HT interview: Chandigarh needs a new Le Corbusier, says Manish Tewari - Hindustan Times
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HT interview: Chandigarh needs a new Le Corbusier, says Manish Tewari

May 15, 2024 08:49 PM IST

Interacting with Hindustan Times in Mohali on Wednesday, Tewari spoke about the national electoral scene, took potshots at his BJP opponent and batted for a new governance model for Chandigarh

Contesting his first Lok Sabha election from Chandigarh, Manish Tewari, 59, senior Congress leader and two-time MP from Ludhiana and Anandpur Sahib, is counting as much of his old local roots and parliamentary track record as on anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP which won the last two Lok Sabha polls from the City Beautiful. Interacting with Hindustan Times in Mohali on Wednesday, Tewari spoke about the national electoral scene, took potshots at his BJP opponent and batted for a new governance model for Chandigarh. Edited excerpts:

Chandigarh Congress candidate Manish Tewari interacting with Hindustan Times staffers in Mohali on Wednesday. (Sanjeev Sharma/HT Photo)
Chandigarh Congress candidate Manish Tewari interacting with Hindustan Times staffers in Mohali on Wednesday. (Sanjeev Sharma/HT Photo)

After four phases, what’s your take on the national electoral scene?

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When this election began, the BJP-led ruling dispensation thought this is going to be a walk in the park. But after four rounds of polling, it’s evident that the ground has slipped from beneath their feet. This is indicative in the manner in which they changed their campaign stances. From ‘Abki baar, 400 paar’ slogan to (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s guarantees, BJP’s pitch has gone off the radar. The kind of obtuse statements from the PM, which do not behove his office, it is clear there is panic. My own sense based on reports I’m getting from colleagues across the country is, ‘BJP dakshin mein saaf aur uttar mein haaf hai (The BJP is wiped off in the south and is halved in the north). They will be struggling to reach 150. There’s a mood for change. Issues resonating on the ground are inflation and unemployment. The ground reality and BJP’s rhetoric are parallel tracks and are not destined to meet. But as they say, it’s never over till the fat lady sings. Let’s wait for June 4.

What is working for INDIA bloc?

The pain and misery on the ground is working for us. During the UPA government’s tenure, the BJP called it ‘gadde khodne ki scheme’, but in the past 10 years, MNREGA budgets have gone up from 33,000 crore to almost 91,000 crore. Almost a 300% jump. This is indicative of the rural distress. Similarly, if you look at urban India, inflation has hit household budgets hard, particularly the price of LPG cylinders, petrol, diesel at a time when international prices of crude and gas have moderated. Unemployment is a huge issue. 36 lakh government posts are vacant. Youngsters going abroad in droves is a sign of how deep the frustration runs. Besides these fundamental issues, there is a sense of unease that democracy is under challenge.

You were born and brought up in Chandigarh, but chose to make your electoral debut from Ludhiana in 2009. Then you shifted to Anandpur Sahib in 2019 and won your second term as MP. Why did you shift to Chandigarh?

I cut my political teeth in 1981 in Chandigarh as a National Students Union of India member. In 1983, I was elected vice-president of the NSUI at DAV College and then president. In 1984, my father was assassinated by terrorists. So our family’s blood is mingled in the soil of Chandigarh. It had always been my aspiration that I should represent the place where my late father had made the supreme sacrifice for the unity and integrity of the country. The decision to go to Ludhiana in 2004 was made by the party. We narrowly lost that election but won in 2009 by the highest margin in Punjab. In 2019, there was again a fairly respectable victory from Sri Anandpur Sahib. So, to return to my janmabhoomi (birthplace), I had work on many karmabhoomis.

How do you respond to your BJP rival Sanjay Tandon’s charge calling you an outsider?

This is a ridiculous statement and reflects a municipal corporation mindset that if you live in a particular ward you should only fight from that ward. My opponent first needs to ask why is Narendra Modi contesting from Varanasi? Why Rajnath Singh is standing from Lucknow? Why does Smriti Irani contest from Amethi? Are they natives of the places? This is a national election. The Constitution allows you to be an elector anywhere in India and to contest from any constituency. These are decisions parties take keeping the larger political context in mind. But if you’ve been a frog in a well, your vision gets blinkered.

The BJP won the last two parliamentary elections in Chandigarh largely due to the Modi wave. How will the Modi factor play out this time?

It’s obvious that Sanjay Tandon is insecure and does not have the conviction to fight on his own strength. That’s why you see hoardings in which he is almost hiding behind the PM’s persona. But what people of Chandigarh need to keep in mind is that a vote for Sanjay Tandon is a vote for Anil Masih, who slaughtered democracy. Had it not been for the Supreme Court’s intervention, democracy would have been dead in Chandigarh. Tandon and Masih are two sides of the same coin. Masih (the returning officer of the controversial Chandigarh mayoral elections of January 30 who apologised to the Supreme Court in response to a notice for making a false statement on the tampering ballot papers) continues to campaign for the BJP. I’m fighting on my own steam. This is the 17th day that I’ve challenged Tandon to openly debate on any neutral platform so that people can decide for themselves who is best placed to represent them in Parliament. Debate is the essence of democracy.

ALSO READ: Sanjay Tandon has gone into hiding: Tewari on debate dare

The absence of (former MP) Pawan Kumar Bansal from your campaign gives an impression that all is not well in the Congress.

Mr Bansal is a valued colleague who shared a great personal relationship with my maternal grandfather and my parents. He was a ministerial colleague of mine. As propriety demanded, I went to him, spent two hours with him and took his blessings. He was kind and courteous. Even yesterday, I reached out to him to be present at my nomination. He was kind enough to say that I have his blessings. I hope that in this ideological struggle for the soul of the nation that we are engaged in, where history itself is on trial, he would definitely do his bit when the fundamental issues of saving democracy are at play. I can understand that there could be a level of personal anguish. But I’m sure that he has the maturity, experience and sagacity to be able to surmount that and be with us in this existential struggle for the soul of this country.

Give us three reasons why people of Chandigarh should vote for you.

First, I have the track record of having been one of the most effective parliamentarians in my two terms. I don’t think there is any major national or international issue where I have not led the discussion from the treasury or opposition benches in Parliament. Second, I bring to the table ministerial experience. The solution to problems of Chandigarh don’t lie in Chandigarh. It being a Union territory, the solutions lie in Delhi. And solutions don’t lie in piecemeal policies. They lie in legislation whether it’s issues with regard to the Chandigarh Housing Board or regularisation of housing and colonies, or sale by share of property that has been proscribed by the Supreme Court. As someone who brings to the table both ministerial and legal experience of 32 years, I would be ideally placed to serve Chandigarh. Third, I’ll be the only MP who’s born in Chandigarh from 1967 onward.

What is your prime poll pitch?

Revisiting the fundamental governance model of Chandigarh that was conceived as a Union Territory in 1966. The model is completely antiquated. It’s time for the UT to become a city state. Chandigarh requires a proper governance structure supported by a comprehensive legal architecture whereby the multiplicity of authorities and laws that govern it be it the Periphery Act, the Punjab Capital Building Regulation and Development Act or the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation Act will be consolidated into a crisp simplified law that looks at all aspects of city life. My second priority would be a plan for the next 25 years. We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution standing on pillars of genomics, information technology, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Chandigarh is equipped from a human resource point of view to harness it. My priority would be to create a policy-based ecosystem which facilitates that this becomes the hub of the fourth generation technologies. It will attract investment and generate employment while giving youngsters a trajectory of how they would like to see their future.

But even a minor change in governance structure here invites sharp reactions from Punjab and Haryana, who see it as dilution of their claims on their joint capital. What’s the way forward?

It’s not going to be easy. But that’s where my experience and the relationships that I’ve built over a period of time, even across parties, will come handy. Conflicting claims on the city can stay where they are, but the city has to move ahead. It requires a proper legal structure to facilitate better administration, better ease of business and ease of living. The template for this cooperation can be the Chandigarh Metro project. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) was able to even out a lot of issues with regard to coordination between Delhi, UP and Haryana. Ultimately, both Punjab and Haryana would also have to be brought around to understand that this entire region, like the research triangle in the US, has tremendous potential. If you are able to turn this into a greater metropolitan area without giving up your conflicting claims, you would be able to add value to your own states also.

The Congress and AAP are fighting each other in Punjab but allies in Chandigarh. Is the alliance working on the ground?

This is not something new. In Kerala, the CPM and the Congress have been fighting against each other for four decades. But we cooperate on the national level. The primary objective of the INDIA bloc is to save democracy, ensure that the country doesn’t become an oligarchy and form a government in Delhi which works for 140 crore people and not for one industrialist. Our alliance in Chandigarh is working out very well. In Punjab, there is no Congress-AAP alliance because there is no BJP.

Chandigarh has long been stuck in the debate of heritage versus modernity.

Chandigarh needs a new Corbusier who is in sync with the current times and can balance out these conflicting imperatives. No city can be cast in stone. You’re talking about a city conceived in the 1950s. Even if you look at cities that date back millennia such as Athens, London, Paris and Prague, they update their infrastructure. I don’t think Le Corbusier ever ordained that whatever he had conceived for a city with a population of 55,000 would hold good when the number has become 2 million. Chandigarh can’t be a museum piece.

After the Supreme Court order on heritage sectors, people are facing problem of registration of properties.

The Chandigarh administration never defended that case properly in the Supreme Court. They filed an affidavit in the Punjab and Haryana high court saying the apex court does not allow the sale of share-wise property that is incorrect. The SC only recorded that particular finding but gave no decision on it in the concluding paragraphs. So, the Chandigarh administration is being too clever by half. Eventually, the solution lies in a law in Parliament which we would bring to ensure that share-wise transfer of property is permitted because that’s a legal right under Article 300A of the Constitution.

If elected, what will you do to start international flights from Chandigarh?

Chandigarh is on a no-go list for international carriers given the fact that it is a military airport. So, till the time it does not get designated as a port of call where foreign airlines can come to, this problem is not going to get resolved. I’ve worked with successive civil aviation ministers to see that it happens, but there is resistance from the defence side. The second is cartelisation. The privatisation of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other airports have become an impediment for regional connectivity. They don’t want carriers to fly internationally from subsidiary destinations.

The tricity is now seen as a single entity. But lack of synergy between administrations of Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula is not only delaying progress on the shared infra projects, but also leaving gaps in response to law and order issues.

Once you have a mass rapid transport system off the ground, that would become the incubator which would facilitate cross-state cooperation. The Metro project can become a template.

Outgoing BJP MP Kirron Kher is blamed for the delay in the Metro project.

Mrs Kher was a valued colleague in Parliament. Unfortunately, she was not focused. Sanjay Tandon, who was city BJP president for 10 years, ensured she does not become successful. So, if things didn’t take off, the blame has to be apportioned between her and the gentleman contesting now against me.

Does Panjab University deserve status of central university to tide over its chronic financial crisis and move to the next level to become a world-class institution?

The problem of Panjab University is that it has become the laboratory of the RSS where they preach and practise divisiveness. Even before they murdered democracy in the municipal corporation, they did that in PU when they didn’t allow the senate election results to get notified. It has had a set of bad vice-chancellors. Funding by the Government of India can be given without changing the status. You don’t need to fiddle with its existing character to make it a better-funded university. But funding is not the only problem it faces. The real problem is the ideological onslaught it is facing.

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