G R O U N D   Z E R O

The old versus new in City Beautiful
The old-timers want Chandigarh to remain horizontal and leisurely. The new would like it to grow vertically and bustle with development. The Lok Sabha candidates will need to address the conflicting expectations.
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaFor me, walking at Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake is among the invigorating ways to usher in the morning. If you are a frequent morning walker, as I am, you are likely to encounter at least two of the candidates contesting the Lok Sabha seat for the Union Territory.

There is the striking Gul Panag, who like her party, AAP, is a first-timer in the poll fray. She usually jogs on the track but these days is seen stopping and shaking hands with walkers, requesting them to vote for her. Then there is the old warhorse, Pawan Bansal, the sitting Congress Member of Parliament, who shook off all claimants and persuaded his party to allow him to contest again.

You can see the greying Bansal walk briskly on most mornings when he is in town with a pleasant smile on his face. These days though he does look a lot more serious. Bansal has reason to be. He has contested for the Chandigarh seat six times and was defeated only twice. He knows the constituency well and has worked to improve it. But there is a shadow over his chances after the CBI arrested and charged his nephew, Vijay Singla, for allegedly accepting a bribe from a middleman for a transfer of a Railway Board Member when Bansal was Union Railway Minister. Bansal resigned as minister in May last year after that.

When I met him on the morning Shatabdi to Delhi a month ago, Bansal was confident that the Congress would permit him to contest again from Chandigarh. Bansal claimed he had no knowledge of his nephew’s shenanigans and the telephone conversations that were tapped by the CBI did not show any evidence of his involvement. While he has to persuade the Chandigarh electorate to believe his version, I was interested in knowing how such a major setback affected his life.

Bansal had an interesting reply. He said he had planned to go on a pilgrimage with his entire family to Uttarakhand in May last year but after he resigned from his ministerial post he cancelled the trip. That was fortuitous, for the days that he had planned to go to Kedarnath were the ones when a major cloudburst flooded the state, resulting in 5,000 deaths. In his hour of despair, he felt grateful to the Almighty.

While Bansal has loads of experience in politics, newbie Gul Panag is a refreshing entrant. I had met Gul only once before when we both were judges at the 2007 May Queen Pageant organised by the Indian Army in Delhi. She was the beauty and I was, if her boss Arvind Kejriwal’s opinion of the press is to prevail, the beast. A former Miss India (1999) herself, Gul struck me as intelligent, perceptive and unafraid to speak her mind.

When she dropped in to meet me at my office yesterday, she recalled that as a school student she would drive by and look at The Tribune’s Chandigarh office with awe, craning her neck to see the board on top that displayed the latest news. She was in a way countering snide remarks that she was more of a Patiala girl, where she went to college, than from Chandigarh. She made it a point to mention that she had done her MA from Panjab University recently and was concerned about the future of Chandigarh.

The BJP late last night announced city-bred Kirron Kher as its candidate. Meanwhile, Bansal and Panag are an epitome of the old and the new. Bansal knows the power levers that drive the capital of two states, Gul is new to the business having spent much of her time pursuing an acting and modelling career. Gul though appears a willing and fast learner, hitting the ground running and brushing shoulders with the low and mighty of Chandigarh.

The candidates are aware it is important to resolve the clash of culture and income groups that characterises the city. There are those that live in old Chandigarh, where wealth and power is calculated by how small the single-digit sector number is that one lives in. The issue for them is preserving whatever is still ‘pristine’ in City Beautiful and saving it from rapacious builders and politicians.

Then there is the relatively new Chandigarh, where the sector number matches the population density of 40 people per kanal. They live huddled together in a row of flats, clothes hanging in balconies. Roads are poorly maintained, drains overflow and garbage piles up. They have a harrowing time commuting to work and struggle to eke out a living. They would like the city to grow vertically and bustle with development, while the older residents want it to remain horizontal and leisurely. Any candidate that stands from Chandigarh would have to resolve the conflict of expectations and come out with a convincing narrative. Chandigarh is in many ways a microcosm of the urban electorate in the country. Its denizens want good governance and an end to corruption. They want to live the Indian dream of a decent house, civic amenities, good schools for children and a safe environment to live in. We can only wish the best candidate wins.





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