For weeks before it voted yesterday, Punjab was on song. Sonia Sarkar reports on the jig-gigs that became the key campaign tool across the state
” Aaja nach lae!”
– Old Punjabi folk refrain
As the sun begins to set, celebration time dawns around this market square in Jalandhar, 80 kilometres south of Amritsar. Men turn out in the traditional kurta and chadra (sarong) strike up a rhythmic beat of the dhol; women, dressed in green and violet shararas and carrying decorated earthen pots on their heads, lead out a dance troupe, their arms twisting in sync with the drumbeat. Passersby begin to tap their feet. ” Le gaya bai le gaya, jhaaru wala le gaya,” they sing in chorus, (Those who wield the broom have swept the scene.)
The jhaaru is the symbol of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and these singers are exhorting the crowd to vote for H.S. Walia, who is contesting the Jalandhar Cantonment seat. From the busy market area, the troupe moves into the dusty bylanes and then to someone’s courtyard in the locality, as more and more people follow them. “Music is the only effective medium to reach out to people,” says AAP media co-ordinator Manpreet Randhawa.
This traditional Punjabi dance form, called ” jaago“, is a pre-wedding ritual but AAP has roped in local performers to turn it into a campaign instrument. “When a local form of art is used for political campaigning, everyone gets involved. People are ready to listen. These days, nobody wants to listen to politicians,” Randhawa adds.
Perhaps, true. In Punjab, the sight of the quintessential kurta-pyjama-clad politician with his palms pressed together, making promises and asking for votes, was rare this election season. Singers, musicians and folk artistes were hired by political parties to woo the voters, instead. Jingles, songs and short video clips were employed as tools by politicians to reach out to people – young and old.
AAP, the youngest kid on the poll block, wasn’t unique in turning to local performing arts as a canvassing method; all parties did.
The Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, Captain Amarinder Singh, who is taking on Akali veteran and incumbent chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in Muktsar’s Lambi, has come up with a foot-tapping number, ” Keh do ek bar, chahunda hai Punjab Captain di sarkar” to bring in hope for future – say it out once, it’s the Captain’s government that Punjab wants. “Our message is positive,” says Rishi Raj Singh, director at political strategist Prashant Kishor’s IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee), which is handling the Congress party’s campaign in poll-bound states.
The song, peppered with the exhort ” challo!” (let’s go!) after every stanza, touches upon the real issues of the state – drug trafficking and addiction, unemployment of the youth and farmers’ debts leading to suicides. “But the song will not make you sad. We are trying to tell people how Punjab will become great again under the political leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh,” Rishi Raj adds.
Political pundits have come to believe music helps politicians feel the pulse of the people. “We have a song for every occasion in our life. It’s music that keeps the people alive even in times of distress. Political parties have realised that music is the only effective tool to appeal to the masses,” says regional historian Raj Kumar Sharma, who is also the former principal of Government College, Gurdaspur.
The Election Commission too has realised that music enjoys great mass appeal. It appointed celebrated singer Gurdas Maan as icon to spread awareness during the Assembly elections. Maan’s main role was to motivate the youth of Punjab to get enrolled in the voters lists and vote ethically. It’s a different story that his popular number, ” Apna Punjab hove, ghar di sharab hove,” promotes the locally distilled hooch, which has killed many young men in the state and is one of the burning issues in the polls.
For political parties, composing a catchy number is not enough. The lyrics should also strike a chord with constituents, especially at a time when rivals are using similar methods to woo voters. Kishor’s IPAC deployed 200 young men and women to push Captain Amarinder Singh’s case with the voter in March last year. The team spoke extensively with farmers, college students, businessmen and women to understand the mood of people. They picked up a series of local words and phrases, which were often used during long conversations and composed the theme song for him.
“People expressed their concern towards ‘ nasha (addiction)’ and ‘berozgaari’ (unemployment) but were also hopeful of a better future. So we picked up phrases such as ‘ kishan di khushhaali‘, ‘kheta vich bhangra’ and ‘ mund banjana nawab‘ that they used during casual everyday conversations and weaved them into the song,” Rishi Raj says. He hired Bollywood music director Sneha Khanwalkar of Gangs of Wasseypur fame to compose the peppy number. Sung by Bollywood singers Richa Sharma and Shahid Mallya, the song makes indirect references to AAP as “outsiders” too.
AAP, whose radio jingles became very popular during the Delhi elections in 2015, has mostly utilised its in-house talent. For example, Gurdev Mann, the candidate from Nabha, sang the party’s theme song, ” Jharu wala button daba dyon Punjabion… Badlan nyo sabak sikha dyo Punjabyon… (Press the broom button, teach the Badals a lesson).” AAP’s star poet-singer-cum-leader Kumar Vishwas wove out another song, “Ek Nasha”, slamming the ruling Badal family for all the evils in the state. The opening lines are hard-hitting – ” Saddi watt kha gaye, fasal kha gaye, khet kha gaye Badal, saddi sadak kha gaye, nahar kha gaye, ret kha gaye Badal (The Badals have eaten away our sand, our roads, our canals and our fields…)
As a retort to AAP, Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) came out with a video, Lalkar, which accused AAP of misleading people through false propaganda. Apart from releasing Lalkar, SAD has also used folk songs to deliver its message to the masses. “We have used the tune of the popular folk songs and peppered them up with party’s message. For example, our songs talk about our ‘ aata-daal‘ scheme under which rice and lentil were supplied to BPL families at a cheaper price and they also mention the uninterrupted supply of water and power to farmers,” says Badal’s media adviser Jangveer Singh.
None of these songs became an instant hit. These songs were released many months before the elections, to small gatherings at first on an experimental basis. “We played our theme song for the first time in a gathering in May, last year. When we saw people tapping their feet, we realised that this will do wonders,” Jangveer says.
Some candidates have been inviting singers too to campaign for them. Last week, SAD’s Hardeep Singh “Dimpy” Dhillon, fighting from Muktsar’s Gidderbaha, invited singer Babbu Maan to sing for him. The next day, his Congress opponent, Amarinder Singh Raja, also invited Maan. On both occasions, huge crowds – gathered on terraces and watching from every available vantage point – roared as he belted out some of his popular numbers.
Some local singers, who have been composing songs on social issues, refuse to campaign for politicians, though. Nishawn Bhullar, whose satirical number Jugni is liked by more than 1 lakh listeners on YouTube, is one of them. “This song slams all politicians. The message is subtle but strong – let’s not vote for the corrupt and the incompetent,” says Bhullar, who turned away requests by politicians. “Nobody wants to hear the politicians because they have nothing new to say. People only listen to the messages we give through our songs. So it is important for us to be cautious about these politicians.”
Dalit singer Ginni Mahi, who too refused to sing for a BJP candidate, believes singing for politicians would mean fooling the people. “I sing about equality and humanity – the songs of Ambedkar saheb and Sant Ravidas. Political parties would claim to believe in their ideologies only before the elections but they would forget them soon after. Why should I help them to fool people?” Mahi asks.
As you read this, the people of Punjab have already given their verdict. Who’s to face their music?