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August 24, 1999

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Campaign Trail/ M D Riti

'There are no constituents coming up to me to say, But you never did this or that'

Ananth Kumar They are so shy they are shying away," quipped Ananth Kumar, waving at a bunch of giggling college girls, who promptly turned around and ran down Dr Rajakumar Road in Rajajinagar. His campaign manager and friend, Suresh Kumar, the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from that locality, was too busy looking closely at pedestrians and shopkeepers, trying to establish eye contact and estimate sympathisers, to respond.

On the other side of Ananth Kumar, former Janata Dal minister M Raghupathy kept up a steady drone in English of his various accomplishments, even as I nodded absently, more intent on keeping my balance.

We were all standing inside the open topped jeep that Ananth Kumar had dubbed his Vijaya vahana, cruising in a mammoth motorcade through his constituency of Bangalore South. Ananth Kumar sweated profusely, but never lost a beat, looking keenly into the eyes of all those whom he passed, waving to the more enthusiastic amongst them and folding his hands in a practised namaskara to the older people.

"If you tour with me for the next ten days, you will see that there are no constituents coming up to me to say, 'But you never did this or that for us.' " "How can they?" I retorted. "You say you don't plan to attempt any padayatras or door-to-door campaigning this time, due to the shortage of campaign time. Your constituents cannot stop your motorcade to chat with you, can they?"

"But they can reach me often and easily," he replied, never getting distracted from his waving and smiling. "I consider my mobility and my accessibility my two greatest strengths, vis-a-vis my constituents." Passing autorickshaw drivers grinned and waved, saying, "Neevu khanditha gelthira, saar (You will definitely win, sir)."

A street vendor first waved his open hand at the MP, and then gave a thumbs up signal. "That man is a Tamilian," exclaimed Suresh Kumar. "He showed us that he is a DMK supporter: in Tamil Nadu, a V sign means you support the AIADMK, a raised palm with fingers closed stands for the Congress, and an open raised palm implies that you are a DMK man. That man said he is a DMK supporter, but he is with us for the parliamentary election."

The vahana was right in the middle of the motorcade headed by the slim, attractive college student turned model Kamath, wearing denim overalls and astride a motorbike, waving a huge BJP flag. Kamath was certainly an unusual sight in processions of this kind, and certainly caught the eye of passersby, but seemed perfectly at ease with the situation. Behind her were other two wheelers driven by women, as well as Maruti vans and cars driven by and filled with slogan raising women party workers.

It was the first day of Ananth Kumar's 10 day campaign in his constituency, where his only serious rival is B K Hariprasad of the Congress. Wellknown advocate B T Parthasarathy makes his electoral debut in the same constituency from Deve Gowda's Janata Dal-S party. However, Ananth Kumar's chances of winning are rated very highly in this constituency, which has a significant Brahmin population (Ananth Kumar himself is a Brahmin, and his personal website www.ananth.org has a photo album with a prominent picture of his thread ceremony.)

This particular constituency has been with the BJP from the past eight years, ever since economist and professor Dr Venkatagiri Gowda was elected from there in 1991. Ananth Kumar himself has won it twice, in 1996 and 1998, and is already being optimistically referred to as 'hat-trick hero' by his party members, who are confident that he will win it again now.

It is quite spread out, although it is a centre city constituency, and consists of eight assembly segments: Basavanagudi, Binnypet, Chamarajpet, Chikpet, Gandhinagar, Jayanagar, Malleswaram and Rajajinagar. In 1998, Kumar polled almost 430,000 of the almost 800,000 votes, and won by almost 200,000 votes over his nearest rival Varalakshmi Gundu Rao, widow of the late chief minister R Gundu Rao, who contested on a Congress ticket.

This time, he launched his campaign from the small open area behind the popular Ram Mandira in Rajajinagar, which is right in the middle of a small intersection of shops and houses. The cries of 'Bolo Bharat Mata ki Jai' raised by BJP activists seemed a little out of place in an old Bangalore neighbourhood with typically Kannadiga housewives, students and shopkeepers walking to and fro. All the assembly contestants as well as state BJP chief B S Yediyurappa and a couple of prominent local officials were on the small, makeshift dais.

Suresh Kumar conducted the entire function in a manner strangely reminiscent of Ananth Kumar himself. Until three years ago, Ananth Kumar was his party's chief organiser and general secretary, always the man backstage who ran the show but never actually in the limelight.

Yediyurappa recalled how the much younger Ananth Kumar approached him a dozen years ago as a qualified lawyer, wanting to start his legal practice. He was already a prominent ABVP activist in Hubli by that time, so Yediyurappa advised him to continue involving himself with the party and abandon his plans to work as a lawyer.

Interestingly, it was a shared interest in politics that brought Ananth Kumar and his software engineer wife Tejaswini together at that time. He was the ABVP secretary at that time, and she was a lowly party worker. They remained casual acquaintances for five years, although his family knew her well. Then, when Kumar, who is older by seven years, decided to get married, he looked with new eyes at Tejaswini, and decided she was the woman for him.

It was certainly a decision that neither of them ever regretted. The slim, attractive, soft-spoken Tejaswini is today the bulwark of the Kumar family, and is possibly her husband's most committed and motivated supporter. "I told him right at the beginning that I would be the family's breadwinner, and would leave him free to follow his ideals and dreams," she says. She did this for several years by working as an engineer on the Light Combat Aircraft project of the Aeronautical Development Agency in Bangalore.

However, Tejaswini found she could not keep pace with being an MP's wife, active party worker and mother of two bright little girls, all at the same time, and quit her job three years ago. She still dabbles in some software work, though.

Tejaswini is the reason why Ananth Kumar became Karnataka's only Internet savvy politician with his own website. Sitting quietly in the front row of the launch ceremony, wearing a dark green silk saree, a BJP cap perched jauntily on her head, Tejaswini confides her plans to update the website every day, to provide the Netizen voters of Bangalore glimpses of Ananth Kumar's campaign in progress.

The speeches continue on stage. Raghupathy's description of Vajpayee as a poor bachelor hounded out of office by three women: two 'kumaris,' he says, with a sneer, and a 'non-kumari' Jayalalitha, Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi -- rouses an indignant murmur from women spectators, who don't take kindly to his sexist remarks. His humour too falls a little flat, when he says: "Sonia not only does not know Indian languages, but even speaks thappu thappu (wrong) English which is worse than our kindergarten children." He adds impassionedly: "How can we elect foreign blood to save us from foreign invaders?"

The anti-Sonia diatribe, which seems to be one of the BJP's main electoral platforms this time, continues, with a senior BJP leader describing her as a 'Lankini.' Ananth Kumar himself takes the podium to make a focused speech, with three specific electoral promises: work starting on the Bangalore international airport within a year, a circular railway around the city to alleviate the pollution problem and a power station of 1,000 megawatts. All these projects involve both the central and state governments.

"This is not a regional election, but a national election for Vajpayee, who lost his seat on a technical issue," Ananth Kumar tells his audience.

His campaign vehicle is inaugurated with a coconut being broken in front of it. Someone spots the characteristically low profile Tejaswini at the back of the surging crowds, and she is ushered forward with touching affection by party workers. Ananth Kumar, Yediyurappa and the others board the vehicle briefly, and then alight. The two wheeler brigade led by the glamorous women begins, followed by other all-woman groups in other vehicles.

A white Maruti van draws alongside where I stand, frantically taking pictures, and Tejaswini beckons me inside. As we travel immediately behind Ananth Kumar's vahana, we get a ringside view of his progress. "I need a car to pick up the children right away," says Tejaswini into her tiny cell phone, obviously referring to her two young daughters Aishwarya and Vijetha (the latter got her name because she was born soon after her father was elected MP for the first time.)

We discuss Tejaswini's plans to campaign independently, with a group of women friends, both door-to-door and by staging small skits presenting Ananth Kumar's achievements and personal plus points. The antics of a television crew which hops on and off the open van in front entertain us. As the motorcade slows down for a traffic intersection, I alight quickly and board the vijaya vahana, nodding to Ananth Kumar, who manages a quick greeting in between all that waving and smiling.

The procession halts briefly in the Muslim quarter of Malleswaram, where there is a small BJP booth. Ananth Kumar walks around for a little while there, shaking hands and hugging people, in an obvious attempt to reassure the wary Muslim voter. Here, the warm smiles of recognition and the hand signals of victory that greeted him elsewhere are noticeably missing.

We move out of the narrow road on to the busy Sampige road, which is a major artery of Malleswaram. I notice the open-mouthed stares of shopkeepers who know me fairly well. When the motorcade stops at the congested eighth cross intersection, servers from the popular Goumatha juice stall there rush up to us with large glass mugs of icy fruit juice, free, which we gulp down with eternal gratitude.

I see the shock on the face of the owner of the toy shop that I often shop at for my daughter, and decide it is time to leave. Suresh Kumar squeezes the shoulder of the vahana driver, and I hop out nimbly, hitching up my saree.

The motorcade drives on and I hop into a passing autorickshaw.

Campaign Trail

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