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September 14, 1999


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Constituency/ Allahabad

Rita Bahuguna-Joshi may spoil the physics professor's party in Allahabad

Sharat Pradhan in Allahabad

For a full decade the Congress remained in oblivion in its hometown, Allahabad, the abode of the Nehrus. The visibility of the party tricolour after such a long gap is therefore noticed at a time when the city elects its new member of Parliament on Saturday.

Evidently, that is why the incumbent, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Professor Murli Manohar Joshi, is on the alert -- for a change. The Union minister for human resources development was, until yesterday, not among those who would permit an easy audience to the man on the street in his hometown, where he once taught physics at Allahabad University. But thanks to the Congress decision to field city Mayor Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who carries the name and legacy of her stalwart father Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, that the otherwise "inaccessible" and "arrogant" BJP bigwig is on the move.

For the man whose psyche was vividly reflected in the most popular slogan of his campaign -- 'Bharat Maa ke teen dharohar; Atal, Advani, Murli Manohar' -- any reference to local issues is bound to appear demeaning. Naturally, the powerful Union minister finds it difficult to fit into the new frame he has not been used to.

It was with a stiff-neck that he encountered this correspondent one morning. The very mention of Allahabad constituency sounded offensive to him as he shot off, "If you have come to speak to me about Allahabad and local issues, I am sorry I would not like to talk; you are welcome to speak about national issues."

His message was loud and clear -- for anyone who dared to regard him as a 'local' leader. It was only after one assured him that the idea was not to undermine his 'national' stature that he agreed to go further.

And no sooner was he asked to comment on the accusations about him being "arrogant and inaccessible", that he got sufficiently provoked to roll out a long clarification. "All that is a canard being spread by my opponents; I am the most accessible person; you can ask the people sitting outside," he stressed, while inviting a rustic looking tilak-dhari to explain to this scribe whether he had any difficulty in finding access to the Union minister's private residence.

What followed was a monologue on what he had done for Allahabad. "I am here at least five days every month to ensure that I maintain direct contact with my electorate; and that is how I have ensured major development works in this area," he said. These include the allocation of Rs 400 million for the improvement of irrigation facilities, construction of an 80-km road, four new sports complexes, a water sports complex, introduction of water transport on the Ganga between Allahabad and Haldi, besides sanctioning a new bridge over the Yamuna and the setting up of India's first national level Institute of Information Technology. He then blamed the city's civil ills on the mayor and his key rival, the Congress nominee.

Only when he was reminded of the fact that he had himself digressed to "local issues", did he swiftly revert to larger claims: "providing stability -- both political and economic -- and bringing about scientific advancement to take India into the 21st century."

Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who keenly retains both her father's as well as her husband's surname, dismisses the elder Joshi's claims as "absolutely hollow". The firebrand daughter of the popular Congress stalwart, whose contribution as the industrial architect of modern Allahabad is still remembered by the people here, asks, "If Dr Murli Manohar Joshi considered himself a parallel to Atal and Advani, then what was the need for him to invite the prime minister to address a campaign meeting here?"

Murli Manohar, however, clarifies, "Atalji is coming here not merely to campaign for me, but he will address a divisional level meeting of party workers." Rita Bahuguna, whose confidence emanates from the fact that she was elected as mayor as an Independent, and one who could survive even after defiantly dissociating herself from the Samajwadi Party, foresees the end of saffron raj here.

She counter's the BJP charge of civic neglect by her, by pleading "paucity of funds" and "non-co-operation" from the "BJP-minded bureaucracy". If Dr Joshi wants to know what she did with the Rs 50 million "extra grant" that he had got for the municipal corporation, she pleads: "This was done only by slashing an even bigger amount of routine funds, with the result that there was just enough money to meet the wage bill of municipal employees."

While these charges and counter charges are being traded, one detected a tilt towards the Congress among the local population. "We have had enough of others; at least Ritaji is one of us and the daughter of the man who gave a lot to Allahabad," observed an old worker in the industrial township of Naini.

Rita's mother Kamla Bahuguna, who has been a well known political figure, is busy mobilising support for her daughter in one of the rural assembly segments of the constituency, where the late chief minister's name still works its magic.

In another rural assembly segment, the Bahuguna family's personal rapport with the sitting CPI MLA has brought him in open support of the Congress. In the city where Murli Manohar Joshi has been ruling the roost among upper caste Hindus, Rita Joshi also has the support of local Samajwadi Party MLA Atique Ahmed, who recently deserted Mulayam Singh Yadav to join the Congress.

Even though he is alleged to have a dubious reputation, his drift to the Congress is welcome as he holds considerable sway over the 200,000 Muslim voters in Allahabad. It was this that won him the local assembly seat even as an Independent in the past. Rita Joshi also hopes to win back some sections of Brahmins who have been backing the professor over the past two elections. The only worry for the Congress in this scenario is Samajwadi Party nominee Reoti Raman Singh, who could play spoilsport by dividing the anti-BJP vote.


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