Bhagwant Mann is a sharp politician, don’t be fooled by his drinking and clownery

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There is a 2019 Korean TV series that could bear tantalising parallels with what is unfolding in Punjab politics. The Crowned Clown is set in the Joseon era, when power games over the throne had turned chillingly violent. In order to escape assassination, the King puts a clown, who is his lookalike, on the throne. The clown turns out to be surprisingly creative and capable.

AAP choosing comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann as its chief ministerial face holds the promises of a similar plot.

It is easy to dismiss Mann as a frivolous choice. Social media’s vast virtue-signalling factories have gone on overdrive, pulling out the man’s drunken trysts with the camera, pasting the front window with videos of his clownery, and presenting the man as a caricature of himself. Mann has done his bit to feed this hungry machine over the years.

Perhaps there is also some truth in the assumption that party chief Arvind Kejriwal had to swallow this option for the want of a better Sikh face. Punjab has nearly 58 percent Sikhs. With certain radical groups fomenting an anti-Narendra Modi, anti-Hindu narrative using the farm law protests, Kejriwal could not have projected himself as the non-Sikh chief ministerial face.

But Mann has certain qualities which can outweigh his non-serious side. More importantly, what a large section of Indians consider his grave weaknesses may not really matter in Punjab’s eccentric style of politics.

Drinking, for instance, does not hold the stigma in Punjabi society the way it does in the cow belt, Bengal and Odisha, parts of south India, or the western belt of Gujarat and Maharashtra. It is normal in most Punjab families to share a drink together. Former chief minister and now BJP ally Captain Amarinder Singh never made a secret about enjoying his drink.

Jokes and humour are even more heartily woven into the joie de vivre of the Punjabi psyche. Two of the current frontrunners of Punjab politics — Mann and Congress’ Navjot Singh Siddhu — have alternative careers in comedy. A certain comic spunk or chutzpah in a politician actually endears voters to them.

One of Mann’s formidable strengths is his likeability. In spite of joining politics as late as 2011 with Manpreet Singh Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab, and then joining AAP in March 2014, Mann won two back-to-back Lok Sabha elections from the Sangrur seat by over two lakh and one lakh votes respectively. He nearly defeated the then sitting, all-powerful deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal in the 2017 state Assembly elections, losing by just 18,500 votes.

In spite of directing a couple of friendly jibes in Parliament about his drinking, Prime Minister Modi is apparently fond of him and always exchanges pleasantries when their paths cross. AAP chief Kejriwal said Mann received more than 93 percent votes in the televoting campaign in which people were asked to call in their choice for the chief ministerial candidate.

Unlike many political heavyweights in Punjab, Mann has a very strong connection with the ground. He successfully runs an NGO, Lok Lehar Foundation, to help children with physical deformities from groundwater pollution along Punjab’s border.

And lastly, as a hallmark of a good comedian which can be a big political asset, Mann thinks on his feet and has the confidence to improvise. He loves narrating an episode when he was flying to the US to do shows. To entertain himself in the tediously long nine-hour haul from Paris to New York, he started speaking in an imaginary, made-up-on-spot language with the crew. Confused, the captain made him say the same stuff on the public address system, hoping somebody would make sense of his language, except that it did not exist.

Bewildered by his babble, they then upgraded him to business class and pampered him for the rest of the flight.

The story is entertaining and impressive. One just hopes if he gets his desired seat of power in politics, the imaginary language won’t reappear. Punjab can make do with The Crowned Clown plot from the Korean television universe.

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Bhagwant Mann is a sharp politician, don’t be fooled by his drinking and clownery
Bhagwant Mann is a sharp politician, don’t be fooled by his drinking and clownery
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