Sikh Americans campaigned for Aam Aadmi Party

Aam Aadmi wins in Punjab
By Anju Kaur | June 09, 2014
Sikh Americans, Manmeet Singh and Harpreet Kaur, campaigned for Harvinder Singh Phoolka in Ludhiana.

Sikh Americans, Manmeet Singh and Harpreet Kaur, campaigned for Harvinder Singh Phoolka in Ludhiana.

In the largest democratic election in history, some Sikh Americans campaigned in Punjab for Harvinder Singh Phoolka, a stalwart advocate for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom victims. 

“He is viewed as a person who had done so much for the Sikh community,” said Prabhsahay Kaur, Harvinder Singh’s daughter and campaign manager. The voters reacted very positively to his candidacy because of his work for the 1984 victims, 30 years he did single-handedly. The hope was that he would bring a voice of the Sikhs to parliament, she said.

Manmeet Singh and Harpreet Kaur, founders of the Washington-based documentary film company, Sach Productions, were working in India during the run-up to the general elections earlier this year. Moved by the new Aam Aadmi Party’s anti-corruption platform, the couple was pleasantly surprised when Harvinder Singh joined the race. They went to Ludhiana to campaign for him.

“We had only three months to go from 0 to 300,000 votes,” Manmeet Singh said. Looking back, it was a crazy situation. “We were running around like headless chickens.” 

Harvinder Singh was the last member of the Aam Aadmi (common man) to announce his candidacy, he said. 

“It was testimony to the anti-incumbency sentiment, against Prakash Singh Badal, the chief minister of Punjab,” he added. “Even the Punjab police was fed up with this regime. We would get pulled over, they would see the Aam Aadmi sticker and let us off.”

Harvinder Singh was not the typical politician. People would walk up to him in the midst of the campaign chaos and ask for help. He could spend an hour talking to them about their grievances, and then delegate the issue to someone on his legal team. Manmeet Singh recalled a 107-year-old man, who was associated with Shaheed Bhagat Singh, asking for help with his pension. The government had not paid him for years. 

“These are issues we ought to take up,” he remembers Harvinder Singh saying.

In addition to sweeping anti-corruption changes, his platform included aggressive environmental reform measures. Harvinder Singh and his supporters were seen campaigning through Ludhiana on bicycles, and sweeping the streets with jharroos (brooms). 

Ludhiana was perhaps the toughest battle in Punjab. It was essentially a four-way race, which included anther reformist candidate. And all were Sikhs.

Harvinder Singh lost by less than two percent of the votes. 

Ravneet Singh Bittu, a member of the Indian National Congress Party, and grandson of slain former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, won with about 300,500 votes. A total of nearly 1,050,000 votes were cast in Ludhiana. 

Now, back in Washington, Manmeet Singh reflected on the campaign effort.

The local members of the campaign team included professionals with a variety of skill sets, but they needed better coordination to be more effective, he said. And, although diaspora Sikhs supported the campaign from abroad, he would have liked to see the younger generation play a more import role. 

“They would have had a stronger impact, coming from abroad, from the workforce,” Manmeet Singh said. They also could have volunteered remotely, with emailing campaigns and making phone calls to voters. Indian Sikhs are very impressed by Sikhs calling from abroad and asking for their vote, he said. 

Some Sikhs from California, Canada, Australia and Singapore also flew to Ludhiana to work for Harvinder Singh’s campaign. But the one thing his campaign did not do was to accept foreign money.

“The foreign help we have was open,” Prabhsahay Kaur told SFP, just days before the results were announced. “The foreign help was that people flew down here to help the campaign, and to make phone calls to friends and relatives to vote. 

“In the other campaigns, all the outside help was underhanded. They had huge funding form foreign companies, for corporate gains. For others there was more foreign help, in that sense.”

Harvinder Singh’s campaign workers “didn’t want to do international politics,” Manmeet Singh told SFP. “They followed the ideological direction of the party, and were committed to the forum that they signed up for.”

While this was the largest democratic election in history, with about 814 million voters, it also may have been the most corrupt democratic election in history.

“Corruption is part of the Indian DNA,” Manmeet Singh said. “Everyone is corrupt. It’s in the air. 

“People ask me what did you learn. I say, “I see a lot of religion, but no God.”” 

According to the party’s Web site, it had 434 candidates contesting seats all over India. Although the party grabbed national media attention and hopes of the average Indian citizen, it only gained four out of 543 seats in the lower house of the Parliament of India, known as Lok Sabha. 

But, all of its four seats were won in Punjab, which has a total of 13 seats. 

The Shiromani Akali Dal also won four seats, the Indian National Congress party won three, and the Bharatiya Janata Party won two, according to the Election Commission of India.

“If this result shows anything, it is that Phoolka lost but brought victory to Punjab,” Manmeet Singh said. “He should get credit for running a very clean election campaign - No alcohol. No illegal money.” 

Punjab is probably the most corrupt state in India, he added.

“They were scared of coming out earlier,” Prabhsahay Kaur said of the voters.  Other campaigns made direct threats to voters. “They would come to us and we would show to them how to vote. Our vote was a silent vote…  

“They realized they had to come out if they wanted a change, if they want a revolution,” she added. “The Punjab government has done little for its people. Sikh institutions are completely controlled by the Punjab government. They do not have an independent voice. The Punjab government determines what they say and what decisions they make. They are the voice of the Punjab government.”

But the anti-corruption activist party won in the most corrupt state in India. This was the one of many stories of contradictions and oddities in the 2014 general election of India. 

Balwant Singh Rajaona, on death row in Tihar Jail for his involvement in Beant Singh’s assassination, supported his sister, Kamaldeep Kaur, an independent candidate from Patiala. Punjab’s citizens and leaders had successfully orchestrated a public-appeal campaign to stop his execution last year, but few came out to support his sister. She only received about 15,300 votes, according to the election commission. The winner in Patiala was the Aam Aadmi candidate, Dharam Vira Gandhi, with almost 365,700 votes. 

Narendra Modi, the victorious candidate for prime minister, is alleged to have led a corrupt government when he was chief minister of Gujarat. Modi is implicated in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms. He is accused of complacency and inaction while at least a thousand Muslims were butchered in the communal violence. Hundreds of rioters were convicted of murder, including Modi’s top lieutenant, but the Indian supreme court exonerated him three times for lack of evidence.

Modi’s his dark past also made little difference in his landslide victory. And his BJP received 67 per cent of the country’s 813 million votes cast during a five-week election period, from April 7 to May 16. According to the election commission, the BJP won 282 seats in the Lok Sabha.

“Modi is on the opposite ends of the spectrum on human rights,” Manmeet Singh said. While he is accused of taking part in the anti-Muslim pogroms, Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi candidate who ran against him, demanded a special investigation into the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms. Like Gujarat, none of the elected officials of Delhi who are accused of orchestrating these pogroms were brought to justice.

Kejriwal is a former civil servant who won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for social work and anti-corruption initiatives, in 2006. He then launched the Aam Aadmi Party, in September 2012, as a platform for social activists to enter politics. In December 2014, the party won 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi's state assembly, including Kejriwal, who became chief minister of the capital city. But his tenure was short lived. He resigned in February because the assembly blocked his bill to create a Jan Lokpal, an independent agency with the authority to investigate politicians and civil servants suspected of corruption. Kejriwal then decided to run for prime minister.

Two days after Modi’s victory, Kejriwal was arrested for defaming former BJP President Nitin Gadkari by including him on his “List of India's Most Corrupt,” released on Jan. 31. While democratic governments around the world protect free speech against public figures, particularly against politicians, the Indian judiciary sent Kejriwal to the notorious Tihar Jail. Kejriwal was released on June 6 after posting a Rs. 10,000 bond.

“They are going to make an example of him,” Manmeet Singh said. “We will know what absolute majority means.”

As for Harvinder Singh, he is expected to continue his work for the 1984 victims. Will he again run for public office?

“I hope so,” Manmeet Singh said. “He will, but we have to tell him we will support him.”