Debating India

Mood for change

Saturday 25 September 1999, by BHAGAT*Rasheeda

Some parts of Uttar Pradesh appear to articulate strongly in favour of Sonia Gandhi.

in Lucknow

"Jo bahu ko behen na maney, woh desh ko kya pehchane?"

(Those who don’t regard a daughter-in-law as a sister, how will they understand the ethos of this country?)

BAHUA (daughter-in-law), behen (sister) and beti (daughter) are some of the terms of endearment used, referring to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, in the villages of the Rae Bareli-Amethi belt of Uttar Pradesh in recent weeks. Po sters, banners, arches (on the day she filed her nomination papers at the Sultanpur district Collectorate in the Amethi parliamentary constituency) and graffiti on walls hailed her as the behen, bahu and beti of India. That was how people i n the region responded to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s personalised attacks against her.

For the people of Amethi, Sonia Gandhi’s return to her late husband Rajiv Gandhi’s constituency was a significant event. But there were signals from other regions in the State also of a renewed interest in the Congress(I). The State did not elect any ca ndidate from the party to the last Lok Sabha.

The anti-incumbency factor was expected to affect the BJP’s prospects. Besides, Chief Minister Kalyan Singh presided over a dissidence-ridden party unit. The average Muslim feels betrayed that ’Moulana’ Mulayam Singh, leader of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) , prevented the formation of a non-BJP government at the Centre after the fall of the Vajpayee government in April.

The battle between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Karan Singh of the Congress(I) in Lucknow has generated much interest. Ramnath Mishra, a casual labourer, said: "Now this contest will have some life. Karan Singh tau Vajpayee se bhi bade Hindu hain (he is a greater Hindu than even Vajpayee)."

In fact, Amethi had started to celebrate Sonia Gandhi’s victory rather early. District Congress Committee chief Ravi Shanker said: "If there is no large-scale rigging by the BJP, she will win by a margin which will create a global record." Voters in Amet hi have waited for Sonia Gandhi for several years, he said.

Erstwhile Congress(I) MP Captain Satish Sharma, who was elected from Amethi in 1996, was seen as having neglected the constituency. Sanjay Singh of the BJP was also perceived in a similar way. "Forget his doing anything at all to help the poor people of Amethi. The kind of sins Sanjay Singh has committed... cannot be forgiven by either God or the people of Amethi," said a farm labourer, Shiv Shankar. "Aaj tak sahi Thakur unke ghar ka paani bhi nahi peetey (till today the real Thakurs do not even drink water in his house)", he added with disdain.

Ram Aasrey Pande, a Congress(I) supporter, said: "Janata ko maarna peetna aur bandh karwana (getting people beaten up and thrown behind bars) was his speciality. Amethi needs a mother who can care for its battered people and Soniaji will definitely play this role. But we do hope she will retain this constituency and give up Bellary, which she will certainly win, because the margin here will be much, much higher."

The people of Amethi heaved a sigh of relief that the candidate they had defeated in the 1998 elections, Captain Satish Sharma, was not back there. An angry Amethi voter asked: "What did he do for Amethi as Petroleum Minister except give petrol agencies to some people?" In the neighbouring constituency of Rae Bareli, from where he contested this time, there was some unhappiness over his nomination but it was camouflaged because Sonia Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka Vadhra was there to campaign for him.

Indira Gandhi’s memory remains alive in Rae Bareli. Almost all people in their thirties and beyond fondly recalled the manner in which she had developed and nurtured her constituency. Even though people may not be euphoric about Satish Sharma’s candidacy , they were furious with the BJP regime, and the anti-incumbency factor was the strongest there.

Dinesh Singh, a former machine operator in Modi Carpets in Kathwara, recalled the days of the Indira regime when several factories, including the one he has worked, were started in the constituency. "But it is now sick and lying closed for more than seve n years. No government is interested in reviving it. Now take the BJP candidate, Arun Nehru. Rae Bareli elected him to the Lok Sabha twice. I remember the times his daughter used to shake our hands and offer us ghee mei tali hui badam (almonds fri ed in ghee). But once he became an MP and we approached her with our problems, she asked us ’Who are you?"’.

A group of people gathered at a tea shop in the village joined the discussion. Another resident of the village, Ajit Singh, said: "Sarkar hamare paiye par ghoomti hei, magar hum shikayat nahi kar sakte. Zyada shikayat karney ki koshish kee to bandh ka r detey hei, ya goli bhi maar detey hei (The government survives on our might, but we cannot raise our problems with it. If we complain too much, we can be thrown behind bars or even shot dead)."

ALMOST everywhere in Uttar Pradesh, the mood is one of disenchantment with the political leadership. In the cluster of villages barely 35 km from Lucknow, water is the biggest problem. Dubbing the Kalyan Singh government "anti-farmer", Ram Lal, a small farmer in Brahmadaspur village in the Mohanlal Gunj constituency, was also angry with the previous MP from his constituency, Rina Chowdhary. He said: "She has done nothing for the constituency, nor has any other politician bothered about our plight. We ha ve no water for our fields and you can see for yourself the dry canal which runs through these villages." To water their fields, they are at the mercy of the rich farmers, who charge Rs.40 an hour to hire out their pumpsets. He said: "For one acre, we re quire about six hours of usage every day."

A white-bearded Bhoola Lal seethed at the "hollow promises" made by politicians. He said: "Even today we have no electricity in our village. The electric poles came about eight years ago. Now even the poles have started disintegrating."

Even in the capital, Lucknow, people talk only of water shortages, damaged roads and battered drainage systems."Now this is a VVIP constituency which has returned a Prime Minister to the Lok Sabha. If the ruling party can treat Lucknow, the State capital , so shabbily, imagine the fate of rural U.P." said Saleem, a taxi driver.

He was certain that Muslims in the State would not vote for the BJP. "They are unhappy with Mulayam Singh too, and are likely to vote for the Congress(I) in large numbers, but only in those constituencies where it has strong candidates who can defeat the BJP. Where the Congress(I) has weak candidates, they will vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party and even the S.P., but the criterion will be the ability to stop the BJP."

Nehaluddin Ahamed, president of the All India Muslims Forum, also believed that this was the likely scenario as far as Muslims were concerned. But he was unhappy that "azadi ke pachaas saal ke baad bhi hum is party ya us party ko rokney ki hi baat kar rahey hain (50 years after Independence, we are still talking about stopping this party or that from coming to power). The problem was that Muslims were a divided lot and hence being taken for a ride by all parties." His contention was that Muslims should "stop running away from politics" and aim for political power "which was necessary for educational and economic emancipation".

State Urban Development Minister Lalji Tandon dismissed the perception of an anti-incumbency factor. Infighting in the BJP State unit, he claimed, "exists only in the media". On the BJP’s prospects in the State, he said: "We will do as well, if not bette r than last time."

Confident that Muslims would shift their allegiance from the S.P. to the Congress(I) or even the BSP, he said: "Let them go to the Congress(I). This will teach a politician like Mulayam Singh, who has spread so much communalism in U.P., that communalism is very short-lived."

"The BJP," he declared, "has never sought votes in the name of religion." When reminded that the party sought votes in the name of Ram, he said: "The issue of Ram is not communal. That is a cultural issue."

Lalji Tandon claimed that those Muslims who have broken free from the mindset of the Nehruvian era, which was replicated so successfully by the "so-called secular parties" that they were seen as the saviours of Indian Muslims, would support the BJP this time. His claim did not sound outrageous given that a Lucknow-based Muslim journalist said that politicians like Mulayam Singh have fooled Muslims in the State long enough and were ineffective in stopping the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He asked: "Aap agar hamey zaalim se bacha nahi sakte to hum usi zaalim se hath mila lenge. Aakhir andhey ko do aankhen chahiye aur politicians ko vote. (If you can’t save us from our tormentors, we’ll join hands with them. After all a blind man needs vision, and politicians need votes). So we will give our votes to them."

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