly opens up, even the woman pictured on the packets of Ching’s Secret ‘Hunger ki Bajao!’ instant soups hanging from the KS Dairy & Confectionary shop seems to be shouting “Arooon Jaitleee! Zindabad!” The cries of “Ab ki baar...” (This time around...) seem rather wan in comparison.

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“Why Amritsar?” I ask the man who has left his home in Delhi’s Kailash Colony to pitch his tent in the Punjab battlefield, early in our conversation. “I’m firmly connected to Amritsar, culturally and personally. I’ve also been politically looking after this place for some time now. So when the party wanted candidates for constituencies in the north, the state also thought that I would be a good candidate.” I find his reply dry and tell him so. The sitting Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat becomes slightly more animated and tells me how he has “100 per cent Majhhis ancestry”, referring to his family’s origins in the Majha region of Punjab, of which the district of Amritsar is a part.

“Even though my father belonged to Lahore, my mother was brought up in Amritsar. My nana (mother’s father) was a textile dealer and importer here. During Partition, in June 1947, my elder sister was born in Amritsar. We have a large family from my mother’s side and I remember as a boy coming here often.” He seems genuinely excited to present to me another strand of his Amritsar connection. “Although my wife is from Jammu and Kashmir, my father-in-law’s family is from Majitha Mandi right here in Amristar. So you see,” he looks at me triumphantly, “I belong here from all possible sides.”

The previous day, I had gone across to the pleasant, quiet neighbourhood of Green Avenue. The usual dusty buildings of downtown Amritsar suddenly give way to large white bungalows reflecting the bright spring sunshine. Two days before the havan ceremony, the spanking new house, number 343, with its pyramidal dark wood-coloured facade top, is almost ready for its new owners to move in. As I stood in front of the house, watching two men hose and wipe the front gates clean, I found the sticker posted on the entrance—with a picture of Jaitley with Anil Joshi, and small mugshots of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Narendra Modi and Parkash Singh Badal running along the top—spoiling the view. The two-storey house, with the plastic wraps on its ceiling fans yet to be taken off, is not suited to such poll-time vandalism.

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As a Punjabi who “eats the language and speaks the food”, Jaitley approves my choice of The Brothers’ Amritsari Dhaba near the Golden Temple. “Yes, Brothers’ is one of the better places to eat in Amritsar,” he tells me as I gorge on the thick, pillow-like Amritsari kulcha topped off with a glass of lassi.

But it’s at another of Amritsar’s famous eateries that I later hear Jaitley being praised. “The auto-wallas (autorickshaw drivers) are lazy and are always whining, so don’t believe them,” says Surjit Singh, the genial owner of Surjit Food Plaza (earlier, the Makhan Dhaba) on Lawrence Street next to Nehru Shopping Complex. He is replying to my query about why many people in Amritsar—at least each and every auto-driver I spoke to—insisted that ‘The Captain’ would win. Surjit is sure that what Amritsar needs is Arun Jaitley as its MP. That would give the city a much-needed direct connection with what he believes will be ‘the Modi government’. “Just look at the state of roads outside. Jaitleyji will bring in much development,” he says, adding with a broad grin that breaks out from under his Captain Haddock beard, “He comes here quite regularly.”

I leave the ‘World Famous’ institution carrying packets of fish Amritsari and mutton tikka dry. The picture of Jaitley’s face springing out of a BJP lotus cellophaned on the glass front of the restaurant is literally beaming. I can be pretty sure that Surjit Singh of truly and deliriously divine mutton tikka dry fame will be voting for Jaitley.

Earlier, back inside the campaign Toyota, I ask Jaitley, “Shouldn’t you have made your electoral debut earlier?”

He looks sideways at me, says nothing, and then, looking in front of him again as if speaking of his youth, says, “I can’t say I should have, but I can say I would have liked to have fought elections earlier. I was seriously close to standing for polls in 1977 when Atalji [Vajpayee] wanted me to be a candidate from East Delhi. But I was 24 years old and turned the offer down,” he says. He tells me that he was also, over a period, seriously involved in practising law. “And perhaps,” he says, emphasising the word as if he doesn’t really believe in it, “my ability to win polls was earlier less than my utility to organise polls. So my party decided on my political future. But I’m glad that I’m contesting at last.”

The proof of the pudding will be in the winning on 16 May. But no matter how Amritsar’s latest son fares, it’s impossible not to detect the boyish excitement in the voice of this veteran debutant, however sore-throated from making speeches it may be.