How can you cover an election in India without meeting at least one actor on the campaign trail?
So much has been said and written about celebrities in Parliament — and whether or not they contribute to the quality of governance — that I felt it was important to follow at least one to try and understand what motivates them to run for office. I chose Gul Panag, an actor, model and social activist, who is contesting on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket from the Union Territory of Chandigarh, which went to polls on April 10.
The Gul I encountered was most un-Bollywood like. Her door-to-door campaigns were bristling with energy. She had a certain idealistic — almost college student-like — earnestness with which she addressed prospective voters. That made her easy to identify with, particularly among women and younger voters. If she was speaking to you, she would square her shoulders towards you and look at you very directly in the eye, so you knew she was addressing you and nobody else. Then there were these giant, tight hugs — more body contact than I have seen on any other campaign.
While she was campaigning, Gul told me that one of her biggest challenges was overcoming voter apathy in Chandigarh, something she emphasized in all her speeches. Chandigarh registered an impressive 74 per cent voter turnout, up by 12 per cent from the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Some credit for this, I suspect, must go to all those AAP boots on the ground and their meticulous door-to-door campaigns, wooing voters in sector after sector in Chandigarh to come out and vote.
Gul Panag debated her Congress opponent and incumbent MP Pawan Bansal (center) and BJP opponent Kirron Kher (far left) at an NDTV debate moderated by journalist Barkha Dutt. The program was shot at Sindhi Sweets, a bustling eatery at Chandigarh’s Sector 17 Market.
At the Aam Aadmi Party office in Chandigarh. Pictured are Gul Panag’s parents: Lt. General HS Panag (Retd.) and Annie Panag. They’re part of the campaign’s core team and a huge source of support for their daughter. Panag’s husband, Rishi Attari and her brother, Sherbir Panag, as well as a large part of her extended family have thrown their weight behind her campaign.
Nitya Rao is an independent Indian photojournalist based in Boston. She is interested in documenting political and human interest stories, and is currently traveling across India to capture the mood of the country as it conducts its 16th Lok Sabha election.