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September 23, 1999

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Campaign Trail/ Pilibhit

Dog day afternoon in Pilibhit

Onkar Singh

Maneka Gandhi "Sorry," she says prettily to a dog after accidentally stepping on its tail.

"Kutta saala..&%@&% %@$$##!" she screams, an instant in time later, venting her ire on the bowed head of a 70-year-old man who is part of the throng of constituents seeking Madam's aid in solving the minor problems of day to day living.

One thing is for sure -- Maneka Gandhi has her priorities. First on the list come dogs. Then the rest of nature's fauna. Then women.

And men? Judging by her behaviour, they are handy merely as a sounding board to perfect her abusive technique. "Haramzade, tera main murder karva dungi. Tu hata kata hai, kaam kyon nahin karta?" she screams at a young man who wants help in untangling his late parents' indebtedness. "You have taken a loan from the bank, you better pay it back. Your parents may be dead, but you are alive and can earn, Maneka yells at the hapless young man.

Changing colour swifter than a chameleon, she gestures to a behenji (all women voters are behenjis, irrespective of age) to approach and state her problem. Maneka listens, then pulls out a sheet of her personal letterhead. Her name is inscribed on top, the lettering on the scale of the masthead of one of our national papers. On it, she scribbles a few lines, then tells behenji: "Take this and go to the district magistrate, he will attend to your problem. If you still have a problem come back to me, and I will take it up personally."

The supplicant goes away, beaming. The next in line shuffles forward...

It is 7.30 in the morning, and Maneka in a maroon sari is holding court in a small room of the massive white bungalow on Assam road, on the outskirts of Pilibhit, that serves her as temporary GHQ for the duration of her election campaign.

Watching, from a discreet distance -- she does not permit interference -- is former Punjab minister Baldev Singh Mann. In front of her, hundreds of voters, all hoping to catch madam's eye.

Not all are attended to -- Maneka glances out over the crowd, and a pointing finger is the invitation for the chosen supplicant to step forward. It is, of course, pure coincidence that a large majority of them are women.

Varun, her 19-year-old son, is nowhere in evidence, which is not surprising. Unlike his mother, he hits the campaign trail very early in the morning, and spends the day on the stump, exhorting little pockets of voters to give his mother another chance.

Meanwhile, Maneka holds court in her own idiosyncratic fashion. "She is hot-headed, she screams at us, she shouts and abuses us but she also attends to our work," says a senior citizen who has come to seek help getting his ration card made.

The locals treat the election as a foregone conclusion -- Maneka is the only viable horse in the race, is the consensus.

The general optimism, however, comes attached to a cold douche -- while she won with a huge margin last time round, she might find the going tougher this time, the locals warn.

Giving Maneka a run for her money is Congress candidate Raj Rai Singh, wife of IAS officer Rai Singh, former district magistrate of Pilibhit and popular with the locals.

Both Raj Rai Singh and Maneka are running muted campaigns. Of the two, Maneka's seems the better organised, both in terms of men and money. The Akali leadership have deputed Baldev Mann to provide the organisational assistance, and funds are certainly not in short supply. Yogesh Patel, the Baroda MLA and erstwhile colleague of Maneka's during the Sanjay Vichar Manch, has been camping in the constituency, at the head of a band of 15 trusted colleagues, to handle field publicity. And the biggest plus is that unlike the other Gandhi bahu, Maneka is not surrounded with concentric circles of security, remaining accessible to the voters.

Interestingly, while Maneka, contesting as an Independent with Akali support, has done more than her fair share of travelling through the Punjab to canvass for other Akali leaders, she seems reluctant to invite the party leadership to campaign in her constituency.

Hers, thus, is a solo show, in this constituency in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh. It is a rich, Sikh-dominated constituency -- easily the richest in UP. And Maneka, judging by the feedback of the locals, appears well enshrined as the reigning satrap.

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