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September 15, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Archana Masih

Bhopal will be no pushover for the sultry sanyasin

Uma Bharti "Hi! Ready to leave guys?" Uma Bharti peeped through the huge drawing room door. Pulling her saffron angavastram off the floor, she breezed into the red Tata Safari and tore out of Sehore, 40 kilometres from Bhopal. The cane basket – with an Indian Airline executive class tag -- sat in the rear with her food and water reserve for the rest of the day. Also homeopathic pills for her throat.

"I have no faith in allopathy. I am still suffering from the side effects from the medication taken after my accident in 1996. It shows on my skin. In two months the sun burn will peel off entirely." The sanyasin surely has the knack of drawing one into a comfortable conversation. She reminisces about a trip to Paris. Her nephews is Delhi whom she enjoyed taking to films. And how she has campaigned on motor bikes and bullock carts in the rough terrain of Khajuraho – the constituency that sent her to Parliament for four terms.

Earlier in the day she had already been through a gruelling schedule – driving through the narrow roads of Sehore on a make-shift rath. Perched on a red velvet bar stool with two cushions supporting the back which supposedly forced her out of Khajuraho into Bhopal.

True to her style, she dismisses all allegations of the discontentment of the BJP's Khajuraho unit. The division in the Bhopal unit on her arrival and the embarrassment caused to the party's eight time MLA and former chief minister Kailash Joshi on being denied a ticket at the last moment.

"This is just propaganda to discredit me and the party. Joshiji is campaigning for me. I left Khajuraho because I was fed up. I had done what my people there wanted me to do and it was time for me to move on. I will leave Bhopal too after 10, 15 years," she asserts.

Away from Bhopal city which bears a blatant pro Suresh Pachauri – the Congress candidate -- poster slant, Bharti has been working hard in the rural part of her constituency which comprises 60 per cent of the electorate. Throwing flowers at women and children, kissing and lifting kids from the crowd. "In the city, there are many who even ask for autographs. It is different here," she says looking at the crowd around her.

Uma Bharti "Didi, you will win with over 250,000 votes," says a former MLA walking alongside the rath. "Arrey nahin, itna bhi adhik mat boliye (Don't exaggerate)," she admonishes him gently. "To tell you the truth, a candidate never knows the exact sentiment of the people because we are always surrounded by supporters."

Political observers in Bhopal are of the opinion that Uma Bharti is in for a tough fight this time and has to cope with the 'outsider' jinx. Her candidature has also brought into focus the deep division in the BJP's Madhya Pradesh unit. Party workers are not completely united in working for her campaign. "I have never seen such factionalism in the party since 1986," says a local observer.

Rajya Sabha member and national president of the Seva Dal Suresh Pachauri, meanwhile, is playing his local card to the hilt. "Bhopal ka bashinda, aap ka apna Suresh Pachauri (Your own, one among you – Suresh Pachauri)" is the common phrase on many hoardings in the city. With his Seva Dal background, Pachauri is also banking on his appeal with the 25 to 50 age group. Known for being in the good books of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he is perhaps one of the youngest candidates the party has fielded in Bhopal.

"There are around 2,000 Seva Dal members in Bhopal who will play a great role in mobilising support for him," says BJP supporter and local cyber café owner Narendra Menghwani. Pachauri is not daunted by his debut in electoral politics, that too against a formidable opponent who has never lost an election. And his placid exterior almost gives way to annoyance when asked about his absence of experience in the Lower House. "Parliamentary participation is what forms the basis of a good parliamentarian, and I have introduced the largest number of private member bills," he stresses.

He candidly points out that his party fared badly in the last ten years because the selection of candidates was often very delayed for the Bhopal seat. "I consider each voter my voter. I know somebody in every other home. It is the people of Bhopal who are fighting this election for me," he says in his office-cum residence on Lalghati Road.

Having slept only at 0400 hours after a hectic evening schedule with Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, the short-statured Pachauri is crisply dressed for the day. An angavastra with the name Sonia Gandhi embroidered on the edges numerous times over, he was inundated with calls about arrangements for the Congress president's visit to the city in the evening.

An engineer from a local institute, he is considered a good manager within the party circles. Yet, many think the trait may not be enough to take on Uma Bharti. A powerful orator – one of the best the BJP has – she is a spirited campaigner with an ability to evoke participation with the masses. Her sanyasin image strikes a chord with the male voter and being a woman endears her to the womenfolk.

"I will not allow you to felicitate me unless you ask the sarpanch's wife to do so," she adamantly tells the organisers in a village in the Sehore Vidhan Sabha segment. And waits at the podium till the woman with her veil-drawn-to-her-nose appears and then begins her address: "Bharat Mata ki jai!" She raises her fist and urges the audience to do the same. "Like Hanumanji you have raise your hand in a fist, not like the palm – which is the Congress symbol." "You should press the button beside the Kamal. Press it so hard that Digvijay Singh's chair gets dislodged and Sonia Gandhi goes back."

From village to village, she urges voters to vote for the BJP so that she can change their lives for the better. Telling them that she had repaid the debt of her earlier constituents by providing the longest rail route after the Konkan railway. "I am standing here under the shade of the peepal and banyan tree which is a very good shagun (omen). I would like to come back right here. To sit under the shade of these trees and discuss your problems. So call me back soon."

Although Uma Bharti vehemently drives in the point that her party workers are not unhappy with her, a prominent party insider reveals things are not as hunky-dory. Sushil Chandra Verma – an IAS of 1949 vintage and former MP chief secretary – who had wrested the seat from the Congress in 1989 and held it since is disgruntled after being unceremoniously dropped.

Verma had got wind of a plan being hatched between Bhopal and Delhi for his ouster. More a bureaucrat and less of a politician, he bowed out of the race on health grounds to prevent a sour confrontation. A four time winner from Bhopal with an increasing margin of victory in each election, Verma was further upset because Home Minister and BJP bigwig L K Advani did not even call him to inquire about his health.

"They first offered the seat to Kailash Joshi. A set of leaders pleaded for him. When his candidature was cancelled, certain party leaders sent a letter that they did not want an outsider. However, they changed their mind subsequently and did not push hard for Joshi," says a senior party leader. Bharti, on the other hand, claims that Verma has been campaigning for her and she has both his and Joshi's blessings.

It is also perceived that Bharti could be a threat to the state leadership, and her arrival in Bhopal is indicative of her rising political ambition. That Bharti has harboured chief ministerial ambitions, and thus engineered this shift to a more 'prestigious' constituency. "Arrey bhai, it is a case of pure political ambition – Bhopal, after all, is one of India's largest constituencies," adds a BJP official. However, Bharti dismisses any such personal aspirations.

Uma Bharti The other aspect of Bharti's candidature -- despite her sadhvi/pro-Hindutva image – is the party's decision to field her from a constituency with a 27 per cent Muslim presence. "Their percentage is 18 per cent, not 27 per cent. That is Congress propaganda," she adds matter of factly and maintains she has visited almost all Muslim areas in Bhopal city.

She, however, confesses she will not sacrifice her ideology to please a particular section. "The Muslims don't ever vote for the BJP," says the afore mentioned senior BJP leader. "You think they will vote for Uma Bharti who was standing there when the mosque was being demolished?"

The BJP is expecting the presence of Aslam Sher Khan -- briefly in the BJP -- of the Nationalist Congress Party, W S Siddiqui of the Janata Dal and Chand Mia of the Samajwadi Party to damage the Congress vote bank. Certain Muslims harbour the impression that Aslam Sher Khan is a 'B-grade-dummy BJP candidate' to eat into the Congress votes.

"Bhopal will not accept Uma Bharti," says former BJP MP and the 1998 Congress candidate Arif Beg. "Moreover she is not vinamra (polite). She wants everybody under her thumb." Beg, who defeated Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1977, left the BJP in 1998 after spending 22 years with the party. However, he admits that Bharti is a "good lady and a capable leader."

The Congress is hopeful of Muslim support. Pachauri, a Brahmin, is banking on the 175,000 Brahmin votes. He even hopes the 90,000 Kayastha voters, unhappy with the denial of a ticket to S C Verma, will shun the BJP.

The BJP, on the other hand, believes that Bhopal has been so deeply polarised after the Babri Masjid demolition that Hindus will support the BJP and non-Hindus the Congress, which will once again swing the seat in its favour this time.

"Bhopal is not such an easy seat," a senior BJP leader dismisses this claim. Since 1952 the constituency has been won six times by the Congress, five times by the BJP (the Jan Sangh in 1967) and by the Janata Party in 1977. Currently, the BJP holds five assembly segments, down by one, and the Congress has three, up from one in the last election.

Caught unawares by its performance in the assembly poll, BJP leaders maintain last November's results are not representative of its likely performance in the general election. "If it was so, we would not have lost in the Vidhan Sabha after two successive Lok Sabha wins," says BJP spokesperson Prabhat Jha. The party accuses the Digvijay Singh government of 'election management' to tip the scales in its favour in the assembly poll.

However, a former civil servant and now a BJP politician refutes the allegation: "It is incorrect to blame the CM. I don't think any government official would want to put his neck on the block for Digvijay Singh."

The residents of Bhopal, meanwhile, expect little benefit from the outcome of this political contest. The availability of drinking water has been on the decline. "The municipal corporation has hiked water charges three times over," says a resident of the upmarket Arera Colony. Moreover, both the state and central governments have been indifferent to those affected by the Union Carbide gas leak in December 1984.

Thirty six of the 52 wards in the city were declared affected by the tragedy. Most of those affected were Muslims. Though interim relief was granted, many have not received full compensation yet.

"I do not discriminate people – on religion or caste," thunders Uma Bharti. "Nobody will suffer in this constituency on these grounds." However, her main plank for garnering support remain Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the rejection of Sonia Gandhi's videshi image.

"A woman who scowls at village homes layered with fresh cowdung for special occasions, how can she aspire to become PM?" she tells her audience in the next village. Rising 5 ft 1 inches above the muddy village roads, she often stands on a chair to be seen. And even obliges some with sholkas from the Ramayan. "I do not know your name, but you will win with our blessings," grins one woman.

Some frantically halt her car to complain about a hand-pump that has not been fixed in months. Some weigh her with bananas. "There was a time -- after the Ram Mandir – when people would insist on doing a tilak with their blood," she adds, "That was tough. I couldn't take it."

Her voice is hoarse. There are almost a dozen more villages ahead. But the sanyasin is gung ho: "This is my greatest kick," she says combing her wind-torn hair, and quickly scurries from her vehicle to yet another make-shift podium.

Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

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