Two actors and a controversial MP compete for Chandigarh’s attention.
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.
(FROM LEFT) GULPANAG AND KIRRON KHER CAMPAIGN IN CHANDIGARH
CONGRESS MPPAWAN KUMAR BANSALAFTER FILING HIS NOMINATION IN CHANDIGARH