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September 14, 1999


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Where the voters are no better than cattle

Sharat Pradhan in Pratapgarh

Four decades ago, independent India abolished zamindari; privy purses and other special privileges enjoyed by the erstwhile rajas too were done away with in the sixties. Yet, in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, some feudal lords continue to rule according to their whims.

Fifty years of independence and a dozen general elections have not changed the attitude of these feudal lords, who believe more in force than in the ballot. Barely 150 kilometres from the seat of government in Lucknow, lies the Pratapgarh parliamentary constituency, which comprises a cluster of at least three former feudal states.

In this area, ironically, Chief Minister Kalyan Singh's much touted claim of establishing a bhay-mukta samaj (a society free from fear), seems to hold good only for these very oppressors --- the oppressed continue to live in utter terror. Kalyan Singh, who is otherwise regarded as a "no-nonsense" chief minister, may rule the country's most populous state, but clearly, his writ does not run in Pratapgarh.

Like in past elections, the verdict in the current one too appears to be a foregone conclusion. "Unless free and fair polling is ensured, no one can defeat the candidate supported by Raja Bhaiya" is the common refrain of the man in the street here. The man in question, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, is the son of the erstwhile raja of Bhadri.

The mantle of a cabinet minister provided to him -- courtesy Kalyan Singh -- has only added to the immunity he enjoys from the law of the land.

Since he supports the BJP nominee and a distant-cousin, Abhay Pratap Singh, aka Bade Raja, then his subjects better follow suit, or else be prepared to face feudal wrath.

The Congress candidate is a member of the former princely family of Kalakankar, also from this district. Ratna Singh is the daughter of the late Dinesh Singh, the former raja of Kalakankar and a minister in the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Cabinets.

"If I disclosed my name to you that would amount to signing my death warrant," observed an old man in Bhupia Mau village, explaining, "how impossible it was to live like a free citizen here." Another elderly person points out, "if he can make the life of an upright district police chief like Jasbir Singh hell, so much so that he had to run for safety and seek a posting under the central government, then we are just cattle to him." He was referring to R P Singh's alleged witch-hunt against this IPS officer who challenged his extra-constitutional authority.

''R P Singh's men do the rounds of the villages, where a list is made of all those who have dared to opt for duty as polling agents of the rival party. Once your name gets noted, you can forget everything," revealed a middle-aged brick kiln manager, sipping tea at a roadside dhaba in Pratapgarh town.

In Rampur-Khas, where the raja's influence meets its match in that of Congress leader Pramod Tiwari, things seem slightly better. One may come across a few daredevils who are willing to talk more openly, though once again on the condition of anonymity. "Barely a week back one of R P Singh's's associates came down in a jeep and in the middle of the market asked an elderly man to say, Raja Bhaiya ki Jai, but the man chose to hail Ratna Singh instead; the poor fellow had to pay a heavy price," a shopkeeper recalled.

He was slapped and kicked in public view in broad daylight, and was being tied to the rear of the jeep to be dragged around, when the people for once chose to defy the goon and intervene. Sensing trouble, the hood ordered his men to untie the old man's hands and sped away from the scene.

It is in this context that a voter in this area whispers, "if there was a fair election here, Ratna Singh would win hands down." They describe Abhay Pratap Singh, who makes it a point to prefix his name with the title of raja, as a turncoat.

"Until the 4th of August, Raja Abhay Pratap was himself urging people to vote for Ratna Singh, whom he described as bitiya," a senior citizen of Bhupiya Mau told this reporter, adding, "but within the next four days, as R P Singh walked in with a BJP ticket for him, he readily agreed to oppose Ratna." There is not a party in UP with which Abhay Pratap Singh had not been associated with at some point of time.

There was evidence of courage among a group of men and women in the Dalit-dominated Pangau village, where Mohammad Wasim and Aseem Ansari were willing to go on record against R P Singh. "We have decided to tie a kafan round our heads and have it out," dared the two. Their strength comes from the Bahujan Samaj Party's newly-established base in the area. BSP candidate Ashok Kumar Yadav is the main source of this new-found strength.

Yadav, who is busy addressing roadside meetings particularly in Dalit localities and villages, has been urging people to rise and fight back with all their might . Describing R P Singh as the "villain of the piece," he wondered why the Election Commission was not taking cognisance of the minister's alleged transgressions.

In assembly segments like Kunda, Bihar (a namesake of the neighbouring state) and even Sadar, no flags or banners other than that of the BJP is visible and the young and old alike speak in hushed tones even if a passing reference to R P Singh is made.

When asked about this, Election Commissioner G V G Krishnamurthy, while on a visit to UP, flatly denied having received any complaints in this regard so far. "I am aware that Pratapgarh is among the hyper-sensitive constituencies of this state but there is no specific complaint until now," he said.

However, Congress leader Pramod Tiwari, who holds considerable sway in parts of this constituency, told, "I have sent at least eight faxes to the Election Commission regarding R P Singh's extra-constitutional ways and the blatant display of his muscle power in this area, but there is no response."


The Goonda from Kunda


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