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|September 1, 1999||
Campaign Trail/M D Riti
Jaffer Sharief and his Mitsubishi motorcade
"I'm just going up for a moment," said Jaffer Sharief. Before you could say clicketty clack, he stepped on to a circular metal wheel and rose slowly through the air to the top of his campaign vehicle. Cries of welcome and jubilation rent the air as his minions down below quickly passed a small stool up to the roof, for 'Sahebru,' as he is known, to sit on.
"It's much more useful to campaign vigorously in the gramanthara jillagalu (rural areas)," confides ex-MLC Mune Gowda, the Congress candidate for the assembly from that region. "They register a polling attendance of 70 per cent, as against barely 30 to 40 per cent in towns and cities." I nodded bemusedly, still gazing after Sharief.
"It's all done by hydraulics, madam," said the young, good-looking boy Rehman, whose sleight of hand had made Sharief disappear. He hopped nimbly onto the metal circle and rode up and down it a couple of times, as you would an elevator, finally stopping halfway, his torso extended above the roof of the vehicle. Sharief had certainly put his long experience with the hydraulic mechanisms of trains to good use, I thought appreciatively.
As Gowda and other Sharief cronies jostled with one another to follow their leader up the roof, I looked curiously around the interior of the Mitsubishi mini bus. Apart from the open top, it had extremely comfortable, plush seats, with mini fans attached, and an ante chamber, whose door swung open to reveal a sinfully luxurious bed and pillows. Another small cabin housed a tiny bathroom. "We had the interior done up in Coimbatore, to make it easy for Saab," confides Sharief's personal assistant Ibrahim. "Saab loves touring."
Actually, 'Saab' had only planned to spend a couple of hours on the roads that day as he was expecting an old friend to come and help him soup up his campaign. His office was in an upheaval over the anticipated arrival of film star Dilip Kumar, who had promised to spend a half day addressing three public meetings with Sharief in Bangalore. But it was not to be.
"Who is Saira Banu?" asked Sharief's other assistant Saujanya, a short, middle-aged man sporting a huge red Kumkum, on the morning of that day, as I sat waiting for Sharief to descend from his living quarters. "She called to say that Dilipji cannot come: he is ill." That threw the whole Sharief campaign camp into chaos. The day's agenda was hastily rearranged, but it was too late to re-plan the evening's programme.
Sharief lives in an old bungalow on Haines Road, in the heart of Frazer town, which is part of the old Bangalore cantonment area. A huge cardboard archway and buntings mark the entrance, which is also covered with Sharief's campaign posters. In their midst, you can spot several posters bearing the mugshot of Sharief's second son Khader Nawaz Sharief, who died of a heart attack in January this year. Sharief senior's friends say that the grieving father is no longer the man he used to be after this loss, as Khader, who was a general secretary in the state Congress unit, was the man being groomed to step into his father's shoes. Incidentally, Sharief's second son-in-law Syed Yassin is standing for election again this time, from Raichur, against a sitting MLA and minister from J H Patel's government, M S Patil.
Although it is 10 am, the time Sharief is supposed to hit the road, there are no signs of life from his living quarters on the first floor. I wait in the campaign office downstairs. "Sahebru malagiddare (he is sleeping)," says a flunky, to be quickly shushed by a party worker, who says, "Of course not: he is meeting people, and then having his weekly check-up with his doctor." Sharief, 66, duly descends, rather regally, surrounded by his supporters and various favour-seekers. There is a scramble for seats in his car, but he waves me to one of them, as we had arranged earlier.
I end up in the back seat of his huge gray flower-bedecked Tata Estate, with Mune Gowda and Bangalore taluk Congress chief Nagaraj as co-passengers. Everyone promptly whips out his cell phone and is instantly immersed in hushed conversation. Sharief sports a silver grey model while Nagaraj has a more down market version. This is the first combined assembly and Parliament election being fought in Karnataka with cell phones, and no politician worth his name ever travels without one or two on him.
As we leave Sharief's gates, half a dozen middle aged men dash madly for the street corner nearby. They quickly stop all oncoming traffic, practically form a human blockade and allow Sharief's car convoy to pass through without losing any time whatsoever. I discover that there are close to 20 cars in the convoy, including my taxi, which brings up the rear. We head right out of the city to Hoskote taluk, which comes under Sharief's parliamentary constituency of Bangalore North, where he will take on trade union leader Micheal Fernandes of the Janata-U and C Narayanaswamy from Deve Gowda's party. Who does he himself regard as his real rival? "Neither," he replies gruffly.
As soon as the constituency area starts, Sharief swings into action. He rolls down the darkened glass window of his front seat, peers out intently, and alternately waves with one hand displayed carefully, or executes a neat namaste. We pass through fields of grapevines. "These people are all grape kings," he remarks, aiming his one-two act at a young village woman dressed rather incongruously in a black nightie and leading two buffaloes off to graze. She stares back disinterestedly at him.
" Yenri, Gowdare, yella avardhe posters kaansathe? (What is this, Gowda, I only spot their posters, not ours?)" he asks, as we pass through Bileshivala village, which is covered by posters of Mune Gowda's rival, sitting MLA and minister Bache Gowda. "They were all there yesterday, Sir," replies Gowda, squirming uncomfortably. "I have even held a public function in this village. My people tell me that Bache Gowda's men worked all night yesterday to pull down our posters and put up theirs, in anticipation of our visit. I hear that three transport commissioners raised Rs 1.2 million for him...."
A group of young men stop us around a corner of the village road. We alight briefly, and Sharief is surrounded for two minutes by sloganeering adolescents, after which we continue on our way. "Please tell your women that they will be using the electronic voting machine this time, and that they have to vote twice, by pressing buttons twice on two different machines, as are having two sets of elections together," he advises them, as we roll forward. "You must vote not just for Mune Gowda, but for me also."
We continue to chat as we drive between fields. "What is the secret of your success, Mr Sharief?" I ask, pointing my tiny dictaphone at him. "How do you win every time?" Replies Sharief softly: "The people love me and keep voting for me, it's as simple as that. I have fought many hard battles, but I have always won. I have even won over George Fernandes in 1984 and Syed Shahabuddin from Bihar. I have fought against this sitting MLA's father and won."
Does he find a big difference between these elections, sans T N Seshan and his strict controls, and the last? "Yes, of course, and it's a welcome change, but I think once Gill retires, Krishnamurthy will follow in Seshan's footsteps," he says.
We drive down a dirt track and are suddenly stopped by screaming supporters. We have reached Bidarahalli village, where Sharief is to address the villagers. Sharief alights and is instantly surrounded by jumping, dancing, shouting young men. They burst crackers in front of him, throw flower petals over him and beat drums beside him. I retire a short distance from the mayhem, and curious bystanders ask him me who I am.
Suddenly, Sharief emerges from the middle of the small, unruly crowd and beckons to me. There is a mad scramble to get into the Mitsubishi campaign vehicle, but Sharief points insistently at me and I squeeze my way in. He promptly rises to the top of the bus and I peer out at the almost frenzied crowds outside the barred windows, restrained at times by policemen. The bus travels barely 200 metres and we alight again into the melee. "Saab uses this transport when the crowd is too thick for him to walk through," explains the fatherly, helpful Ibrahim.
Sharief is almost lost from sight, given his small frame, amidst the crowds. His supporters from Bangalore form a human cordon around him, by linking their hands together. I am pushed into that secure space, and hustled inexorably onto the small dais, as there is no other route to avoiding the jostling, boisterous crowd. I am pushed again into a chair on stage and party workers immediately launch into welcome speeches and introductions. To my embarrassment, I too am introduced to the politely clapping audience as a journalist from Bangalore, and find myself being garlanded by a village woman.
The first speaker is a profusely perspiring Mune Gowda, who says, "We are late because we were expecting film star Dilip Kumar, who is not coming after all. Anyway, you can say that Sharief has as good as won this election, because there is no candidate in the fray who can match up to him. He was the greatest railway minister we ever had, and a man with important national concerns on his mind, who has still come to spend time with you."
A bunch of curious schoolgirls assemble on the roof of their schoolhouse nearby, watch for a while and then go down again rather bored. Then it is the turn of M T P Nagaraj, who talks about the rising prices of kerosene and rice, brought about by the outgoing BJP government at the Centre and the Dal government in Karnataka. He commiserates with the unemployed youth who are in agriculture because many factories in the area closed down to power problems. "Ramakrishna hegde, J H Patel and Deve Gowda are like the actors in bayalu nataka (village theatre), who are on Rama's side in the afternoon and on Ravana's by the evening," he says. "Don't forget that these men had a chappal hodedhaata (slippering each other) before they took their oath last time you elected them. They are so unstable, and succeeding elections only cost you, because they are all financed by the taxpayer's money. Vote for Sharief, who has brought to Bangalore the electric railway, the Singapore technology park and broad gauge trains to all corners of Karnataka."
As the speakers drone on, I find myself nodding off gently, and am suddenly roused from my somnambulance by a rare moment of understanding and empathy for men like Deve Gowda and Gundu Rao, who came under constant flak for their penchant for napping on stage while people made speeches.
Sharief finally takes the microphone. "God has given us two hands, and my party believes in all of us working with these," he says, displaying his two raised palms. "You people who work with your hands are the greatest of us all. Only those that you choose can govern this country. Please vote for the Hand, and not the Tractor or the Arrow (symbols of the two Janata factions). And please don't vote for J H Patel, who certainly can never see his own hands, as they are always holding a bottle!" He speaks in some length about the illustrious origin of the Congress party, the flaws of other party ideologies and his own national concerns.
Finally, it's all over. We scramble out in a slightly less dishevelled manner. I clutch my garland carefully, hoping to appease my indignant young daughter with tales of my moment of fame. I look for my taxi, but find it has vanished with the convoy, leaving a dismayed Ibrahim and me standing on a village dirt track. We beg the villagers for transport and are finally taken in a beat-up van to Sharief's next destination. "Why does your man look so old," asks our farmer driver, proving that he is obviously not a Sharief man. "Politics is hard work," says Ibrahim rather weakly. "Saab works 18 hours a day, so perhaps he has aged quickly..." Visions of plush cars and air-conditioned comfort float through my disoriented mind as I pounce on my hapless old taxi and beat a quick retreat to Bangalore.
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