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|October 1, 1999||
Black Cat on the prowl
Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bansgaon
The general impression one has about an Uttar Pradesh politician is that of a pot-bellied, bespectacled man waddling around in a spotless white dhoti kurta, chewing a pan and confining himself to the local lingo.
But the Congress candidate from Bansagon (reserve constituency) Kamal Kishor, is a little different. He is well-built, lacks spectacles, wears a torn dirty kurta pyjama, and speaks English -- if you aren't a local. That's what you get when you ask a former 'Black Cat' to give up his job and contest an election.
As I approached him for a campaign trail story, he asked me, 'What's wrong with journalists? Each and every one is coming to interview me. After all, I am not a celebrity or a well-known leader. I was an ordinary Black Cat commando who gave up his job at Sonia Gandhi's behest to contest the election."
He has worked with the Gandhis for about 20 years now. After Vajpayee's government fell and the election was announced, Sonia asked him what were the problems Bansgaon faced. Kishor says he listed the constituency's woes and then forgot about the incident.
Sonia called him later to ask him if he was willing to contest the election from Bansgaon?
"I was thrilled and accepted the offer since I could not refuse her. It's my duty to win the election for her," he says.
Unlike other candidates, Kishor prefers going walking from door to door rather than sitting in the car and waving.
"I have been trained to do hard work. And, I don't mind walking. Moreover, I have an old Ambassador, which starts only after you give it a push early in the morning. In short, I am the poorest of all the candidates in Bansgaon," he quips.
The cream-coloured car is rusted in many parts and there are signs that, if they caught up with him, the traffic police could profit much, going by the smoke the care emitted.
There is a poster on the rear glass, saying, 'Kamal Kishor ki gaadi (Kamal Kishor's car)'. And, next to it, the Congress symbol, the hand.
His wife Poonam says victory is certain. "People know how honest my husband is, compared to other candidates," she says. And, if you don't believe her, the Kishor home provides some evidence of their modest lifestyle.
His house is small, with four small dark rooms (the electricity is irregular here). The walls are unpainted and there are two cots for visitors to sit on. These are made of ordinary wood and they lack bedsheets or mattresses.
There is no colour television in his house. There is a small black-and-white television there, made by a desi firm. And there's no cable connection either. Some of his supporters are lying on ground, with only a bedsheet beneath them.
There are few Congress flags around. Actually there are few to be seen throughout the constituency. But a bundle of posters is kept near the entrance on which it is written, 'Kamal Kishorji ko hi vijay banaiye (Make Kamal Kishor a victor).'
We catch him again at Kodiram village where he is starting his speech.
"The most important thing for our constituency are dams. If I win, then I will surely construct them. I have a lot of influence in Delhi. If you elect me by a good majority, I will see that your problems are solved," he says.
In his 10-minute speech, there is no mention of Kargil, no vituperation against the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party.
"I don't like to criticise my opponent. Everyone knows these people have done nothing for the constituency. What is the point in beating the drum? I only highlight what I am going to do," he says.
But what about Kargil? Does he not feel he should highlight the issue, considering he was a commando?
"Why should I highlight it? I have seen Kargil and other mountainous areas of our country. I know that area [Kargil] very well. Moreover, Bansgaon itself is like Kargil during the monsoon. None of my rivals talks about that," he says.
His wife suddenly points at his shoes. "Have you torn them again?" she demands.
"What can I do? It gets worn out from walking," he replies.
His wife turns to me for support.
"He never listens to me though I'm his campaign manager. You see, he had swollen his legs due to excessive walking. It is only now that he is getting better. And you know, this is the third shoe he's torn."
She continues: "I cook food for Congress party workers every day. And nearly, 40, 50 people eat at our house everyday. And, we are doing all this at our expense."
But what if he loses?
"There is no question of me losing," chips in Kishor. "I don't have money nor posters. But the people of Bansgaon are with me. I think that question is irrelevant."
I go with him to the banks of the Rapti, one of the biggest rivers going past Bansgaon. Pointing at it, Kishor says, "This river is very dangerous, taking many lives during the monsoon. But nobody has bothered to do anything about it. I'm going to solve this problem."
But don't netas forget their hasty promises once they are elected?
"I always wanted to do something for my village. And, I am thankful to Soniaji for giving me this opportunity to solve the people's problem. Also, my entire family lives here. So how can I run from this place if my family too is affected by the waters?" he asks.
Nine rivers run around Bansgaon, with the Rapti and Sarju being the two largest ones, both threatening to overflow their banks every monsoon. And almost every alternate year, 60 per cent of Bansgaon is submerged. The same waters hit Gorakhpur city too.
Dams have been constructed to stem the rivers's fury, but these too collapse under the force of water. Besides Bansgaon, the other badly affected areas are Balia, Basti, Devaria, Gorakhpur, Maharajganj and parts of north Bihar.
As the waters move in, the people either move up to their terraces or move to the cities, seeking casual labour. Those who stay behind rely on the foodgrains that government helicopters bring in. People travel by boat from one place to another.
But still, not being cynical, these doughty defenders of democracy trek yearly to the polling booths to hand in their votes, regardless of the ineffectuality of their preferred candidate.
The only place of historical significance in Bansgaon is Chauri Chaura where, during the freedom movement, the locals burnt down the police station. It was after that an appalled Mahatma Gandhi called off the non-co-operation movement. But the spirit of rebellion that even shocked the Mahatma is no longer in evidence here. 'Chalta hai' is the new slogan.
Not a single leader from this constituency has made it big in national politics. The only people who came closest to making a name were Mahabir Prasad and the former chief minister of UP, Veer Bahadur Singh, who wrote his name in the history books by unlocking the doors of the Babri Masjid doors when the Congress was in power.
The Congress base has eroded here; it could bag only 15,000 votes in the 1998 election. In fact, the candidate had to forfeit his deposit. So, despite his optimism, Kishor Kumar's rawness makes it unlikely that he can turn the tide here.
Nobody seemed to know him by name or where he stayed. The only way, they recognised him was as Rajiv Gandhi's bodyguard.
Even people staying just two lanes away from his house didn't know who Kamal Kishor was.
Bansgaon constituency is divided in to five segments: Bansgaon tehsil, Chilupar, Dhuriyapur, Kodiram and Muderwa. Two of these have been won by the BJP, two by Naresh Agarwal's Loktantrik Congress and one by the Samajwadi Party.
Says Dhruv Rai, 65, a Brahmin and Congress supporter who shifted to the BJP, "The Congress cannot revive here until they work on some good policies and with good workers. Kamal Kishor may be an honest man but that does not mean he will win. In politics you need to be a known personality, known also for your good social work."
But does he not feel proud that a Black Cat commando is contesting from this constituency?
"Why should I? After all, what has he done for us. The Congress could not do anything to solve the problems of our constituency. We have always been drowned in the floods and Congress didn't do anything. So, let him not be an MP and we'll see what he can do?" says Rai.
Shyam Murari Yadav, a farmer, who has turned an ardent supporter of Mulayam Singh Yadav, says, "My entire crops are destroyed during the monsoon. The Congress government didn't do anything for us in the last 40 years. We leave for cities during monsoon and work there as casual labourers.
"I too was an ardent admirer of Rajiv Gandhi. But ever since casteist politics began in Uttar Pradesh, I've started voting for Mulayam Singh Yadav. He is from our community."
The SP candidate is Subhavati Devi, who won this seat in 1996 and then lost it to the BJP in 1998. Both the BJP and SP candidates have their disadvantages.
Subhavati Devi is an illiterate and the BJP candidate is suffering from elephantiasis. The electorate also isn't impressed by their tenures in office. But in this backward area, performance isn't a big thing.
Most people on the main Gorakhpur-Ghosi road are barefoot, their feet apparently inured to the heat of the sun, the irregular road.
The river is almost lapping against the main road though it hasn't rained for the last two weeks.
Security is also a problem here. Other than Kishor, all the candidates are electioneering accompanied by bodyguards.
The Congress is using this to their disadvantage.
"It is only our candidate who is not travelling with a bodyguard. All the others need protection," they announce.
Kamal Kishor is planning to leave for the place where Sonia Gandhi is going to attend a rally that afternoon. As we reach there, there are a lot of people working on the stage. There are security guards out there in strength.
"This is the first time that our brother is contesting an election," one of them says.
One Special Protection Guard says off the record, "My sympathies are with him, and I pray that he wins this seat."
Guess who is in charge of Sonia Gandhi's security here? Who else, but the Congress candidate, Kamal Kishor.
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