Politics

Chandigarh's Voting Patterns Show Kirron Kher's Victory is No Aberration

The electoral outcome in the union territory – with the exception of 1967 and 1999 elections – has always gone in favour of the party emerging as the winning one either on its own or as a coalition maker.

Of late, there has been greater recognition of states (and the sub-state regions within them) as preferred analytical units for election studies in India, unlike the past when everyone attempted all-India-based election studies. There is, however, a critical need to go beyond and consider constituencies as the units in the study of elections.

Given the size and variations, parliamentary constituencies in India are fairly comparable even to the constituent states in federal states like Australia, Nigeria and even the US, among others.

Chandigarh constituency has a territory of 114 sq kms and a population of approximately 1.2 million, and due to its predominantly middle class/upper caste character, offers a laboratory-like environment for a controlled study of elections in a limited geographical/human space.

Centrally-appointed bureaucrats run this union territory. Governor of Punjab is the ex-officio chief administrator of the UT, assisted by his advisor, again a civil servant. The city forms the major part of the Lok Sabha constituency, but it has also its share of villages and semi-developed colonies, pathetic slums in the periphery – the latter inhabited by the ones who came to build this city from scratch – and migrant workers.

Chandigarh became both a Lok Sabha constituency and union territory in 1966 and also the joint capital city of both Punjab and newly-created Haryana. Before that, it was an assembly constituency of Punjab.

Chandigarh, unlike Delhi and Puducherry, now only has a municipal council and no legislative assembly. Councillors are dependent on the bureaucracy and belong to different factions headed by the BJP and the Congress city bosses.

What have been the electoral trends/processes/outcomes that have evolved in this constituency since the late sixties?

The first Lok Sabha elections were in many ways a trendsetter for subsequent ones in the sense that it was the future status of Chandigarh that emerged as a major electoral issue. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) demanded the transfer of city to Punjab whereas the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) stood for the status quo.

A file photo of Shiromani Akali Dal President Sukhbir Singh Badal and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.

However, the electoral outcome showed that SAD could not even fetch the majority Sikh votes from the constituency as the electorates in the city overwhelmingly have been in favour of the UT status, as reflected in the victory of BJS. Of late, SAD has not contested elections, nor has it supported BJS/BJP, its long-term state level ally in Punjab due to the two parties’ different stand on the issue.

The Indian National Lok Dal, another state-level party from neighbouring Haryana, has also not been able to make any headway in the UT, the latter contesting in 2014 election. Concern about status quo explains the residents’ proclivity to vote for the BJS/BJP and the Congress, as it brings resources to the city from both the Centre and the two states and also other privileges like lower rates of electricity, water, fuel and preferential treatment to the city children in the local schools and higher educational institutions of repute.

As the profile of the winning and runner-up candidates show, Chandigarh has always voted for the local candidates as they want a hands-on representative. The Congress candidate could not win in 1977 when party rebel Krishna Kant was able to win on a BLD ticket as the party gave a ticket to an ‘outsider’.

Besides, the electorates also give a lot of weight to candidates’ educational/professional qualification and performance. The city’s past MPs Krishna Kant, Jagannath Kaushal, Harmohan Dhawan and Pawan Bansal have acquired high political stature, becoming the vice-president, governor and cabinet ministers respectively.

Image is another important issue as alleged corruption charges against the three-time member of parliament and former senior cabinet minister Bansal have caused a shadow on his political standing in the constituency, despite him having worked credibly for the city both as an MP and as a Union railway minister and been given a clean-chit by the investigating agency.

Pawan Bansal. Credit: PTI

That performance on the ground matters is illustrated in the case of Dhawan, who despite winning only once in 1989 and then losing all elections contested on different parties’ (never on BJP or Congress) tickets, is still credited to having his own decent support base – especially among the underprivileged voters of the city.

Also, unlike the states it is a capital of, primordial identities like caste, religion and language do not matter much in influencing the electoral choices. Given the overwhelming upper-caste presence in the constituency, all the winning and runner-up candidates in the elections held so far came from upper/elite urban professional/business Hindu castes i.e. Bania/Aggarwal, Brahmin and Khatri with the sole exception of Kirron Kher, a Sikh married to a Kashmiri Brahmin.

Also read: BJP’s Kirron Kher Cements Her Lead in Chandigarh’s Three-Pronged Contest

The electorates’ support for national parties and national issues like in this election also has to do with most of them having upper-caste origin, an electoral trend elsewhere in the country as well. To illustrate, the electoral outcome in Chandigarh with the sole exception of 1967 and 1999 elections, has always gone in favour of the party emerging as the winning one either on its own or as a coalition maker.

The ‘satellite’ character of the constituency politics also has a lot to do with the dependence on the Centre to maintain the impressive infrastructure and facilities. Thus, the rise of the BJP at the national level was reflected in 1996, when for the first time a saffron party candidate won the election. The defeat of the BJP candidate in 1999 could be attributed to the fact that local incumbent candidate from the party was denied ticket in favour of an outsider – like in 1977 – though in the latter case, the candidate contested on a BLD ticket which formed government at the Centre as an ally of the Janata Party.

Do the voters in the constituency look for a winnable third alternative? The only time when a third party which had no possibility of forming government at the Centre but did fairly well in the constituency was in the 2014 election, when Gulkirat Kaur Panag, an actress like Kher and having similar city roots, polled more than one lakh votes, riding on the AAP anti-corruption wave.

Also read: Congress Holds on to Punjab – a State Where It Had a Prominent Local Leader

The electorates’ preference for continuity is also visible in the same contestants being repeated regularly by their respective parties even after losing the election (Table 1).

The 2019 election was not an aberration. In terms of participation, again the constituency recorded a high 70.6% polling with the colonies witnessing much higher voting than sectors. A close contest remained between the BJP and the Congress candidates. Dhawan, contesting this time on the AAP ticket, managed a negligent vote share, marking the sunset of his career. A maverick, Dhawan before this election had always managed to get a sizable vote share whenever he contested on different parties’ tickets due to his personal appeal/work among the less-privileged ones.

Table 1: Elections in Chandigarh Lok Sabha Constituency (1967-2019)

                                                       List of Winning Candidates
Year Voter Turnout (%)                       Winner Runner-up
Candidate Name % Party Candidate Name % Party
2019 70.62 Kirron Kher BJP Pawan Kumar Bansal INC
2014 73.71 Kirron Kher 42.20 BJP Pawan Kumar Bansal 26.84 INC
2009 65.50 Pawan Kumar Bansal 46.87 INC Satya Pal Jain 29.71 BJP
2004 50.91 Pawan Kumar Bansal 52.06 INC Satya Pal Jain 35.22 BJP
1999 48.35 Pawan Kumar Bansal 47 INC Krishan Lal Sharma 45.07 BJP
1998 53.69 Satya Pal Jain 42.36 BJP Pawan Kumar Bansal 38.7 INC
1996 58.41 Satya Pal Jain 39.05 BJP Pawan Kumar Bansal 29.79 INC
1991 57.84 Pawan Kumar Bansal 35.86 INC Satya Pal Jain 28.8 BJP
1989 65.67 Harmohan Dhawan 42.05 JD Jagan Nath Kaushal 40.22 INC
1984 68.93 Jagan Nath Kaushal 66.02 INC Harmohan Dhawan 23.56 JNP
1980 63.93 Jagan Nath Kaushal 49.65 INC(I) Ram Swarup 22.81 IND
1977 67.4 Krishna Kant 66.13 BLD Sat Pal 28.37 INC
1971 73.24 Amarnath

Vidyalankar

66% INC Shrichand Goyal 23% BJS
1967 49.66 Shrichand Goyal 48% BJS Amaranth

Vidyalankar

23% INC

Source: Election Commission of India

National issues as projected by the media like national security and global image, strong nation-building and decisive leadership mattered much more to cable-watching newspapers-reading voters than local issues like the growing traffic menace, affordable housing issues and a concrete jungle engulfing the city neighbourhood.

If Bansal, despite being a locally-rooted leader and credited with better performance and higher political stature than Kher was defeated, even if narrowly, it was more the victory of the ascendant BJP and its national narrative and leader. Now when Chandigarh has a BJP-dominated council, a BJP-appointee governor/chief administrator and also a majority government at the Centre, the city residents may hope to receive generous grants from the Centre.

After all, that is how they vote.

Ashutosh Kumar is a professor and Khusboo Mahajan is post-doctoral research associate (UGC) at Department of Political Science, Panjab University

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