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On the wall,off the road – 2

UP’s path from grievance to aspiration,from Habiba Beauty Parlour to Lohia Convent

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
May 15, 2009 3:55:11 am

I have often said that Lohiaism is the most dangerous socialism,because it combines the worst of leftwing economics with the worst of nationalist,rightwing xenophobia. For decades that was responsible for building a door hato ai duniya waalo Hindustan hamaara hai (buzz off,you foreigners,India is just ours) mindset. But Lohiaism also had some positives,a kind of eclectic liberalism,a great sense of humour and repartee (Lohiaites made some of our most fun opposition MPs),and another tradition that I would rather describe as ideological flexibility than as straight-forward hypocrisy. That is why George Fernandes could become a partner of the BJP and yet be a Lohiaite. In fact,the four most prominent Lohiaites in our politics now,Mulayam,Lalu,Nitish and Paswan,have all had a makeover. But even as they break all the rules and covenants inherited from Lohia,they often do things to remind us of what a destructive ideology we have left behind,as Mulayam did by threatening in his manifesto to throw out computers and the teaching of English. You ask Paswan and he will recite to you,most gleefully,the Lohiaite ditties,all anti-English,anti-Western. But there is no chance of any of that coming back and harming us because all these leaders have left Lohiaism way behind. They are changing,so is their politics,and so are their followers and their aspirations. To see how,come to National Highway 91 in Babrala,a little over half-way between Badaun and Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh: a school called Lohia Convent. Now we all know,in most parts of our country,particularly the north,a “convent” is just a general way to describe an English-medium school. In Punjab,you can often find a St Kabir Convent,a Guru Gobind Singh Convent,or some place else,a Maharishi Dayanand Convent. But a Lohia Convent? You name an English-medium school after a man who dedicated his life to throwing English-medium schooling,an instrument of colonialism,out of this country? And you do it in the heart of Lohia-land?

It is here that we catch up with Lohia’s most successful legatee so far,Mulayam Singh Yadav,addressing a rally that has more energy than any we saw him address in the assembly election he lost two years ago. His mood,his body language,are different too. He has the resurgent bounce of somebody who has escaped a jail sentence. At the beginning of this campaign nobody gave him a chance as Mayawati was on the rise. But he senses the fact that not all is lost. Certainly,he won’t get the tally he had the last time,but he will have enough to be in demand next week,and more importantly,enough to deny Mayawati an automatic shot at prime ministership in some kind of twisted third front arrangement. “What numbers I get,” he says,“you shall see… but no government can be formed without me.” Then you ask him who he will support,and he breaks into the enigmatic smile of an Indian villager when you ask him who he will vote for. But he plays along with you the game of elimination: NDA is out,nobody has fought it harder than me,third front,obviously he cannot support if Mayawati is there. So all that is left is UPA? The same enigmatic smile returns.

Like all old politicians he knows his state better than you and I know our living rooms. This place,he tells us,is like a “tapoo” (an island) of misery between fertile zones. Nothing grew here,there was no water,until the Tatas set up their fertiliser plant so at least there is a guest house where people can stay. And obviously that Mayawati has done “nothing” for it. A land not so fertile for farming is even more fertile for grievances and he will reap that harvest. Power,called,simply,“light” in the heartland,is one. And we get a taste of anger and desperation that its absence causes. As our cars pull out,word has spread that some “important” people from Delhi are here,so a clamour builds up: light de do,light de do (give us power),and soon it becomes a small mob,pleading,even begging,faces behind desperate hands beating at our car windows: light bhijwa do,hum mar jayenge,humaare bachche padhenge kaise (send us power,we will die,how will our children study). This is real life,not a scene from a Benegal movie. And in this frenzy,these nearly-defeated people of Babrala tell you of stagnation,as well as change. Their lives haven’t improved that much,but the thought on their minds as they prepare to vote is not caste or religion,but “light” so their children could study. So,even in the island of hopelessness like Babrala,is the politics of grievance giving way to the politics of aspiration?

Aspiration and ambition obviously mean something else for the politician. And for a film star-turned-politician? The story of Jaya Prada tells you just what helps people,that are used to the comforts of movie stardom,keep going in a world so rough your rakhi-brothers could end up distributing nude pictures of you,morphed or not. She fields questions from us in her “Emperor Suite” in a circuit house-ish hotel on the outskirts of Rampur,200 km from Delhi,delightful malapropisms dropping from her mouth like ripened mangoes from trees during a summer storm in these parts,produced with all the nonchalance of a Lalu: “It was one of the part of the game,people are affectionative.” “I want,dada,I just want to have a feel of occupation,” she says,suggesting that politics gives her a feel of being relevant,important,even occupied. She talks in detail of her past,in staccato,Bollywood-style flashbacks,sometimes leap-frogging years and events,leaving you to find the thread again. But briefly: Supremo (NTR) asked her to help his party when he was in his prime,and then he fell sick,his new wife,Lakshmi Parvati,tried hijacking the party and she had to make the difficult choice between an NTR in coma and a Chandrababu Naidu on the rise. “I stand there in the middle of the road. I have to choose which side I bend,” she recalls,not knowing whether to go right or left. She chose Babu who was initially nice,gave her Rajya Sabha,and then dumped her. She tried to return to Bollywood,but found that in Mumbai,meanwhile,things had changed and there were no roles for her,

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because she was good with “subbued” roles and now movies were different. “It was,like,dada,a car brakes at a hundred miles per hour. I did not know where to go. Pressure was immensive.”

So how did she find Amar Singh,we asked?

“I knew him in Rajya Sabha,I gave him my introduce and his office always helped me in my work and my questions,” she says. But now she went to him for help with movies.

“I know he is very powerful in Bollywood. And I knew Madhur Bhandarkar was making a film Satta. So I asked him to help me buy right to that film. I was told if Amar Singh calls,nobody in Bollywood can say no,” she says.

So you thought if you couldn’t have satta politically,you could at least buy the movie?

“Yes,dada,kuchch to karna tha na. It was a difficult momentum,” she says.

 But it did not work in this case. Amar Singh,on the other hand,asked her to return to Babu,which she dutifully did. But second time with TDP wasn’t so lucky for her. “I attended Naiduji’s big meeting,but I stood there for three hours just like anybody else. It was not possible for me to accept that,” she says. So she returned to Amar Singh,who sent her to Rampur,and the rest is history. She describes her situation rather jauntily as: “AP (Andhra Pradesh) plus UP (Uttar Pradesh) equals JP (Jaya Prada,of course).

As you walk out through her ante-room,at the “flag” end of that conversation,you

notice that she has also brought in a little bit of her native AP and its most popular gods to UP. It has been turned into a temporary temple to Padmavati,consort of Lord Balaji of Tirupati. A really pretty idol sits there adorned with fresh flowers,marigold garlands,and with incense and offerings of fruits and sweets. The room is jam-packed with her supporters,almost all bearded Muslims and you hear them often enough asking people not to walk around with foot-wear on: “unka mandir hai,adab se pesh aayein.” Now here is a Balaji devotee from distant Andhra,riding an SP ticket and a Muslim votebank; she sets up a temple for her Goddess and has so many traditional Muslims showing such deference to Her. Here is evidence,if you ever needed any,that at a subliminal level Indians by and large believe in respecting the other person’s god.

You find more of this in a region that usually makes headlines for communal riots. Driving past a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Rampur,you see every stereotype you’d expect: open drains with poison from “cottage” tanneries flowing in,poverty,filth,but also a Habiba

Herbal Beauty Parlour (“only for ladies”). It is connected to the lane with a plank of wood over the open drain and ladies wishing to have a makeover must go tip-toeing over this shaky bridge. But more fascina-ting,you find slogans on the walls,written by a local,Muslim politico: “Do not throw rubbish around temples or mosques. It is a crime against God.”

Next door,Moradabad has had a rough history and it takes a brave man to leave the rather more genteel Hyderabad to come here to contest,and that too on a Congress ticket. But you’d expect that kind of audacity from Mohammed Azharuddin,and his very presence now causes a different kind of “rioting”,a near-stampede as he turns up at the local mosque for Friday prayers. He fires the imagination of young Moradabad Muslims as if he was the greatest superstar of today,not one of yesteryear,and one who went out in the shadow of match-fixing. Azhar’s knowledge of politics is about as limited as his proficiency with post-match press conferences. But he knows that what will work with him now is what worked for him in his youth: cricket. So his message is simple: I played 99 test matches. They did not give me my hundredth. This (the election) is my 100th,so please give me a win.”

For Mayawati,it is not quite her hundredth match,but at 53,she is already the veteran of more elections than almost anybody at her age. And she does talk about her age at her rallies,but only to underline how she isn’t that much older than Rahul Gandhi,the

“yuvraj” of the Congress. It is perhaps the first time you would find her attacking the Congress. So far,she could ignore it entirely. Not now. She is particularly vicious in her response to Rahul’s charge that she is wasting money on her statues and memorials. “What is the value of the real estate this family has grabbed in Delhi for the memorials of his ancestors? Can’t I give some to Babasaheb Ambedkar?” “The same Ambedkar,” she says,returning to her pet hate,Mulayam Singh,“who gave us this wonderful Constitution that abolished feudalism (samantshahi),or Mulayam would have still been bathing buffaloes in the backyard of a samant’s house.”

Now,you have the poorest of farmers in Babrala pleading for power for their children to study,Azhar asking voters (particularly Muslim youth) to give him a victory in his 100th match,Muslim politicos asking people not to throw rubbish near mosques or temples,Mayawati singing the song of constitutionalism and even Azam Khan demanding a university. How come over so many eventful hours on the road we haven’t heard anything about communal riots,Babri Masjid,Mandir,reservation,atrocities,grievances from the past? It’s only when you talk to Dalits that you hear bitter grievances because their wounds are still raw. They,as I discover in a conversation for NDTV’s Walk the Talk in the village of Kohni Partap Pur,still have minimal demands: physical safety and dignity,and Mayawati provides those.

Which is why,a Muslim college professor and Congress supporter explains to us,as we wait in Badaun’s Islamia Inter College for Sonia Gandhi to arrive for her rally,Rahul Gandhi is wasting his time on Dalits. “As long as Mayawati is there,it won’t come to Congress,” he says,but the Muslim vote could if he paid the same attention to “us”. Except,he will need to create Muslim leaders people can relate to. “People need a face,Sir,politics is all about a face. Dalits have Mayawati,Muslims have Mulayam but they are tiring of him. So Rahul needs to offer them a new face,” he says. And the evidence of that change you see an hour later as Sonia Gandhi arrives for what could be the most responsive rally in Uttar Pradesh witnessed by the Limousine Liberals. The crowd is involved,excited,and predominantly Muslim. It may have been too late to change the numbers in this election,but you can feel the change. The ground is shifting.

Postscript: If you enjoy reading Punjabi wisdom painted on the rear of our trucks,look for one that says,on its mud-flaps,char din shaunk de,bathere kutte bhaunk de. My English is not good enough to translate this adequately,but it goes something like: enjoy the short life you’ve got,and let the many barking dogs,well,bark. I found this one outside Bareilly,and then — another cruel one to our favourite pets — a warning to students of the evils of alcohol on the wall of a school in Ghunnaur: jo piye sharaab ki chilli,uska jiwan kutta-billi (one who is given to alcohol,is condemned to the life of cats and dogs). If you find any interesting ones on your way,please do mail them to me.

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