The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virtue and vice mix in soap vs spice
- Irani is Virani for everybody but rival Sibal asks Smriti who'

New Delhi, April 29: A cycle rickshaw ride from one end of Shraddhanand Marg to another is like transporting from sleaze to soap in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. At the far end is the BJP office where soapbox heroine Tulsi Virani is taking a comfort stop and is trying hard to be taken seriously.

She must make the effort — to be taken seriously — because Kapil Sibal, her rival from the Congress, is telling people that the BJP has fielded a “non-serious candidate”.

At the other end of Shraddhanand Marg, inside a grotty black and grey four-storeyed building, there is a brothel at No. 64, a leisure house on Delhi’s infamous “G.B. Road”. Chhaya, matron of the first floor business concern, proclaimed just minutes ago “Sab jhoot hai — everything is a lie” — “nobody is born Hindu or Muslim, we make them so”. She wants to be taken seriously, too. Her girls service their clients irrespective of caste, creed and religion.

Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is one of the smallest constituencies in the country spanning 10.59 sq. km and 3,87,000 voters but it captures within it a diversity that the rest of urban India can barely rival. Smriti Irani, who has entered drawing rooms in her avatar as Tulsi Virani, the character at the centre of the hugely successful television serial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi is seeking entry into Parliament by claiming to represent all that is virtuous in Indian womanhood while her constituency is also home to the capital’s den of vice.

But the contrast between virtue and vice is dwarfed by Chandni Chowk’s other symbols – the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort, delivering a speech from the ramparts of which is the ambition of every wannabe Prime Minister.

All calculations of electoral politics, all the speculation on who will swing a deal with whom before or after elections, all permutations and combinations of coalitions come to a full stop here. Who will claim the Red Fort'

In its shadow, in midsummer heat, Sibal and Irani march through the narrow lanes and bylanes in separate groups. Sibal takes the spice route on a weekday morning, picking his way amid the smells of asafoetida and fenugreek and fennel seed through the kirana markets of Haider Kuli and Fatehpuri. He is showered with petals of marigold and roses. In Ballimaran, near Mirza Ghalib’s decrepit house, they are ready for him. The Congress has a semblance of organisation here.

“Sibal saab will win 101 per cent,” asserts Maulana Mohammad Shamshad Kasme, standing on the doorstep of Masjid Katra Badiyan. Across the street, where Sibal’s little padyatra has just entered Khari Baoli, Asha Dutt is on her doorstep with the rest of the women in the family.

“Tulsi Virani was here yesterday,” she gushes in the reflected glory of the soap star. In the seconds that they interacted, Asha asked Irani about the characters in her serial and about the way the family drama is playing out. “Don’t you see that you ought to marry Karan with Nandini' Aren’t you afraid of a betrayal in the family'” Smriti smiles and comes to the point: “We’ll see. But you don’t betray me in the elections. I’m counting on your vote.” Asha is having second thoughts. “My family has traditionally supported the Congress. But maybe this time I’ll vote for her.”

Neither Sibal nor Smriti is native to Chandni Chowk. Sibal lost in South Delhi, where he has his house, the last time. Smriti moved to Mumbai seven years ago where she married Zubin, a businessman and farmer. “I am Delhi’s daughter,” she claims “and Bombay’s daughter-in-law”.

On the face of it, the arithmetic in Chandni Chowk favours the Congress. The party has three MLAs from its four Assembly constituencies. The fourth is the Janata Dal (S)’ Shoaib Iqbal. Iqbal had wanted to contest the Lok Sabha this time too but was convinced to withdraw. In 1998 and 1999 he had got more than 50,000 votes but did not win.

The BJP’s Vijay Goel won the last time with a narrow margin of 1,500 votes. With Iqbal turning out in his support, Sibal is hoping that the constituency’s 1.41 lakh Muslim voters will opt for the Congress and ensure victory for him. “Why talk about Tulsi'” Sibal retorts when asked if he finds her a formidable opponent.

In fielding Smriti, the BJP is trying to pick away at the Congress’ support base, splitting the electorate this time not so much on religious lines but by creating a gender divide. That is a successful gambit at least in the run-up to the poll. Her star appeal draws large numbers of women. While Sibal campaigns mostly by marching from house to house with folded hands, Irani has these meetings to which giggly women come to see her in the flesh after following her every move of television.

The BJP’s choice of a star for a constituency that Vijay Goel fled (he is now contesting from neighbouring Sadar) is not without reason. Star appeal, the BJP is hoping, will recover some of the ground for the party that was writing off Chandni Chowk in any case.

At a gathering in Jain Dharamshala, Dharampuri, Smriti is introduced by the local BJP activists as Tulsi Virani. “You have all seen her on television struggling to keep the family intact and sacrificing so much for her people. Now she is here in front of you in person and she is beginning her political career from here in Chandni Chowk,” the announcer introduces her.

Tulsi/Smriti takes the microphone: “Women take the emotional burden of the family,” she says. Several heads nod.

“I see there are some men here,” she gestures at them. “I understand that saas-bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) relations are of interest to them too. For the first time the BJP has put up a woman candidate in Chandni Chowk. We all want to build a good society for our children” – there are many children accompanying their mothers in the crowd – “and because I am a Hindustani woman I understand the value of sacrifice. The Hindustani woman is not afraid to make sacrifices but we will not bow our head. I seek your love and blessings to strengthen our culture and traditions”. Speech over.

How much of Tulsi Virani is there in Smriti Irani' Back in her campaign car, she is serious again. “The character has become popular because of me. I look at the people and find that there is so much faith and so much trust.” Husband Zubin who is accompanying her, says the difference is in the temper. Smriti is more short-tempered than Tulsi. He winks, she frowns.

Just before the meeting at the Jain Dharamshala she has made her way to a 300-year-old temple in Nai Sarak for a quick prayer. According to belief, if a woman in a yellow sari prays at the temple her wish will be granted. Irani is wearing a south silk sari that is yellow and brown. What did she wish for' “Nothing political”.

In the car, husband Zubin is waiting, attending to calls on the mobile telephone.

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