Farm anger, temple cheer: Can Preneet Kaur hold Patiala fort for the BJP?

As Captain Amarinder’s wife and a member of the royal family, she holds sway despite rumours of ‘discontent’ within BJP.

WrittenBy:Basant Kumar
Preneet Kaur, the BJP candidate in Patiala.

“The workers have no problem with whatever candidate is fielded by the BJP,” said Virendra Kumar Gupta. “But if the workers are being ignored, then that’s an issue.”

Gupta, general secretary of the BJP’s Patiala unit in Punjab, was voicing a complaint repeated by several BJP workers in the district. It’s one of the many crosses the BJP must bear this year as it forges its electoral path through Patiala.

Punjab, which votes on June 1, will witness a quadrangular contest between the BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal, Aam Aadmi Party and Congress. The BJP and SAD are erstwhile allies who parted ways in 2020. The AAP and Congress are national allies in the INDIA bloc, but in contest in Punjab, where the AAP is currently in power.

Among the BJP’s big names is Captain Amarinder Singh, a former Congress loyalist and chief minister and a member of the royal family of Patiala. He joined the BJP in 2022. His wife Preneet Kaur, who was MP from Patiala from 1999 to 2014 on a Congress ticket, joined the BJP in March this year. She had been suspended by the Congress last year for “anti-party activities”.

The BJP has now fielded Kaur from Patiala where she will take on Congress’s Dharamvir Gandhi. A turncoat himself, Dharamvir had defeated Kaur from Patiala in 2014 on an AAP ticket but quit the party in 2016. He joined the Congress last month.

Also in the fray in Patiala is Dr Balbir Singh, representing the AAP, and Narinder Kumar Sharma, the treasurer of the SAD.

From Newslaundry’s conversations in Patiala, it’s clear the BJP has its work cut out for it. The party has never won an election here. The Congress won 11 times in Lok Sabha polls from 1952 to 2019, the SAD three times, and the AAP and an independent once each. The party is now banking on Kaur to fill the gap left by its cutting of ties with the SAD.

Party workers are slightly nonplussed. As some of them told Newslaundry, for decades, they’ve campaigned against Amarinder Singh and his wife, the royals of Patiala. Now, their job is to support them.

“The orders from the party’s high command are the final orders for all BJP workers,” said a party worker in the district, who did not want to be named. “We will have to work for whoever is chosen. We are trained like this only.”

There’s also some dejection. When Kaur left the Congress for the BJP, she apparently brought a host of ‘new’ party workers with her. Others who have been part of the BJP for decades alleged they’re now being sidelined.

Yet there’s also some dejection. When Kaur left the Congress for the BJP, she apparently brought a host of ‘new’ party workers with her. Others who have been part of the BJP for decades alleged they’re now being sidelined.

Newslaundry visited Patiala and spoke to workers of the BJP, old and new, to gauge Kaur’s chances. We also asked the Congress about the impact of Singh and Kaur leaving. Here’s what we found. 

Seeds of discontent

In Patiala city, the BJP office in Fountain Chowk was bustling. The outer walls bore large photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP national president JP Nadda, state president Sunil Kumar Jakhar, and Lok Sabha candidate Kaur. It’s worth noting that Jakhar joined the BJP in 2022 after spending three decades in the Congress.

When Newslaundry visited the office last week, local leaders were conferring about the prime minister’s rally in Patiala, which had taken place on May 23. Anil Shri, one of the leaders, said farmers “wanted to repeat Ferozepur but through the efforts of our workers, it could not happen”.

Shri was referring to Modi’s visit to Ferozepur in 2022 when a “security lapse” left his convoy stranded on a flyover for 20 minutes. This year, farmers who had been protesting on Shambhu border wanted to raise their demand for a minimum support price at the Patiala rally. However, over 5,000 security personnel blocked their way. But, according to Shri, it was all thanks to his workers. 

Newslaundry met Patiala district general secretary Gupta at the office too. His family had migrated to Patiala from Gorakhpur many years ago, before Gupta was born, and he’s been with the BJP “from the start”.

Virendra Gupta of the BJP in Patiala.
Preneet Kaur campaigning.

Gupta was also surprisingly frank about “discontent” among party workers over Preneet Kaur who, he said, joined the BJP with a host of new party workers.

“Discontent is 100 percent there. We do not have a problem with the coming of Maharaniji, but old workers are not being consulted. That is the problem,” Gupta said. “For example, the prime minister came recently. I am the district general secretary but I was not given any responsibility. The people who came with [Kaur] were given all the work, whether it’s welcoming the PM, bidding him farewell, or making preparations. We were not asked for anything. The question came up then – will the old workers not be trusted?”

He added, “Old BJP workers in Patiala have become silent spectators. Without [Kaur’s] people, not even a stone is turned. They do not trust the old workers. We work because we do not see anything other than the lotus flower. We do not have any qualms about Maharaniji but it’s the people with her who are spoiling the atmosphere.”

But Hardev Singh Balli disagreed. Balli is a district general secretary of the BJP and defected from the Congress alongside Amarinder Singh, to whom he’s said to be close.

“It is not true,” he said when asked about the alleged neglect of workers. “If someone wants to work in the BJP, be it old or new, and if they work with dedication, then the family keeps them close...The person who wants to work should come forward. Those who do not want to work will nitpick. What can be done in that case? Everyone is respected here. The condition is they should work.”

The Congress ‘better off’?

How has the Congress dealt with the loss of Kaur and Captain Amarinder? Party leaders in Patiala confirmed that “five to seven” people left for the BJP with Singh – but they claimed it’s a good thing in the long run.

“I also received an offer to join the BJP but I am a thorough Congressman. When children are born in our homes, they do not cry but shout slogans of ‘Congress zindabad’,” said Pradeep Diwan, who heads the Congress election office. “Five to seven people left with Amarinder Singh, including district president KK Malhotra, mayor Sanjeev Sharma and a few others.”

On Amarinder himself leaving, Diwan said, “With the departure of Raja saheb, the Congress has actually grown stronger as he never used to leave his palace.”

It should be noted that Amarinder Singh hasn’t been seen out and about much in Patiala to campaign. He didn’t show up for Kaur’s nomination or to attend Modi’s rally, though he features prominently on posters across the city. Balli blamed it on Singh’s poor health.

“His health is not good. He underwent a checkup recently,” he said. “He has difficulty walking. He wanted to participate in PM Modi’s rally but he would have faced difficulty in climbing up and down the stage so he didn’t come. Health is the only reason.” 

Hardev Singh Balli who left the Congress for the BJP with Amarinder Singh.
Pradeep Diwan (centre) who is in charge of the Congress election office.

Newslaundry asked Diwan about rumours that three Congress leaders and former MLAs – Madan Lal Jalalpur, Hardayal Singh and Rajinder Singh – are in touch with the BJP.  Diwan denied these allegations and said only Hardayal Singh isn’t participating in campaigning as he’s “upset” about not getting a candidate ticket.

Ranjit Singh Vid, who has served at the Congress Seva Dal for 48 years, also told Newslaundry the party is better off without Captain Amarinder. 

“The Congress has a hold of the ground here,” he said firmly. “Amarinder Singh was sometimes in the Congress, sometimes in Akali Dal. He returned to the Congress again and then went to the BJP. He keeps switching parties. He cared more about power and not about Congress cadre, who have always been strong in Patiala. Even after he left, there’s not been much effect on the party.”

He added, “The Maharani is actually suffering from leaving the Congress as the vote here belongs to the Congress.”

Not everyone sounds this sanguine. A local journalist, who did not want to be named, said the people of Patiala “hold the royal palace in high regard, especially in Patiala city”. “So to say there will be no effect on the Congress from the Maharani leaving would be a little strange.”

Ram temple vs rising prices 

According to the 2011 census, Patiala district has a total population of nearly 19 lakh of which 55.91 percent is Sikh and 41.32 percent Hindu. From our conversations with locals, we learned that the BJP is expected to win a number of Hindu votes. While the SAD has also fielded Hindu candidates, the Hindu votes are surmised to be divided between the SAD, BJP and Congress.

Ritesh Sharma works in a bank next to the Congress office. He said he’s happy with free electricity and hospitals under the AAP government, but those are trumped by the Ram temple’s construction.

“Modi had the Ram Mandir built. That is the most important thing,” he said. “When there is a conversation about elections at my home, my wife speaks in favour of the Ram Mandir. That is important and Modi accomplished it.”

But Deenanath, who runs a paan and cigarette shop in Patiala, said he’s frustrated with rising prices. 

“Modiji has ballooned prices. Food has become expensive. Wheat is produced in Punjab but the people here have to buy costly flour,” he said. The government says they gave this and that for free. I say you gave nothing for free if you don’t make rations cheaper at least. Even gas is not cheap. The children do not have jobs either.”

Deenanath spoke fondly of Congress candidate Dharamvir Gandhi, who is also a cardiologist and “people’s doctor”.

“Dharamvir Gandhi is a good man. Recently when I took my wife for treatment, he gave 20 days’ medicine for free,” he said. “But we will vote for BJP only because we are the Maharani’s voters. Whenever there is flooding in the river here, the royal family offers nath chuda [nose rings and bangles] and the river calms down. Once the royal family was in America and the river was not offered nath chuda and there was a flood.”

Dharamvir Gandhi campaigning in Patiala.

A security guard nearby, who was listening to this conversation, then chipped in.

“Eighty to ninety percent of Hindu voters here are with BJP,” he claimed. “No one says anything because they are afraid. Amritpal” – referring to jailed separatist Amritpal Singh – “used to speak such rubbish here. BJP removed Article 370. The country is running on one constitution. Foreign leaders take advice from Modi over the phone. The world is reliant on India. He has increased the honour of Hindus with the Ram Mandir.”

‘No BJP’ in villages

Away in the villages of Patiala district, though, BJP leaders complained that they’re finding it difficult to ask for votes. Newslaundry learned that farmers in the villages wave black flags and bar BJP leaders from entering.

BJP’s Balli optimistically said this resistance “has decreased” now.

“We tell villagers they have the right to vote for whoever they want. Resisting and showing black flags is not good,” he said. “If they don’t want to vote for us, then they may not. Don’t say you won’t let us have a meeting or gathering. It’s your choice not to vote for us.”

In Dhareri Jattan village, about 15 km from Patiala city, Prabhu Singh, 70, told Newslaundry he had participated in the farmers’ protests against the BJP.

“Our first issue is the law on MSP guarantee,” he said. “The BJP won’t come in Punjab.”

The farmer called Amarinder Singh and Preneet Kaur “turncoats”. “We won’t go with them. We will stay at our place. Our village has about 900 votes. The Akali Dal used to be strong here but now the Congress is stronger. The villagers are also dissatisfied with the jhaaduwala [AAP]. They have not done any work.”

Seva Singh, who lives in the same village, told Newslaundry about his dissatisfaction with Modi’s BJP.

Prabhu Singh from Dhareri Jattan village.
Seva Singh from Dhareri Jattan village.

“They have put us in a bad state. First we sat for 13 months on the Delhi roads. They agreed but have gone back on it now,” he said, referring to the Modi government finally scrapping the farm laws after widespread protests and promising a legal guarantee on MSP, which never happened. “Modi came to Patiala to give a speech. The farmers wanted to go there but they didn’t let us. The farmers were only going there to ask questions.”

When asked specifically about Preneet Kaur, Seva Singh said, “They are not worried about the people, they are worried about their power. They want to rule. Kaur went to the BJP after being the MP for 15 years here. Patiala is in a bad shape. People are not allowing them to enter the villages. She has not come to my village to ask for votes and if she comes, then we won’t let her enter.”

He added that Kaur has been facing “questions” at several villages. “We are asking why the BJP forgot its promises made during the farmer movement. When we left for Delhi again on February 14, why were fortresses built on the road and walls put up? They are unable to answer this.”

Yet Sandeep Sharma, who lives in Patiala city, said Kaur may still score a victory.

“The Congress’s sure voters are upset about her leaving the party. But I feel the Maharani will benefit,” he said. “The urban vote, which goes with the BJP, will go with her. The Hindu vote is already with the BJP. She can win easily in such a situation.”

This story was translated from Hindi to English by Utkarsh Sharma.

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