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February 14, 1998


Vinod Khanna carries the battle into Sukhbans Kaur's camp

Prem Panicker in Gurdaspur

In Gurdaspur district, which borders Jammu and Kashmir and, in one segment Pakistan, the BJP-SAD combine is fighting what it calls a now-or-never battle.

The equation, facing the 1 million plus voters spread over a predominantly rural district comprising 1,600-odd villages, is simple -- the deep down roots of Congress candidate and five-time winner Sukhbir Kaur Bhindar, versus the charisma of BJP-SAD candidate and filmstar-turned-producer-turned politician Vinod Khanna.

Arithmetically, both parties have their own reason for optimism. In the 1996 election, Bhinder polled over 237,000 votes. On that occasion the SAD and the BJP, contesting independent of one another, polled approximately 142,000 and 162,000 votes respectively. Now that the SAD-BJP is contesting in tandem, a simple tally of their votes appears to give the alliance an edge.

However, on that occasion a Congress-Tiwari candidate polled around 9,000. A CPI-M candidate and a BSP candidate each polled over 20,000. And when you take into account the fact that this time, the Congress is united and that Bhinder has the backing of both the Marxists and the BSP, the BJP-SAD's optimism seems flawed.

The BJP, however, has over the past 15 months visibly entrenched itself in a constituency where Hindus have the numerical edge among the one million-odd voters, followed by the Sikhs and Christians -- the latter posting a solid 8 per cent of the population.

That the BJP-SAD had managed to cut deeply into what was a Congress safe seat became apparent in the 1997 election to the state assembly, when the alliance candidates swept all nine seats on offer in the region. "If the BJP does not win this seat now, then you might as well put up a sign saying 'Congress only, others need not enter'," says the reporter of a local cable television outfit.

The BJP appears to have scored an initial salvo in the choice of candidate -- though Vinod Khanna's name did not go down too well with the Akalis initially. Bhinder, sure of her candidature, had begun touring the interior villages the minute the poll dates were announced, and thus had a considerable head start over the BJP-SAD, which announced its candidate on the very last day before nominations closed. A career politician, then, would have had some trouble even introducing himself to a constituency comprising 1,600 villages scattered like confetti and linked by dirt tracks of the kind car manufacturers use to test the suspension of new models.

But hey, Vinod Khanna needs no introduction, right? Right, and that fact alone would appear to have negated Bhinder's headstart.

The Congress candidate who, locals say, was used to waltzing thru various elections in the past, is, thus, pushed into working really hard in a bid to pull off a sixth win.

Bhinder's campaign is rather curious. Sonia Gandhi, stability. And her own Sikh origins. These are quickly touched open, as are her contributions -- a college, a few schools, a food and catering institute. But the bulk of her speech-making consists of a vitriolic attack on Khanna.

He is not, she says, from and of Gurdaspur. "Will you go running to Bombay to ask for help each time there is a flood?"

He is not, she says, a person capable of empathising with the poor denizens of Gurdaspur. "Arre, he doesn't even drink our water, his case is full of Bisleri bottles!"

He is, like all film stars, all show and no substance. Just another puppet who first obeyed his director, and now dances to the BJP's tune.

There's more, but you get the point. The leitmotif is, you know me, I am one of you, who the hell is Vinod Khanna, what is Gurdaspur to him or he to Gurdaspur anyway?

Bhinder's speeches are brief. She stops at a street corner, fires off her salvoes and zip, off she goes to the next corner. Almost as if she is hell bent on touching base with every corner of her constituency in one and the same day -- I followed her around for all of five hours through 9 villages surrounding Gurdaspur and boy, the lady sets a scorching pace.

Another plus -- she seems to know everyone and his uncle. In each village, the Sarpanch is greeted by name, his family enquired into in detail. It is only when I accompany her in her vehicle between the whistle stops that the penny drops -- from what I overhear, and from innocent-seeming questions of a member of her entourage, I find that Bhinder plans her day very well. Having decided where she is going, she ensures that locals from that area are part of her entourage, and between stops, she is thoroughly briefed about the village she will stop in next.

Meanwhile, the Khannas are camped in Shial House, a guest bungalow in Pathankot. And it is a war zone out there. The support cast in permanent residence include journalist Maneck Davar, PR man Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, Vinod's brother Pramod (whose grey hair suggests that the black mane Vinod himself sports comes straight out of a bottle), Kavita's mother businesswoman Sarayu Daftary and industrialist Suresh Shah... a galaxy of Bombayites, in fact. All of them obviously realising for the first time in their lives just how difficult an election-campaign can be, how numbingly arduous.

The Khanna camp swears that there is no think-tank. No deep election strategy sessions. That the candidate is simply winging it.

Somehow, after watching the husband-wife team in action, I find that hard to believe. The Khanna campaign shows every sign of deep thought.

The decision to split up, sending Vinod one way and Kavita another, is proving to be a master-stroke to start with. You would normally expect to see the wife dutifully tailing behind her hubby, but Kavita believes in her own and, thanks to her in-our-face confidence, is proving to be a star in her own right.

I could give a dozen examples. One, however, will suffice. On the morning of 13th, she heads off into the villages around Gurdaspur. Bhinder country. Her first stop is Tamrahi, a little hamlet of around 40 to 50 huts. I got there about half an hour before she arrives -- and the native are already clustered, all expecting Vinod. A local farmer, Sardar Gurdev Singh, tells me that Khanna was due to visit them yesterday, but Advani's rally upset his schedule.

A puff of dust heralds the cavalcade. The Maruti van swings to a stop, and it is Kavita who emerges, in company of local MLA Roop Rani Kaur. There is some surprise among the assembled -- I notice a few glances towards the car, as though expecting Vinod to emerge.

Meanwhile, a single line intro is all Kavita needs, to be off and running in chaste Hindi.

"My husband sent me here to very humbly beg your pardon, not only for making you wait yesterday but for not being here today." First, she says, Vajpayee's plane was denied permission to land at Pathankot. Then, on the 13th, Advani was delayed because they did not give him clearance till four hours behind schedule. She manages to convey the impression that it is a deliberate ploy by the government to hamper her husband, to prevent him being there.

She then talks of her hubby's Jat origin, dubbing herself 'Punjab ki bahu.' She says that God must have intended for the Khannas to work in Gurdaspur. "When we were shooting for Himalayaputra in Dalhousie last year, we came to Pathankot very often, and received so much love from you all..."

A savage indictment of Bhinder follows. "Twenty years as your representative and what has she done? No roads, no lights, no water. Not even a girl's college. Does she expect your daughters to go outside to study? Or does she, a woman herself, want your daughters to remain in ignorance and illiteracy?"

Every pulse point is hit, every emotive button pushed with impeccable timing. And thru it all, no one stirs, no one fidgets, there is no 'my dear lady, we came to see a star and you aren't it.' And when she ends her speech, she is mobbed almost as though she, not Vinod, is the marquee man.

Vinod Khanna, meanwhile, is touring elsewhere. And his attitude is macho, combative. A can-do will-do kind of approach. His day on the 13th starts with a visit to the district court where the bar association is giving him a public endorsement (shewdly, Vinod's managers have got the blocs -- lawyers, the local lorry drivers union, ex-servicemen's association, Christian forum, et all -- to publicly endorse him).

He hits the same pressure points that Kavita does. But what interests me is his response to a demand by the bar association that he back their call for the creation of a separate Pathankot district. "I concede that it is important," he says, "But I personally request you not to press for it now. Rather, let me and you work together to solve the really pressing problems -- roads, education, bridges, infrastructure. Such matters as the creation of a district can wait."

Strange, nine pols out of 10 would have simply said yes to the demand which is made with heat, got the applause and walked away. "I have been taking care to promise only what I can do," he tells me later when I ask about this.

His response to Bhinder's tirade is mocking. Humorous. And very unstated. A quiet reiteration of the fact that his family is from Peshawar, that they shifted to Amritsar after Partition, that he is as Punjabi as aloo paratha, and an indictment of Bhinder's non-performance as MP, are all delivered calmly, sans showmanship.

Meanwhile, there are interesting support acts. Vide, for instance Gurbachan Singh, a wrestler. A native of Gurdaspur, Gurbachan -- now settled in Bombay where he and his brother run a gym frequented by Anil Kapoor among stars -- is instantly recognised and mobbed wherever he goes. And he goes everywhere either with Kavita or Vinod. And when the locals cluster, he speaks to them as one local to another, asking for their support, earning brownie points by teaching the young ones wrestling holds, and shrewdly transforming nativity by association to Vinod.

Meanwhile back at base, the likes of Maneck, Pramod Khanna and Shah are busy hitting the phones. Orchestrating coverage in the local media, (Ten journalists, in such a small town, land up for a briefing cum dinner on the night of the 10th), coordinating between husband and wife. Keeping the whole in smooth motion.

"The BJP did very well to field Vinod Khanna here, no local leader had a chance against Bhinder but with Khanna, we just might break the Congress hold."

The speaker is Seva Singh. And it is quite an admission considering the Akalis were none too keen on Khanna to start with -- for Seva Singh is no less than a senior member of the Shiromani Akali Dal's working committee.

The Vinod Khanna Interview

Campaign Trail

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