Can Poll Campaigns Be Clean & Sans Enmity? Yes, Says Gul Panag
Five years ago, almost to the date, I fought my first election. It was a life changing experience. And I’d gladly go back and do it again, even if the outcome remained the same. It was an impulsive decision, to be honest.
The idea of AAP as ‘anti status quo-ists’ was something I believed in – and I had set aside time to campaign for some of their candidates like HS Phoolka, someone I’ve long admired. When Chandigarh’s AAP candidate withdrew, I reached out to Arvind Kejriwal and threw in my hat.
Learning Politics from Scratch, Despite a Degree in Political Science
Chandigarh is the city I call home. I knew it like the back of my hand. Or so I thought. When I got down to plan the campaign for AAP, I realised there was a lot more to the city than I was familiar with. Chandigarh, despite its ‘planned city’ veneer, is a city that’s sharply divided between the affluent northern sectors and the more densely populated lesser affluent southern sectors. It’s almost two cities. Contrary to how Chandigarh is often perceived – as an upper middle-class heaven, the city has a lot of socio-economic inequity, and has 22 villages and 15 colonies in addition to the 56 sectors .
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The advantage of contesting from a start-up party is that you learn all the processes first hand – because established parties have teams that are well-versed with all that needs to be done. The nomination paperwork for starters. It’s exhaustive if you want to put everything out there. And if one is sitting on it personally, you know exactly what goes on the affidavit.
Of course, I had two lawyer friends and my chartered accountant, among others, who worked on the paperwork. I was very careful with what I put there. For example, even though I had completed my Masters in Political Science in 2013, I still didn’t have my degree certificate in hand – and thus, worried for days about mentioning it in the affidavit. I finally went without it.
Campaign, Celebrity, and Loo Breaks
The party volunteers put together a fantastic campaign plan, and I was on the trail at 6 am everyday until 8 pm – always shadowed by the ever vigilant Election Commission team – on the look out for possible violations. The plan of course, was to go door to door – covering every area at least twice. We walked 15 kilometers everyday on an average (as per my friend’s Fitbit).
I carried biscuits in my bag for hunger pangs, and developed excellent bladder control. Over time, I lost my awkwardness and just knocked on a door whenever I felt the need to go. It felt good to shed the ‘celebritydom’ induced ‘mask ‘ of being prim and proper. Loo breaks were also a great way to connect, because they would often turn into tea breaks in the homes of the constituents.
Where is the Money, Honey?
Our strategy of going door to door effectively countered the big money we couldn’t afford to spend. The legal limit to spending was 54 lakhs (since Chandigarh was a UT, the limit was lower than other parliamentary constituencies). I was fortunate to be able to raise almost the entire sum through public funding – something else I learnt about – and it is the backbone of a campaign.
Despite the financial constraints, our campaign rocked at so many levels. It was one of four most talked about contests in 2014 (others being Varanasi, Amethi and Amritsar). We found unique ways to engage. My motorcycle rallies became a hit (giving me the dubious distinction of being featured in The Economist and other foreign press). We couldn’t afford typical political rallies ( the chairs, tentage, etc was too expensive). Instead, we focused on going to every locality to hold smaller, more intimate gatherings. Despite all this, we still had money left and returned it to donors.
Contest, Not Fight
Another thing I learnt was, is that it’s possible to run an effective campaign that is also clean and positive – without personal attacks on one's opponents. The level of political discourse in Chandigarh was in sharp contrast to what was happening at the national level. Pawan Bansal, Kirron Kher and I engaged often, and sometimes on a common platform. Their political affiliation apart, I have the highest personal regard for both of them.
The heart of my campaign was of course the tireless group of volunteers. Friends and family, shopkeepers , auto-rickshaw drivers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, PR professionals, and lawyers – the volunteer base comprised wonderful people from all walks of life working side by side – most of who took time off from their source of livelihood to come and support our campaign. All of them believed in the need to change the manner in which politics is done. We need to bring back faith in that dream, a dream that appears to have lost its way. Because status quo benefits the entrenched parties only.
What I’m Doing in 2019
As I look back now with objectivity, I realise that it was probably an impossible election to win. However, at the time I didn’t think so. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from all quarters – from rickshaw pullers to those who lived in the huge homes that comprise the ‘northern’ sectors. I was also overwhelmed by how much money we raised – again from all quarters – from the labourers waiting at ‘labour chowk’ to those who opened their hearts to write cheques.
Chandigarh has had an uncanny knack of almost always voting in a candidate that belongs to the party that forms the government. And my guess is, it will be the same this time. Sitting this one out was an easy decision to make, given that my son is barely a year old. I look forward, however, to campaigning for candidates I believe in.
Because our strength is our public representatives, and we must choose those who will be available and accountable to us. That’s how parliamentary democracy works. The powers that have what it takes to set and shape the narrative may project the coming contest as a presidential one – but it isn’t. We aren’t voting for a presidential candidate by proxy. Irrespective of which party forms the government, it is my hope that it is as a result of worthy candidates that are elected – who will be accountable to their constituents.
(Gul Panag is an actor, pilot, politician, entrepreneur, and a lot more. She tweets@GulPanag. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)