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Punjab polls: Will the state's 'NRI belt' determine the course of the future?

Sukhbir Singh is angry and for a variety of reasons. In Gurdaspur, where he’s from, he says the families of fallen soldiers have been given a raw deal. The widows of those martyred in last year’s terror attack in Pathankot – the border town where he’s headed – are still running from pillar to post for their compensation, he claims.

Driving his truck through the electorally significant Doaba region, Sukhbir and his assistant, Gagandeep, survey a landscape that, they say, has been chronically maladministered.

As the winter morning breeze makes the cabin colder, the two get agitated in tandem, recounting their litany of woes in poll-bound Punjab.

The son of an ex-army man, Sukhbir is a class 12th pass out. His immediate surrounding never held out hope and he is employed as a low-paid helper in a truck and gets to drive occasionally when the driver opts to take rest.

Driven by despair, many in his village have left: his younger brother Jaspreet is waiting for a medical test before he can attempt to go abroad.

Sukhbir has no means to escape the dreary existence, and hopes that the assembly elections on February 4 will change things for the better for people like him.

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He and Gagandeep differ on the possible outcome of the polls. Gagandeep feels the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will win. Sukhbir is not so sure which of the two – AAP or Congress – will emerge victorious, though he agrees that the Badals will lose due to anger against the ruling family.

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The two men, however, agree on one thing – Punjab desperately requires a ‘surgical strike’ to set right the wrongs. And both feel that residents of Doaba – the region with 23 seats – will determine Punjab’s future course in great measure.

A large number of AAP supporters from abroad have begun campaigning in Doaba, also famous as the NRI belt.

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Sukhbir, on the contrary, says the Congress led by Captain Amarinder Singh has an edge. The party had won 6 of the 23 seats in 2012 and hopes to improve its tally. It has fielded sugar baron Rana Gurjit Singh – Punjab’s richest candidate – from Kapurthala.

The duo pulls up at a roadside dhaba in Machiwara for lunch and other drivers join them in an animated discussion on the polls, spicing up the food on the table.

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Manjeet Singh, 47, a trucker for 26 years, is angry with the Badals, so much so that he blames the ruling family for taking credit for roads built by the Union government.

“A government driver is paid Rs 20,000 and a private driver barely makes half that amount despite working for 24 hours. We also have children to raise. We want change too, no matter who comes to power,” he says.

Deep in Doaba, drug abuse is an issue that’s topping the election agenda alongside unemployment. Most of its residents blame the administration for the festering menace.

“Why do drivers have to depend on drugs to travel in the night. The demand will decrease if the supply is reduced,” suggests Gagandeep as Sukhbir gets the documents and the vehicle checked at a check post.

As the truck travels past a police training camp in Jalandhar, the conversation between the two turns to corruption and nepotism.

“Punjabis either want to do farming or join the army or police force. Under Badal rule, even a 7-ft high candidate is not selected while a 5-ft gets a job in police, just because he is close to the ruling family,” Sukhbir says as the truck crosses the toll plaza at Tanda.

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The issues confronting Doaba have been crying out for redressal since long. Politicians and their parties have promised solutions in the past but failed to deliver, resulting in voter fatigue.

Nearly 400 km into their journey stretching 23 hours, both Gagandeep and Sukhbir are visibly tired. An agreement still eludes them on who will win. Then they decide to let it go: “Ki farq painda paaji. Chalani to truck hi hai na (How does it matter who comes to power. We will continue to drive trucks anyway,” Sukhbir sighed, as Pathankot neared.

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Punjab polls: Will the state's 'NRI belt' determine the course of the future?