Blame it on the constant cool breeze, the soothing green cover, or the lazy, winding roads. But the tone of political debate in Chandigarh remains way too polite in an election that is being pegged as a make-or-break war on corruption.
This past Friday, Hindustan Times held a debate among the three top contenders for the UT’s lone Lok Sabha seat — the Congress’ incumbent candidate Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kirron Kher and the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Gul Panag. The debate that followed was full of frothy jokes and a lot of promises, with an overall air of sincerity.
But even as the three were busy taking potshots and also listing out their development agendas, the political bubble was punctured only when one of our colleagues finally popped the question.
So what about Railgate, Mr Bansal? (For those of you who frequently forget scams and even mass murder, Railgate is the rather unimaginative name given to the railway bribery scam, in which a nephew of then rail minister Bansal was arrested by the CBI for accepting Rs 90 lakh from a senior official with the promise of getting him a lucrative post on the railway board.)
Bansal’s reply was typical of a brilliant lawyer, listing out dates, phone conversations and the fact that he has been given the clean chit by the investigating agency.
In fact, having resigned as rail minister after the case “due to hounding by the media”, legally he is now a prosecution witness and says that he wasn’t aware his nephew was striking any such deals.
Basically, the nephew was taking money even when he actually could not ensure the lucrative post to the official. For any of you who have played ‘flash’, a game of cards, the key word is ‘bluffing’. Who’s bluffing who, is the question. Mr Bansal is a brilliant lawyer.
Not surprisingly, after Bansal was finished with his argument, Kher made some noise about Railgate being a “national issue… everyone is talking about it”. Asked why she wasn’t one with everyone, she insisted that she did not want to make the campaign “personal”. Lesson learnt from the quintessential mummy: Corruption is a personal issue!
Panag too reacted but, for the sake of politeness, insisted right at the start that she wasn’t referring specifically to Bansal. Her comment was scathing: ‘If a minister is not aware of what was happening in his ministry, is because he was either incompetent or complicit.’
Bansal again took recourse to the legal details. The politics of it got lost. Having two political greenhorns as opponents proved convenient again for the incumbent.
Beyond that, neither Panag nor Bansal mentioned any riots, even as Kher left no opportunity to take the discourse to “national issues” and glorify Messiah Modi repeatedly.
But, going by the latest national fashion of taking digs at the naïve, Panag’s AAP remained a favourite target of both her “senior” opponents. Kher even lampooned the party’s leader Arvind Kejriwal for not shaving. All in good humour, though.
To their credit, all three listed out their priorities of roads, sanitation, public transport with metro rail, and safety of women. When Panag flashed data to support her allegations about lack of development, and Kher sang some more praises of Modi, Bansal listed out his achievements and modestly promised to complete the rest. Nothing really separated the three on these counts.
After several weeks of wrangling, even after the veteran Bansal got the ticket despite the taint, an earnest Panag came in after Savita Bhatti backed out, and a loud Kher entered the field to silence the BJP’s infighting, things have not changed much on the ground.
As I stressed in this column on December 29 (online at read.ht/aN7), the voter is now left to judge them on the basis of perception. The citizens have to decide whether they want to underline the ‘Modi wave’ by voting for a candidate who is merely his messenger, or vote again for an old-style politician who typically faces some corruption allegations.
Votes for Panag — the actual outsider in the political sense — will tell if the idea of AAP is essentially strong enough, or realpolitik retains its strength.
The discourse from all three candidates, as such, remains exceedingly polite but only cosmetically sincere.