Located on the foothills of the Himalayas, Chandigarh, from any point in the city, offers a mesmerising view of the Shivalik range. For the ones who choose to fly down to the city, the site of the snow-capped ranges of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh from the plane is a sight to behold.
Geographically, this Union Territory is located at a unique juncture. Within a 20-minute drive, one can drive through three different states, that is Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. In terms of distance, it is closer to the Pakistan border on the west than to New Delhi in the south.
By virtue of its location, the city has grown into a lobbying point for students, professionals, and entrepreneurs from all states of North-India, and its location is that dictates its economics and politics today.
In terms of area, 1/13th of Delhi, 1/6th of Bengaluru, and 1/3rd of Lucknow, the city has enough infrastructure to sustain its needs and luxuries. Employment and education prospects are innumerable, as the region is surrounded by private and government universities and colleges, and two steadily growing special economic zones (SEZs). There are around 300 parks in this small city, so greenery is well taken care of. Roads are planned, traffic deadlock is rare, and sanitation coverage is excellent.
Thus, the simple task for any Member of Parliament is to ensure the maintenance of the city, along with ushering routine infrastructural developments that take care of the EWS population and other migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and sitting MP Kirron Kher has done well on this front.
Five years ago, when the Modi wave helped her cement her place in the city, she was replacing Congress’ Pawan Kumar Bansal, a political veteran who had been elected thrice from the city in 1999, 2004, and 2009, apart from a brief period in 1991. He was the Minister of Railways under UPA-2 for a brief period between 2012 and 2013. Kher had some big political shoes to fill, and she has been ‘relatively’ successful.
Kher’s five years are being evaluated against 15 under Congress’ Bansal. From 1999 to the late 2000s, the southern part of the city saw development as the city moved from a bungalow model to that of apartments with the upper building limit set at three floors. This area was equivalent to 1/10th the size of the city, and hence, its gradual development cross a decade reflected well on Bansal’s political resume.
However, the development in these sectors was slow and irregular. The early years were marred by long power cuts and poorly constructed roads. As the population moved to these parts of the city, development followed. Bansal is also fondly remembered for the greenery initiatives he took up in the city beginning early 2000s, as a result of which the city has an impeccable outdoor infrastructure.
With 10 years of Congress rule in the centre, and a 15-year tenure, it would be an exaggeration to term Bansal’s achievements as extraordinary. Bansal’s fall came when his nephew was held for cash-for-posts scam, accepting a bribe of Rs. 10 crore, to ensure plum postings within the Railway Ministry. Bansal denied involvement and no charges were pressed against him even after hours of questioning by the CBI. The term railgate, however, got associated with Bansal since then.
The Five-Year Report Card: MP Kirron Kher
Kher’s five-year term is a tale of scattered success stories. While the local media and Bansal have been sceptical of her tenure, citing her professional commitments as a reason for her lack of connection with the city and the people, the accusations seem misplaced.
Half-a-dozen villages on its outskirts surround Chandigarh. Kher’s tenure saw the installation of sewage pipelines in these villages.
Swarajya spoke to one of the residents of the Dadu Majra Colony, a village on the northern outskirts of the city. It turns out, the Prime Minister himself was directly involved in the completion of a critical project here in 2018. Naresh, a clerk in the legal chamber of the local court, narrates the entire incident.
“In late 2017, the new sewage disposal system was being constructed in our village, but in March last year, they abruptly stopped the work, citing lack of budget. For weeks, I and some other residents of the village approached the authorities, but it did not help. Due to the incomplete work, sewage water was flowing into our houses and had become a health concern”.
Elaborating further, “One day, I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister stating the entire condition of our village. While the residents had given up by then, I was hopeful. Within a month, the UT Administrator was here to take note of the situation, and the work resumed. Today, the sewage pipeline is complete”.
Kher’s tenure saw the opening of new community centres in the southern part of the city, installation of open-air-gyms, and the construction of new bridges in the city. Speaking to Swarajya, a local official said, “There were some unexhausted funds from the MPLADS (Minister of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) account from Bansal’s tenure. Kher’s term saw those funds, and her own, invested in the development work in the city”.
As per the MPLADs website, the fund utilisation from the funds sanctioned stands at 110 per cent for Kher’s tenure. This is when as much as Rs. 12,000 crore from the MPLADS fund remains unspent across India.
The city residents can proudly stake a claim in the success of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. In the majority of the southern sectors, the network for Piped Natural Gas (PNG), an alternative to Liquified Natural Gas (LPG) cylinders is now complete.
In four high-density population sectors and two villages, the gas pipeline is already functional. “The gas bills have come down, we do not have to worry about the cylinder count, and poor households are getting cylinders in other states. It’s a win-win for all”, a resident tells Swarajya.
One of the most significant developments of her tenure is moving all private properties to a freehold model from a leasehold one. This would enable owners to have a greater say in the sale and transfer of their estates. For the residents who were paying an annual lease, this is a big boon. Bansal, on the other hand, had failed in inculcating the freehold model even after several poll promises.
The Five-Year Report Card: Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Three things are always a stone’s throw away in Chandigarh. An aspiring candidate for an MTV reality show, a park, and a jeweller. The elaborate business network of precious and luxury metals in the city is a lobbying point for jewellers from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and some parts of Haryana.
Speaking to Swarajya, a leading jeweller from Sector 22, the region's jewellery capital, explains. "In the days that followed the infamous demonetisation, we saw a surge in the sale of luxury metals and finished products. People trading in electronic goods too saw a surge in sales as people were trying to get rid of the cash they had stacked for years. Metals were sold for 200 per cent higher cost, in some places 300 per cent, and a lot of jewellers made money. A lot of money, thus, came back in the formal economy, as no sale was made without a formal bill".
Upon enquiring if that helped in the conversion of black money into white, he further explained, "there were some jewellers that tried to fake bills, but the tax and revenue officials were already anticipating such a move. Some were raided as well, so it was not that simple," he says.
Speaking to another jeweller in Sector 17, a commercial space globally known, Swarajya learned how demonetisation was a pleasant disruption in the city. "Stock of gold was sold out in the first month after demonetisation and people had exhausted their savings. Thus, the demand for gold took a hit across 2017 and early 2018. Most middle-income groups are now investing in Sovereign Gold Bonds as it helps with income tax exemptions, so yes, the demand has suffered, but physical gold will never go out of fashion in Punjab," he smiles.
Another tycoon in the region went on length to describe why Modi was a big hit amongst the traders here. "The gold demand has suffered across India, so some jewellers are feeling the heat. GST has been a welcome move, and the traders are happy, and in recent months, even the business of physical gold has resumed like earlier. The traders in the city have witnessed the success of demonetisation to a certain extent, but the same cannot be said for traders who come from smaller towns, so there is some anger, but mostly, they all are happy. Even the real estate sector has seen a fall in prices, but the sales are resuming. It's all coming back on track. Whatever anger there was earlier, it has now evaporated”.
Amongst the greater part of the population, Modi's strong action against Pakistan has increased his political mileage. At the PM's recent rally in Chandigarh, the mere mention of the surgical and air-strikes was met with a loud cheer. Home to an Air-Force station on the outskirts, the city residents are audience to the Air-Force planes that take off each day. "We could not be prouder of our forces and leadership that inspires such a stern response," a student of Panjab University says.
A Close Contest On The Cards
Even with Modi’s success in the centre and Kher’s decent tenure, the fight for the single seat of Chandigarh will not be a cakewalk for the sitting MP. This can be attributed to an array of factors.
One, for years, the residents have been accustomed to seeing Bansal interact with them regularly. While Kher may not have been that accessible, she has got the job done. Two, the local media has been severely inclined towards the Bansal campaign, for the ‘local connect’ he has inspired. The perception of Kher amongst many is that of a parachute MP.
The celebrity MP rhetoric has worked for certain sectors and villages, but may not necessarily translate into votes, for the presence of Modi earlier this week and Kher’s local campaign has overshadowed the momentum attained by the Bansal camp in the early days of the campaigning. However, one can expect Bansal to succeed in some parts of the city.
For Bansal, the most significant liability is the face he represents, that of Rahul Gandhi. Kher, backed by Modi, is seen as the messenger of the city to the centre, given its governance is taken care of by the central government anyway. Bansal, even as a veteran, cannot shrug off the repulsiveness that accompanies the weak leadership of the Gandhi family in the current political scenario.
In the elections of 2014, Aam Aadmi Party’s Gul Panag debuted with a 23 per cent vote share while Kher took home a 42 per cent vote share. This time, with the AAP in shambles across the region, the critical 23 per cent vote share from the last election shall be up for grabs. Some may opt for the credibility of the Modi government, and some may choose the ‘local connect’ of Bansal. The ambiguity here adds an element of unpredictability in the contest, with an advantage to Kher.
Chandigarh, as a UT, makes its voting choices differently. For the residents here, the voting choice is dictated by the developments of the last five years, without the state governments of the three nearby states having any impact.
This time they will be choosing between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, with the latter leading a loose alliance. Thus, many will be hoping for the sitting MP to continue as their messenger in the centre.
Gul Panag, in a tweet, a few days ago, cited how the local faces and local issues must dictate voting choices. While her opinion does make sense constitutionally, the fact is that the last time a private member’s bill was passed was in 1970, before Bangladesh and the first Cricket World Cup happened.
Thus, the 15 years some people may cheer Bansal for will not be repeated in the next five, given the prospects of an NDA government in the centre. Kher, on the other hand, will have a challenge waiting for her in the next tenure.
Chandigarh, located in seismic zone four, has always witnessed troubles when it came to infrastructure development, land acquisition, and timely approvals for projects. While she has made the promise of getting the monorail to the city, the key would be in ensuring its financial sustainability with minimum impact on the environment, the latter being dear to the residents.
Like Modi, a second term for Kher will be about demolishing the usual theories that are attached to incumbency. The question is, can they both take the political game several notches higher from here.
This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details
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