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September 5, 1999

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Campaign Trail/ M D Riti

'Twinkle twinkle little star, Jeevaraj Alva superstar'

"You may be wearing Siddaramiah's face on your shirt, but if you look deep within your chest, you will find that your heart beats for Jeevaraj," said Jeevaraj Alva, smiling engagingly at the young man whose hand he clasped warmly. The overwhelmed young man quickly unpinned his green JD (S) badge as cries of "Jeevakke Jeeva (life of my life) Jeevaraj Alva" rent the air, raised by Alva's huge group of supporters.

We were walking through the narrow bylanes of Palace Guttahally in Bangalore on the very last day of campaigning for the first phase of assembly polls in Karnataka. Jeevaraj was attempting what he described as "low profile door-to-door campaigning," peering inside tiny lower middle class houses, gazing intimately into the eyes of householders and bonding with them for that one moment.

The warm, friendly voice on the telephone that said, "Reet, come with me in my car this morning" that morning brought back a hundred memories of other car journeys with Jeevaraj two decades ago: car rides to college with the young, newly elected MLA Jeevaraj and his bride Nandini, my classmate who defied her parents and married him secretly in a temple just before our tenth standard examinations. Every morning, Jeevaraj would drive Nandini and me to college himself, and I would avert my embarrassed gaze from their clasped hands on the front seat of their Fiat car.

Jeevaraj still seems to have much of that old charisma, and is easily able to connect with complete strangers, and make them like him. I was sitting inside the same old Alva family home, waiting for Jeevaraj to emerge, when a young woman looking strikingly like the Nandini of that era darted in. It turned out to be their daughter Priyanka, now studying in London, but in Bangalore to campaign for her father. "Papa, I'm just leaving with the others for campaigning," she said to the closed bedroom door, and Jeevaraj, wearing a towel and banian, came out at once to greet her. "Just a few minutes," he smiled, and emerged moments later, smelling as usual of expensive aftershave and dressed in a perfectly styled white kurta pyjama.

Immediately, it was obvious who was in charge of the campaign. "I want you ladies to visit every family in Palace Orchards," he said to his sister Charini, visiting from the US, his sister-in-law and assorted nieces. "We will tour Guttahally this morning and end up at a particular mosque by lunch time."

All the assembled supporters and family members dispersed immediately in a particularly orderly manner. The strategy was obvious: his very English-speaking, fashionable family would call on householders, who were just like them, in the upper class neighbourhood of the Palace orchards, while party cadres, who would be better able to relate to the lower classes, would accompany him to Guttahally.

Every party has some organisers who specialise in formulating strategies, planning tour programmes, setting up public meetings, gathering crowds to receive political leaders, identifying powerful people in a neighbourhood to back a candidate, or simply increasing a party's visibility by putting banners, posters and cutouts in the right places. When an experienced and skilled organiser sets about directing his own poll crusade, the outcome is a polished, smooth campaign.

"Jeevaraj is an excellent organiser," Ramakrishna Hegde told me five years ago, when Alva quit the Janata Dal and joined the BJP. (Some say he was only paving the way for a dialogue between the two parties right from then, because he returned to the Dal a year later.)

And this, in a nutshell, is what distinguished the Jeevaraj campaign from most others. It is Jeevaraj who is in charge every minute of the day. "I know every inch of this area better than you," he remarks irately to an eager young supporter, who tries to tug him down a narrow street in Guttahally. "I don't have to offer prayers in that temple: I built it, and everyone who is a devotee knows that, and thanks me for it every day."

We leave his family home (where he lived with his father Nagappa Alva, a distinguished statesman and politician of Karnataka, until the latterís death recently) in Jeevaraj's white Maruti 1000. He now lives in an apartment in Ulsoor with Nandini, who is an accomplished danseuse and beautician running a parlour in a five star hotel. They have two children: the lovely Priyanka and her younger brother Aditya.

"I built my party, the Lok Shakti, from scratch, with tremendous effort and enterprise," he says, as we drive along. "Do you know how tough it is to build a party from nothing, until it is an accepted force in the state? I definitely think we should have tried to go it alone to the polls this time. I am confident we would have won it. But our leader decided to opt for this alliance." (It is obvious, of course, he is referring to his mentor and longstanding friend Ramakrishna Hegde.)

Jeevaraj's approach to the Lok Shakti could actually be described as an excellent exercise in brand building. The party has a special, striking colour scheme of red and white. This colour scheme distinguished it quite clearly from the saffron or green adopted quite unimaginatively by all the other parties. The very first major public meeting in Bangalore addressed by the alliance had all badges and buntings in the Shakti colours, and not that of the BJP.

Their new alliance symbol of the arrow does not stand out too clearly from the white background on their banners, though. Party campaigners all wear scarves in party colours around their necks. Others sport red and white T shirts inscribed in Urdu, as an obvious counterpoint to Jeevaraj's main rival, the former minister Roshan Baig of the Congress.

"Our alliance with the BJP has tinged me too with a slightly communal colour, and this might become my undoing in this fight," he confides, in a rare moment of candour, as we drive along. "Baig is desperately wooing the Muslim and Christian votes." It is quite obvious, as he is on his padayatra later, that he is constantly conscious of this factor, as he takes extra care to approach Muslim families and elders.

And as Alva is quite multi-faceted in that he is a qualified medical practitioner, a patron of the fine arts (music, dance, painting) and an English-speaking sophisticate, he is able to reach out to all kinds of people, right from the educated urbanite to the illiterate slum dweller. "I do hope people like you will support a doctor like me," he says gently, to the women of the family of a medical specialist who have come out of their house to watch him pass by. "Please think about it, and try to support me."

The BJP and Jana Shakti, as Jeevaraj has christened his new allied party, are merely token presences in each other's campaigns. Only one assembly contestant accompanied Ananth Kumar on his rounds, while two women workers of the Bangalore Taluk BJP could be seen in Jeevaraj's road show. Numerous little boys wearing red and whites sashes like turbans wound around their heads, held in place with BJP caps, seemed to symbolise the confusion in the minds of the cadres of both parties perfectly.

"Our feet are aching," smiled Srilatha Poornachandra, BJP vice-president for Bangalore taluk, as she did some of the best door-to-door campaigning I have ever witnessed, making sure she spoke to every woman in sight and made a favourable impression as well.

There are at least 75 fairly young supporters who accompany Jeevaraj on foot, as well as several autorickshaws covering the area with slogans and songs. A small advance party dances ahead, bursting crackers on the road and beating drums. "Twinkle twinkle little star, Jeevaraj Alva superstar" they chant, rather inappropriately, as the smiling candidate walks behind. His aides form a mini human chain behind him, purely to prevent people from stepping on his flapping black slippers.

Jeevaraj's foot has been giving him a lot of trouble because of all the walking. "My foot got badly trampled in a crowd a couple of years ago," he says. "It had some minor fractures, but I could not disable it or put in plaster because it was election time. So now there is some minor permanent damage." I nod commiseratingly, and am pushed back for the umpteenth time by glowering, protective aides, who won't let anyone near because they fear for their masterís feet. Despite his swollen foot, Jeevaraj maintains a brisk pace that is hard to keep up with. He also keeps darting off at tangents to meet householders, much to the dismay of his minders.

I find myself walking beside a young, saree-clad woman carrying a perfect plastic replica of an electronic voting machine. This is yet another of Alva's typically innovative ideas: the replica has only the name in the second slot filled in, as Jeevaraj has been allotted the serial number 2, and it displays the numeral, Jeevaraj's name and election symbol, the arrow, very prominently. "We are educating voters on the use of the machine as its new," says the young woman. And obviously also subtly telling the voter to press the right button, namely that of Jeevaraj.

We have walked for close to two hours through Guttahally and the crowds have grown in numbers. A couple of police jeeps and several policemen are also now on our trail, and it gets increasingly difficult to stay close to Jeevaraj amidst the jostling crowds.

A cruising autorickshaw becomes a temptation too difficult to resist, and I hop in quickly, knowing that as a woman, I will not be able to follow Jeevaraj into his next destination anyway, as it is a mosque. I sit back in the bumpy autorickshaw, empathising with Jeevaraj and his aching feet, after having had my own slippers trodden on and my feet jerked back agonisingly several times during the long march.

Campaign Trail

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