PAWAN KUMAR BANSAL is dapper, sharp and warm. As I walk into his home in the sweltering heat of Chandigarh, soft drinks are served immediately, but the Congress veteran and former Union minister must leave for a function and a party meeting soon thereafter. Yet, he doesn’t sound one bit like a man in a hurry or perfunctory in his tone when he talks of “pressing issues” in the city that is a Union Territory and a capital to two states, Punjab and Haryana.
The 70-year-old has won from this Lok Sabha seat four times in the past, but not in the previous election five years ago when he lost to the BJP’s Kirron Kher. It had been a largely three- cornered fight with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Gul Panag pulling in more than 100,000 votes out of over 450,000 votes polled in a fiercely fought election that saw a 73.7 per cent turnout.
Bansal, a battle-scarred politician who has weathered several storms, had lost twice earlier from the same seat, in 1996 and 1998. “Times have changed,” says the mild-mannered politician who had been railway minister in the second United Progressive Alliance Government until 2013, when he had to step down over a corruption case involving his nephew.
The loss of the ‘Mr Clean’ image that he had preserved until then may have contributed to his loss in the election of 2014 in which corruption-weary Indians voted for change and looked up to BJP spearhead and prime ministerial candidate Modi as a moderniser who was expected to usher in a paradigm shift in governance.
“The biggest issue is, of course, jobs. Jobs have not been created under Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. He has ruined the economy due to the blunders he has committed, from demonetisation to other measures,” Bansal states.
He adds that lopsided planning in India’s “most-planned city” and the BJP’s “complicity” in its irregular expansion—which has resulted in traffic woes, inadequate parking facilities, rising crime rates, ineffective public transport services, erratic water supply and so on—are major concerns for residents in the city.
Kumar gets on to the SUV waiting for him on the porch of his 64, Sector 28-A, Chandigarh residence. Party workers have begun streaming onto the well-maintained lawn where powerful fans and a generous supply of soft drinks offer much-needed respite from the scorching heat.
The Congress leader politely promises me to return in an hour or so to chat further, but then, one knows from experience that politicians in the election fray can’t often keep their words and deserve sympathy for being unpunctual amid all the heat and grime of a high-wattage campaign.
Instead I decide to spend time with his son Amit, a pharmaceutical businessman who has inherited his father’s suave and receptive ways. The son tells me he is assisting his father along with his brother Manish, their wives and mother Madhu. “I have no intention of joining politics. I am happy being what I am,” says Amit matter-of-factly and that is when he gets a call from his daughter studying in Rajasthan.
The lanky Amit resumes the conversation a few minutes later: “I have no personal ambitions at all, but I guess in Chandigarh they would want a person who is a local, not those outsiders who are not aware of the city’s problems and are busy with ‘lights, camera, action’,” he gestures with his hands and guffaws.
True, the incumbent lawmaker, BJP’s Kher, faces widespread criticism from even within her party for not being ‘clued in’ about Chandigarh’s plethora of civic problems that have surfaced due to rapid expansion, large-scale migration and the mushrooming of street vendors.
BJP’s city President Sanjay Tandon, a conversationalist whose eloquence and command of the English language is impressive, refutes these charges, saying, “The blame has to be placed at the feet of Mr Bansal who has been notorious with inferior handling of infrastructural projects”.
Seated in his decently furnished office in Chandigarh’s Sector 33 area, Tandon mentions a list of projects that he claims were fast-tracked by the BJP as the Congress “slept over them, resulting in inflation of costs, including that of Metro services in the city”.
Amid accusations and counter-accusations between rival parties vying for power in the ‘city of beauty’, the perception that outsiders can’t do justice to the constituency’s development—and what many of the residents call the revival of the glory and grandeur of the city designed by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier— seem to run deep despite Tandon protesting that “this time around, again, votes will go in Modiji’s favour”.
Interestingly, this year saw a massive tussle and lobbying within the BJP between Kher and Tandon. According to a Press Trust of India report, the intense lobbying saw ‘hopefuls using the humble beverages to mobilise support in a bid to put forward their case’. While Kher pursued a ‘coffee with Kirron’ drive, Tandon held ‘chai pe charcha’ sessions to connect with people.
Inside the Congress, Bansal also faced some competition, from former Union Minister Manish Tewari and Navjot Kaur Sidhu, wife of Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu. Bansal had the last laugh when he was rewarded by the party high command for his longevity and experience. Immediately after he was chosen as the party candidate, Bansal said he would battle soaring cases of crime against women, fix infrastructural bottlenecks and micro-plan an overhaul of villages and colonies on the city’s outskirts. For her part, Kher claimed to have done a lot to improve the housing situation in the city.
True, a large section of people that Open spoke to from various strata of society and from across religions insist on poor planning being a major issue in the elections in Chandigarh, which is widely regarded as a bellwether seat. Since the creation of this Lok Sabha seat in 1967, it has more or less reflected the national political mood: in 1967, when the anti-Congress wave swept across the country, it was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) candidate Chand Goyal who secured a win here.
In 1971, when Indira Gandhi had political momentum in her favour following the Bangladesh war, it was the Congress that wrested the seat from the BJS. In 1977, the post-Emergency sentiment was evident in this seat when it elected Janata Party candidate, the late Krishan Kant, who many years later became India’s vice-president. Chandigarh went with the national mood in 1980 and 1984, electing Congress candidates, but chose Harmohan Dhawan of Janata Dal in 1989 (who is in the fray as an AAP candidate in this election).
It was in 1991 that the 42-year-old Bansal was elected to the Lok Sabha from here for the first time. Congress party, however, lost polls in 1996 and 1998 when Chandigarh elected BJP’s Satya Pal Jain. Bansal went on to win a hat trick in 1999 and later in the years that saw a Congress resurgence in 2004 and 2009. In the elections of 2014, he lost amid a Modi wave.
Restoring the clean environment that the ‘city beautiful’ Chandigarh once boasted of, better equipped community parking spaces, and new public transport modes such as the Metro service are some of the dominant themes for the city in 2019. Sartaj, who identifies himself as an office-goer, not far from Sector 27 of Chandigarh where I meet him, says the incumbent MP seems to have not done enough to fix the city’s burgeoning civic issues.
“Which is why the feeling that a local person is more suitable here is gaining in momentum,” he says, but hastens to add that there are also a large number of people who say they will vote not for the BJP candidate here, but for Modi to continue as Prime Minister. Jasbir Kaur, a homemaker I meet in Sector 35, says she has lost interest in politics, but will vote for a person who understands the city better.
Surendra Singh, a businessman who runs an electronics appliances shop in Sector 30 of the city, isn’t impressed with the Central Government either. He feels that traders are in general upset with the BJP for what he calls a “perverse” move to make high-value denomination notes illegal tender in November 2016. Singh also shares the popular sentiment that a local leader would understand Chandigarh’s problems better than those who are “parachuted” to the constituency.
Raman Deep, a 21-year-old student of Chandigarh University who is currently an intern with a hotel located at Chandigarh’s Rajiv Gandhi IT Park, is anxious that the city is bursting at the seams. “A disaster by Chandigarh standards awaits us if someone doesn’t take leadership and measures on a war footing. Knowledge of local issues and conditions would be favourable,” he notes, without specifying for whom he would cast his first vote on May 19th, the last phase of this General Election.
He adds that several of his friends, however, feel that who rules at the Centre is more important than who is the local candidate, suggesting that they would vote for any candidate from the BJP. “But the overwhelming feeling is favourable to a local person,” he affirms.
In Sector 47, I run into Bholanath and Shivprasad Gupta who are street vendors selling fruit juice. They talk politics with finesse. “Many traders are upset with us for selling products for which they have to pay a tax. A section of politicians from all political parties are with them. AAP is the only party that we have instant access to,” says Bholanath, who, however, doesn’t want to vote for Dhawan whose reputation he feels is “tainted”.
Shivprasad, who is tight-lipped about whom he will vote for, argues that efforts on the part of candidates to establish their local credentials are “strong” now. This is why he sees sense in the argument that more people will back someone with an actual local connect. He doesn’t want to elaborate on that, he says with a smile. “But mind you, the nationalist rhetoric and Balakot won’t sell here. We are more down-to-earth and we have seen many wars. We don’t want a war here. We want our soldiers to be safe,” he says as he walks away to service a client.
Gourinder Singh, whom I meet inside the Gurudwara on Gurudwara Chowk, speaks with anger at the use of the achievements of the armed forces in politics. He admits that he dislikes the policies of the Central Government which he thinks has “destroyed our institutions and set the standards in politics and governance much lower than earlier”. In Chandigarh, too, the incumbent MP hasn’t done much to preserve the original, “well- planned” character of the city, he says.
In response to thin crowds at rallies and feedback from angry voters, and to tide over anti-incumbency, the BJP is highlighting what it says are its achievements over the past five years. The party is arguing that it is responsible for getting cleared changes in the Union Territory’s employees’ housing scheme that was pending for nearly a decade; Kher herself has taken credit for helping to raise the upper age limit for entry into government service in Chandigarh from 25 to 37 years.
The BJP’s Tandon says that it has also done a lot to improve sports facilities in the city. As people sit watching Bollywood star Akshay Kumar interviewing Modi on the TV screen outside his office, the city BJP chief says, “People will vote irrespective of who is the BJP candidate. There is a groundswell of support for Modi here and all over India.”
Most people Open spoke to in Chandigarh appear to give regional issues more weight than national ones. “We want a quiet life. That’s all,” Gourinder Singh says. For a city that has often reflected the national sentiment in its voting patterns, the statement is a telling one.