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
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
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
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
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
"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
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