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February 9, 1998


Khanna promises Gurdaspur Paris, Congress says he will cut and run

Shedding the grease and paint of his tinsel world image, political debutant and Bharatiya Janata Party nominee Vinod Khanna is now enacting a different role in Gurdaspur.

Khanna, who pedals the dream of transforming this backward constituency into a modern-day Paris, is trying to unseat Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, the Congress heavyweight who has been returned from Gurdaspur five times on a trot since 1980.

Though there are nine candidates in the fray, it is a direct contest between Khanna and Bhinder, a gutsy campaigner and a star in her own right. Khanna, who is being described by the Congress as 'a star that appears by night and vanishes at day', has made the going tough for the Congresswoman who was minister of state for tourism in the Narasimha Rao government.

The BJP's decision to field the Bollywood star from one of Punjab's most underdeveloped areas took Bhinder by surprise. Now she is trying hard to convince the electorate that Khanna will vanish after the poll.

Countering this, Khanna, who is accompanied by his wife Kavita -- daughter of Bharat Radiators chairman Sharayu Daftary and niece of Premier Automobiles chairman Vinod Doshi -- talks about his Punjabi roots and swears that if he wins the poll he would turn the constituency into Punjab's most developed area.

Akali leader and legislator Kartar Singh Pada, whose party is supporting the BJP, says he is sure Khanna will keep his word, and assures the electorate so.

"Khanna sahib has decided to buy some land in the constituency. We shall build a house for him," he repeats at meetings, "Not only that, his wife Kavita is like a daughter-in-law of the village elders. She should not be disappointed."

Expectedly, Khanna's entry has added glamour to the contest. Right from the day the star of such hits as Amar Akbar Antony stepped in, he has been an instant hit with the electorate, especially the youth.

The Rajneesh disciple has already addressed rallies in all the nine assembly constituency segments of the Lok Sabha seat, which comprises an electorate of 1.09 million. Another factor that should stand Khanna in good stead is that five of these assembly segments are with the BJP, while the Akali Dal (Badal) won the other four in the last assembly poll.

While all the nine MLAs, including four ministers, work earnestly for the Bollywood star, Bhinder's campaign is being hobbled by a section of the Congress. The party, however, is going all out to woo the 40 per cent Hindu voters by alleging that the Akalis were responsible for sowing the seeds of terrorism in the state, and it was the Congress which brought back peace.

The Congress is also heavily relying on its traditional votebank -- the scheduled castes and Christian voters. While the former comprises 24 per cent of the electorate, the latter accounts for five per cent.

The Akali Dal, meanwhile, is concentrating on the Sikh voters, who comprise 28 per cent of the electorate.

Khanna, who is conducting his campaign from a rented house in Gurdaspur town, has been drawing impressive crowds, but much depends on whether he can convince them of his intentions to stay back and nurse the area if he wins. He has charged the Congress candidate with ignoring the constituency, particularly those areas which are across the Ravi river, near the Pakistan border.

Bhinder may not have initiated any major development during her long tenure, but she is credited with having provided jobs to a large number of youth in the police and paramilitary forces through her husband. Pritam Singh Bhinder -- who served as Delhi's police commissioner during the Emergency, headed the Punjab police force for a while before taking charge of the Central Reserve Police Force -- manages his wife's campaign.

Bhinder is counting on her performance and the enduring relationship she has with the electorate to see her through.

"A vote for the Congress is a vote for development, not bloodshed," she says, "The Congress stands for secular values and stability while the BJP and the Akali Dal are communal. I am also supported by the Communists and the Bahujan Samaj Party."

For Bhinder, the stakes are high. And so is it for her party -- only once, during the Janata Party wave of 1977, did a non-Congress candidate win from Gurdaspur.


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