In a small tea shop near the sacred ghat of Har Ki Pauri, a group of young men sipping their evening chai joke among themselves: "This time around Haridwar will see three and a half women campaign for the Lok Sabha elections." They snigger and refuse to explain when asked why they perceive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' as 'half woman'.
The three women, of course, are Renuka Rawat from the Congress, India's first woman director general of police Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya from the Aam Aadmi Party and Anita Saini from the Samajwadi Party (SP). Independent candidates Razia Beg and Mohseen are also in the fray but not considered prominent enough by the electorate. The fight in Haridwar is directly between Rawat (Congress) and Pokhriyal (BJP).
A little before the evening aarti starts at the ghats, Pokhriyal addresses a rally in Haridwar city. He speaks delicately without raising his pitch and lacks the characteristic aggression of most BJP leaders. He tells the audience how eager he is to help Narendra Modi become prime minister with a heavy majority from Haridwar, one of the five constituencies in the hill sate of Uttarakhand that will go to the polls on May 7.
The poet-politician – Nishank is Pokhriyal's pen name – is soft spoken and mild-mannered, qualities perhaps considered effeminate by the men at the tea shop. He succumbs easily, though, to his male instincts of looking down at female competition and cracks a mildly sexist joke at Renuka Rawat, who happens to be current chief minister Harish Rawat's wife. "I wonder why the CM had to send his wife to fight elections. I had told him not to send bhabhiji." The crowds cheer.
Haridwar has, so far, sent only male MPs to parliament and this is the first time that women candidates are outnumbering men in the constituency.
Renuka Rawat is the strongest of them all and is set to benefit from the goodwill her husband enjoys in the area. "He is Uttarakhand's vikas purush," says a local chemist, adding for the first time it seems the state has a leader. When asked who they'd vote for, many reply Harish Rawat even though it is his wife who is contesting the elections.
Renuka, on her part, insists it would be wrong to see her merely as the CM's wife. "I have a strong connect with the people here, every time they would visit Harish ji in Delhi with their problems, I would make tea for them and listen to their problems," she says. Her father Govind Singh Mehra was an influential minister in the Uttar Pradesh during the 70s and was MLA from Ranikhet. "Many people know me because of the good work my father had done in the hills," she says, adding she is confident about winning from Haridwar. She is perhaps one of the few Congress candidates who aren't hoping against hope when they say so.
The Haridwar constituency has about 4.5 lakh Muslim and 2.5 lakh Dalit votes, which the Congress is certain to get since the Bahujan Samajwadi Party and the SP are small players here. Moreover, Pokhriyal's alleged involvement in the 2010 Mahakumbh scam has dented his popularity.
Renuka is aware of other women candidates from whom she faces competition and admits that people know of Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya because of the good work she has done as DGP of Uttarakhand. "But AAP is a very new party here. A few votes here and there, that's all."
Bhattacharya is a bumbling newcomer. She has solid professional credentials but is remarkably unprepared to campaign for elections. At a road show in Sultanpur, a Muslim-dominated village in Haridwar district, she fumbles to find the Hindi word for micro finance ("chota paisa," she says) as she addresses a completely disinterested audience. She rambles on familiar and easy themes of education and security for girls. She and her motley group of supporters seem earnest but fail to strike any real connection with the audience, save a few children who follow them through dusty roads just to get a few of AAP's Gandhi topis with a twist.
Bhattacharya says she is standing for elections not because she is a woman but because she is concerned. She is far more eloquent one-on-one and says she wants to clean the Ganga if she wins. A dedicated group of volunteers is working tirelessly to ensure that happens unlike in the case of SP's Anita Saini. The former BJP member recently shifted to SP on being denied a ticket from the BJP and is practically invisible on the campaign trail. Talk is that SP party workers are unhappy with her candidature and have decided to keep her as lame-duck candidate merely to have some presence in the state.
Since she is almost out of the race, the only question worth asking her is what it must feel like to be a woman candidate in India's misogynist party number 1. "Netaji has done a lot for women and the media is constantly trying to twist what he says," says Saini, adding the Mulayam Singh's rape remarks are not to be taken seriously. Surely, it will take more than just women contesting elections to shake things up a bit.