Star-span­gled Script

Two ac­tors and a con­tro­ver­sial MP com­pete for Chandigarh’s at­ten­tion.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Asit Jolly

Ca­su­ally at­tired in brown suede loafers, stretch jeans and printed blue cot­ton kurta, al­most no one sees her at first, stand­ing in the mid­dle of City Cen­tre, Sec­tor 17, Chandigarh.

It’s a clever, though typ­i­cally, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ploy. Her 66-yearold aunt breaks into an im­promptu ren­der­ing of Manoj Ku­mar’s un­for­get­table ‘ mera rang de bas­anti chola… ,’ turn­ing heads and draw­ing scores of Mon- day evening win­dow shop­pers like hom­ing birds. They’re de­lighted to see her.

“Sat Sri Akal ji, I am Gul, your can­di­date for the Lok Sabha elec­tion this time. I need your sup­port and that of your fam­ily and all your friends,” she ad­dresses them com­fort­ably in Pun­jabi.

Typ­i­cally the ‘girl you ex­pect to see next door’ on any or­di­nary day, you would walk past the 35-year-old Gul Panag mi­nus the Bol­ly­wood glit­ter, com­pletely at home in the city that Le Cor­bus­ier built. But this is elec­tion time—her spot­less Gandhi topi and aunt Gur­deepak Kaur’s pow­er­ful voice won’t let you walk away.

In what prom­ises to be an un­for­get­table Lok Sabha elec­tion, four-time MP and for­mer rail­way min­is­ter Pawan Ku­mar Bansal is, for the first time in his life, hemmed in by three women of sub­stance—Kir­ron Kher, 58, an­other Bol­ly­wood star, a tri­fle be­lat­edly pro­claimed as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nom­i­nee; Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party’s (BSP) Jan­nat Ja­han, 34, and Panag, zeal­ously hop­ing to be the ‘dark horse’ for AAP.

Bansal hasn’t quite got over the taint

of ‘Rail­gate’ de­spite his ex­on­er­a­tion by the CBI. “It’s not the kind of dirt you can wash off your hands with the as­sis­tance of a con­ve­niently friendly in­ves­ti­ga­tion agency,” says Gur­preet Singh, a med­i­cal specialist who gave up on his MP fol­low­ing the ‘cash-for-post­ings’ al­le­ga­tions in early 2013. 2014 will be the first elec­tion the in­cum­bent MP goes to with a sul­lied vis­age.

Bansal in­sists that he is a “vic­tim of a con­spir­acy and a me­dia trial” stage­m­an­aged by forces in­tent on taint­ing his rep­u­ta­tion. How­ever, he re­fuses to say a word on Vi­jay Singla, his on­ce­favourite nephew, who was re­cently chargesheeted for re­ceiv­ing bribes from top rail­way of­fi­cials, al­legedly in re­turn for prime post­ings. “I will tackle those is­sues when ques­tioned in court,” he told a lo­cal TV net­work.

De­spite be­ing on the back­foot, the vet­eran of six Lok Sabha elec­tions— four of which he has won—Bansal will not be wished away. He still holds sway in Chandigarh’s vil­lages and labour colonies, which reg­is­ter sig­nif­i­cantly higher polling fig­ures than the up­mar­ket mid­dle, up­per-mid­dle and up­per class sec­tors of the city.

In 2009, he trounced his BJP ri­val with nearly 60,000 votes. Kher or Panag, his sup­port­ers say they’ll push past the 100,000 mark this time. Do­ing his bit ev­ery day for the up­hill cam­paign, the MP tries to wish away the ghouls in­sist­ing that the al­le­ga­tions around 2G spec­trum al­lo­ca­tions and Coalgate are based on “un­re­al­is­tic as­sump­tions.”

Be­sides the stout chal­lenge he faces from BJP and AAP, Bansal must also con­tend with the prospect of a di­lu­tion of his vote bank in Chandigarh’s labour colonies and vil­lages, con­se­quent to the emer­gence of Jan­nat Ja­han, a BSP coun­cil­lor now look­ing at the wider can­vass of a Lok Sabha seat. Not overly ar­tic­u­late about the prob­lems that ail Chandigarh, the BSP nom­i­nee vaguely speaks of “a lack of de­vel­op­ment in the city.”

Mean­while, bereft of any po­lit­i­cal or per­sonal bag­gage, BJP’s Kher landed

WHILE VET­ERAN MP BANSAL IS ON THE BACK­FOOT, PANAG AND KHER HAVE AN OB­VI­OUS AD­VAN­TAGE—FANS SEEK­ING SELF­IES WITH THE STARS

in Chandigarh on March 18 head­long into a bar­rage of rot­ten eggs, brick­bats and black flags from lo­cal BJP cadres who see her as an “out­sider” and hope to cut short her nascent po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions.

Flus­tered at first, Kher has quickly re­cov­ered to claim her place, in­sist­ing that her only agenda is to add to BJP’s tally and hoist Naren­dra Modi with the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice in Delhi. “It is my priv­i­lege to fight for Modiji,” she told re­porters in Chandigarh.

Both Kher and Panag are keenly aware of their ‘out­sider’ im­age. “My fa­ther’s home is here. I stud­ied on the Pun­jab Univer­sity cam­pus and most of my clos­est rel­a­tives still live here,” Kher also points out that she cam­paigned for the BJP dur­ing the last mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil elec­tions. “All the coun­cil­lors know me,” she says, amid a flurry of meet­ings to pacify cadres still up­set at her un­ex­pected nom­i­na­tion.

“Dilli mein Sheila haari hai… Ab Bansal ki baari hai (In Delhi, Sheila Dik­shit lost. Now it’s Bansal’s turn),” Panag is ev­i­dently hav­ing the time of her life, hap­pily wak­ing up to her first tweet of the day at 6.30 a.m., ahead of a pun­ish­ing sched­ule that ranges from donor lun­cheons to blar­ing her claim to Chandigarh over a mega­phone from atop an open jeep in the city’s big­gest vil­lage, Man­i­ma­jra. “Doubt if I’ll have the en­ergy to run around like this and serve my people when I’m 60. I guess that’s why there’s nor­mally a re­tire­ment age,” the ac­tor tweeted on March 19.

Both Panag and Kher have an ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage—fans with smart­phones seek­ing self­ies with the stars.

In Sec­tor 17 on the evening of the Holi fes­ti­val, over 200 de­lighted cou­ples, young­sters and bash­ful teenagers shot pic­ture with Panag. The ac­tor clearly has a plan: Pa­tiently par­tic­i­pate in ev­ery frame. Her younger sup­port­ers talk of how each frame would trickle down to more than 500 ‘friends’ on Face­book and What­sapp to spread the AAP mes­sage. “Imag­ine how the mes­sage will spread,” they say.

But while Kher is happy to be tagged as Modi’s foot­sol­dier and Panag strug­gles to de­ci­pher what re­ally be­dev­ils In­dia’s best ur­ban plan­ning suc­cess, Bansal—who clearly knows the city bet­ter than ei­ther of his ri­vals—has found the pulse of the prob­lem in the ex­pand­ing in­flow of mi­gra­tory pop­u­la­tions.

But will he be re­turned for a fifth time? There is no telling this time. Chandigarh is any­body’s game.

SAHDEV

(FROM LEFT) GULPANAG AND KIR­RON KHER CAM­PAIGN IN CHANDIGARH

CONGRESS MPPAWAN KU­MAR BANSALAFTER FIL­ING HIS NOM­I­NA­TION IN CHANDIGARH

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