Chandigarh thumakda: Gul Panag vs Pawan Bansal vs Kirron Kher

PUBLISHED ON: March 31, 2014 | Duration: 40 min, 07 sec

In the city fashioned by French architect Le Corbusier, the Open Hand Monument, rising 85 feet high, is a symbol of peace, intended to signal that Chandigarh is open to giving and receiving.

But on flags that flutter across the city now, it's the Congress hand, the party symbol, that is under scrutiny.

Its Pawan Bansal, four-time Member of Parliament, was forced out of the Railway Ministry after his nephew was arrested for accepting bribes in return for plum Railway posts. Mr Bansal has denied any wrong-doing. The 65-year-old is a well-networked politician in this city. But his low-profile mien must now contend with two glamorous women opponents, both graduates of Bollywood - Kirron Kher from the BJP and Gul Panag from the Aam Aadmi Party. Another woman running against Mr Bansal is Jannat Jahan of the BSP.

"I ask you all, keep your trust in me as you always have," says Mr Bansal at a public meeting.

Mr Bansal is dealing not just with women opponents but with a changing demographic for his homestead. More than 45% of the voters in Chandigarh are women; nearly half of the voters are under 45. And entering the election this year are 23,000 first-time voters. The unusually high number of women candidates, also makes for an interesting gender faultline.

Neelam Man Singh, award-winning theatre director and a member of the city's Citizen's Council, says "Chandigarh is a city without memory, a city of migrants, a planned city with no history before that. So no one can claim ancestry or ownership." When asked to explain how that can impact politics, she says, "There is a freshness...a newness. A new person can be welcomed."

That's an encouraging point-of-view, given that both Kirron Kher and Gul Panag, who were born in Chandigarh, have been repeatedly questioned about whether they will move from Mumbai to live full-time in their constituency. Both candidates say the "outsider" tag is untrue for them. Another point of agreement - they say their campaigns and their credentials are scrutinized differently because of their gender, whether its slanderous whisper campaigns or excessive debate around how they dress and what they wear.

Gul Panag has tried to rupture the female stereotype in ways that include taking a Bullet ride through the city to target voters. The 35-year-old former Miss India is hoping that party chief Arvind Kejriwal's road-show, just completed, has won her support. "There is a third choice now," she tells voters about the Aam Aadmi Party, suggesting that the Congress and the BJP have no new ideas, energy or innovation.

Kirron Kher says the Congress, weighed down by scandals of graft, should be benched. "The Congress has been terrible with its record on corruption." Asked if she is seeking a vote for Narendra Modi or for herself, she says "Both. It's our turn this time," she says.

But famous author and poet Bubbu Tir says most people forget that Chandigarh is the one city, where the real bosses are bureaucrats and not the netas.

"There are a lot of differences in Chandigarh from even the rest of Punjab. This is a city where it's the administrators who wield power, not the politicians... And I want to say this is a city not easily impressed by celebrities. We have moved beyond the celebrity tag," he says.

In the city's bustling Sector 22, Tehal Singh's Chicken and Family Hal, known for its signature butter chicken dish is a 54-year-old foodie favourite. Owner Shublata says the issues that concern women residents more than any other are linked to rising prices.

"As a home-maker, what I care about most is how we put food on the table. Have you seen the prices? We need a change," she says.

Depending on whom you speak to, everyone has a different wager on who the front-runner is so far. Neelam Mansingh laughs when asked to predict who will win saying, "If you meet the Faujis at the Golf Club they all say Gul is our Beti. If you go into some other parts of the city, Kirron is benefitting from the larger momentum that the BJP has and then of course Pawan Bansal is still someone whom the local people all know. It's impossible to forecast who is ahead."

With unprecedented national focus on the Chandigarh seat, the city which votes on April 10, is for now witnessing the colour and drama of the political bhangra. It may be London Thumakda that's a hit in the movies, but here it's Chandigarh Thumkada to the beats of the voter.
Arun Jaitley, The Kingmaker, On His Amritsar Wager (Aired March, 2014)

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