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Poll date: 10 April

Chandigarh

Key candidates: Pawan Kumar Bansal, INC I Kirron Kher, BJP I Gulkirat Kaur Panag, AAP

Meena Rani, 22, doesn’t care about voting. A resident of Chandigarh’s Dhasan Complex, she doesn’t even look out of the window when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate, Gulkirat Kaur Panag, passes by. It’s not as if Panag’s campaign is easy to ignore—there are megaphones announcing, in Hindi, that “the daughter of Chandigarh, indeed your own daughter, Gul Panag, is amid you".

In the one-room, first-floor home she shares with her parents and brother, Meena is unimpressed. This is the first time she is eligible to vote. And like many of the 100 million-plus potential first-time voters in the country, what she cares about most is getting a job once she completes her medical records technician course. “Why should I vote? All those people who are telling me my vote is precious won’t come to help me once they win," she says.

That she is also one of the thousands of people caught in the cross-hairs of a developmental challenge of sorts in Chandigarh adds to her apathy: Meena’s family is among those who lived in the unauthorized Colony No. 5, which was demolished by the government in November.

Gul Panag on a door-to-door campaign
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Gul Panag on a door-to-door campaign

Seventy-year-old Tara Chand, a retired class IV employee of the Punjab Engineering College, is not swayed by the campaigning. “I have been voting for the Congress from when they had a yoked oxen symbol and then the cow-and-calf emblem, to the present day, when they have the Congress hand," he says. Things, he indicates, may be different now that “there’s a new party in the mix". “We had to fight to get a park made in our locality. We will discuss in a residents’ welfare association meeting about which party will likely do the most for us," says Chand, adding that he hasn’t missed a vote since he turned 19.

On the campaign trail, Bansal often falls back on “growth" when he wants to hit out at his two “star" opponents. “Can they even say how many sectors there are in Chandigarh today?" he said in a mix of Hindi and Punjabi, addressing a gathering in an auto repairs market in Sector 43.

Bansal is up against actors Panag and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Kirron Kher in Chandigarh, which now has upwards of 50 sectors in addition to high-population-density—and usually illegal—colonies. The number of registered voters is around 600,000; 45% of them are women.

Ironically, on a day when Bansal said it was unlikely his two main opponents knew the real issues of this “new" Chandigarh, which extends from Dhanas in the north to Dera Bassi in the south, Kher went to the faraway Kajheri village in Sector 52 for a public meeting with a group comprising largely migrant groups from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and Panag travelled to the other end of Chandigarh, for a rally in Bapu Dham Colony.

“There are two Chandigarhs. South of Madhya Marg, people have no facilities," says Panag. “My first job if I get elected will be to ensure equitable access to education and primary healthcare."

Everywhere Panag goes these days, she has only a few minutes—and the same three-sentence speech—to impress upon people that this is their one chance to vote in a party that comprises honest professors, professionals and common people like them, and that her party doesn’t have deep pockets to run a flashy campaign.

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Bansal, who frequently makes the point that Chandigarh is just 10x10 sq. km, supporting a population of over a million, takes questions about the corruption charge against him eagerly. The former railway minister says that while the Central Bureau of Investigation gave him a clean chit, his opponents are again bringing up the issue, either “out of ignorance or malice". Bansal’s role came under the scanner when his nephew was caught for taking a 90 lakh bribe in a cash-for-post scam.

Kher’s candidature was initially greeted by the local BJP unit with black flags, and she is now rarely seen on the campaign trail without a local senior BJP leader in her entourage—perhaps to signal that the internal rift is now mended.

At a “Ladies’ Meeting" on 27 March in Sector 28A—a stone’s throw from Bansal’s home—Kher is accompanied by Chandigarh BJP president Sanjay Tandon. The meeting is at the opulent home of an industrialist and BJP supporter. A charming man, Tandon jokes with the 100-odd women at the gathering about their influence in the household. “Woo a man and you get one vote, woo a woman and you are assured at least five," he says in Hindi to peals of laughter.

Kher, who says she’s not being able to campaign more because fans requesting photo opportunities slow her down, clearly has her eyes set on the women voters. As if on cue, a BJP party worker suggests she pose for a group photo with the women at the end of the meeting. The women jostle to get as close to Kher as possible. Kher seems pleased. She throws up her hands in mock exasperation, shouting out to the photographers in the gallery above: “I give up."

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