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Ground Report: In Punjab’s Famous Dhabas, a ‘Khichdi’ Has People Worried

Ground Report: In Punjab’s Famous Dhabas, a ‘Khichdi’ Has People Worried

Customers and dhaba employees alike refer to the unique multi-cornered contest in the assembly polls this time as a ‘khichdi’. And many are aware that it could complicate things.

Famous roadside dhabas in Punjab, which serve delicious food as well as embody its culture, have hosted heated political discussions as the state votes in a crucial assembly election on February 20.

Sandeep Singh, a cashier at Virsa dhaba at Ropar-Anandpur Sahib highway tells The Wire that if there is one question he is repeatedly asked these days by his customers, it is whether Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is forming the government in Punjab or not.

“I smile and politely ask them to wait for March 10 (counting day),” he says, preparing the bill for a Haryanvi family from Sonepat.

One of them, Satpal Malik, wonders how a party confined to the national capital is being talked about in Punjab.

Jasbir Singh whom The Wire met along with his relative Sukhwinder Singh at Zimindara Haveli near Ropar has an interesting answer to this. “Many people I know are not discussing AAP because they like the party. They are actually incensed with Akalis and Congress who ruled Punjab alternatively for over 50 years (since its reorganisation in 1966) but grossly fell short of public expectations when it came to performance,” says Jasbir.

He says BJP, which is fighting this time as a separate front, also falls under the same category, as the party had fought in alliance with the Akalis several times in the past.

“Let’s assume three people are standing in a row. You don’t like two of them. It is natural that you automatically fall for the third one,” he adds.

Jasbir Singh (left) and Sukhjinder Singh. Photo: Vivek Gupta.

Nodding, his companion Sukhwinder Singh says building drains or roads is not a sign of development, something which traditional parties often need reminding of in Punjab.

He adds that good education and affordable medical facilities are two things ordinary people want. It is for everyone to see how people gave away their life savings to private hospitals after COVID-19 struck since the system in government hospitals collapsed.

“Why are these two facilities not free for all of us? Why can’t government hospitals have adequate staff and facilities? Everything else promised by political parties is mere drama and is not what people actually want,” he feels.

Interestingly at an earlier stop, Mandeep Singh, owner of Paras Dhaba, spotted in a blue turban, a colour associated with the Akalis, confessed that he had been an Akali voter for long. But not this time. It is a dhaba employee who has, in fact, made him have a change of heart.

He calls the elderly Ramesh, who is registered to vote in Delhi and not Punjab, and says, “Look at him, there is no delay in his monthly pension. He recently had his eye cataract operation free of cost in Delhi. Here my father never gets his old age pension on time. Good medical treatment in a government hospital is next to impossible.”

Ramesh at Paras Dhaba. Photo: Vivek Gupta.

Ramesh, who lives near the Badarpur border in Delhi, tells The Wire that he has just one complaint when it comes to the AAP government in Delhi. “I am getting a monthly pension of Rs 2,000, but my elder sisters gets Rs 2,500. I will take this it up when I visit Delhi next time,” he says.

Kanwaljeet Singh, who retired from the merchant navy, has been building a car tyre showroom near Mandeep’s dhaba. “I have no fear to say that people want change this time,” he says.

Kanwaljeet Singh. Photo: Vivek Gupta.

He says he voted for the Congress last time, but corruption remained its hallmark, and unemployment shot up. “There is another party fighting the election in Punjab which fooled the whole country with the Gujarat model earlier. Now the time has come for people to test the Delhi model,” he says referring to AAP.

‘Political khichdi

Not everyone favours AAP. Enjoying a sumptuous aloo paratha at RJ Dhaba a little way from Paras, two youngsters from Patiala – Harpal Singh and Karan Singh – tell The Wire that they are diehard fans of Akali Dal and will remain so.

“We can’t stop people from talking about AAP, but it is for everyone to see how Akali Dal was the catalyst in building highways in Punjab,” says Harpal.

“The experience in governance matters and people in Punjab are aware of it,” adds Karan.

Sitting on the lawn of Virasat Dhaba, newly wedds Baljinder Singh and Amanjot are also staunch Akali supporters, but say the situation is perplexing. There is “khichdi (mixture)” this time they say, referring to the multi-cornered contest in Punjab.

“But, I want people to vote decisively for a party. The mandate should be clear. Hung assembly will be a disaster for Punjab and push the state to another five years of uncertainty,” says Baljinder.

Some dhabas in Punjab are almost swanky and yet manage to maintain the air of rustic Punjabi flavour.

In one such place, Heritage Haveli on the Kharar-Ropar road, Bikram Singh tells The Wire that he is not very influenced by the party-level narrative. The election in Punjab this time is a clash of personalities where the whole focus has been on chief minister faces rather than key issues, he feels.

Bikram Singh (left). Photo: Vivek Gupta.

He cites the example of the candidate of the Sanyukt Samaj Manch – headed by farmers – Paramdeep Singh Baidwan from Kharar, a constituency in Mohali district. For one year, he fed protestors at the Singhu border. He is honest and capable, yet he is not in the reckoning, says Bikaram Singh.

But a cleaner at the Haveli, Paramdeep Singh, is greatly influenced by Congress chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi. “Electricity bills have come down ever since Channi notified cheaper electricity for poor families,” he adds.

The Wire also met a group of Congress workers canvassing for the party at a Dalit mohalla in Bunga Sahib village in Anandpur Sahib.

Yet one of them, Ravinder, said, “The leader (Captain Amarinder Singh) who did wrong to the people of Punjab has already been thrown out of the party”.

“Our Channi is a doer and he has already proved his mettle in just 111 days. Punjab wants to see him as the full-time CM now,” says Ravinder.

At Heritage Dhaba, Pandit Rajesh Joshi has an astrology counter. Can he predict the outcome of the Punjab election?

Pandit Rajesh Joshi. Photo: Vivek Gupta.

He smiles and says, “Astrology does not work in politics.” Although a BJP supporter, he does not see much working for the BJP this time around.

“I can’t say who will form the government in Punjab, but the public mood is different this time,” he adds.


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