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|September 25, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Savera R Someshwar
A Man Of The World Braves Herculean Odds in Nainital
"Are you a Brahmin?" Muzzaffar Ali -- film-maker (Gaman, Umrao Jaan, Anjuman), designer, artist -- looked pained. In the last few minutes, the Samajwadi Party candidate for Nainital in Uttar Pradesh had unleashed a vituperative stream against Brahmins in general, and Congress nominee Narain Dutt Tiwari in particular.
"Tiwari is a casteist and a regionalist. This was true of Govind Ballabh Pant too, you know. He was as bad as Tiwari. If a Rajput went to them for a job, they would say, 'Tu tho kisan ka beta hai, jaa kheti kar. Nahin to army mein chala jaa. But if it was a Brahmin, it would be, 'Chal, Lucknow aa jaa, naukri pe laga dege.' Do you know that, as a result, there are three and half lakhs of Brahmins from these hills in Lucknow and Delhi? This is how these Brahmins play their games. That is why, out of the 22 soldiers from this state who have been martyred in Kargil, 20 are Rajputs."
And the proof of the accusation?
"Oh," say his supporters airily, "Where is the need for proof? These are facts. Everyone knows them."
At which point arose the question of our caste identity. And a hurried clarification. "I mean, I'm not anti-Brahmin you know. Earlier, too, the Brahmins of this area had masterminded the expulsion of the Kumaon kings to Kashipur. That was because the Kumaon kings had expelled the Brahmins in their time. Because of that, none of the Brahmins here are native to the area. They have all been imported from Gujarat and Maharashtra. Do you get what I am saying?"
As he talks, Ali's attention is distracted by half a dozen of his posters juxtaposed with the red-and-green SP flags around a roadside lamp. "They have done it nicely, haven't they?"
Suddenly recalling that we were in the midst of a conversation, "Er… where was I? What were we talking about?"
This just happens to be quintessential Muzzaffar Ali. Distracted, diffused, enthusiastic, confident, impractical and, it seems, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s favourite sacrificial goat. In the 1998 election, he was pitted against Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lucknow, a contest in which he polled 215,475 votes against Vajpayee's 431,738.
"I am quite popular in Lucknow, you know, and I had a very good chance. But the BJP made ugly inroads into the straight culture of synthesis that Lucknow is known for. That city, like this area, had a very rich history of Hindu-Muslim unity. But the BJP creates rift and ugliness wherever they go. Do you get what I'm saying? They drum up the Sangh Parivar. And I decided I would not fight from Lucknow again because they have introduced a cancer there that I found depressing. That cancer defeated me. They brought in 10,000 RSS workers in the areas where I was strong to put bogus votes."
He is not too fond of the Congress either. The demolition of the Babri Masjid has only increased his dislike. "I was three years old when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel came to Lucknow with Govind Ballabh Pant and he gave a speech ki agar mussalman apna deemag nahin theek karenge tho aisi garam hawa chalegi ki yahan rahe nahin sakte. And then the Congress plumped for Partition because they could not stomach a strong Punjab. And there was the UP factor -- kehte te na prime minister hamesha UP ka banega. Even Maulana Azad has admitted in one of his books that if there was no UP, there would have been no Partition."
Anti-Congressism is in Ali's blood. His father, who started the Samyukta Party, defeated the Congress four times as an Independent. He also has slight Leftist leanings, which could be the influence of his second wife, Subhasini of the CPI-M. Subhasini -- a former CPI-M MP from Kanpur -- is the daughter of Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal, leader of the all-woman Jhansi Ki Rani regiment in Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army.
Though this is Ali's fourth foray into the polls -- he felt compelled to enter the political arena after the Babri Masjid demolition -- he has yet to open his innings with a victory. "Earlier, I fought for the Vidhan Sabha seat from my home town, Lakhimpurkhiri. The next time, Mulayam had promised I could fight from the same seat again, but he changed his mind and did not give me a ticket. I was furious with him so I fought as an Independent. Since I was against Mulayam then, you cannot really count that one."
Nainital happens to be a very difficult constituency for the SP. Yadav is not particularly revered here, considering his consistent opposition to the formation of the separate state of Uttarakhand. Nor have they forgotten the infamous Muzaffarnagar incident, where 19 Uttarakhand women activists were raped by the Provincial Armed Constabulary.
But the fact that the Uddham Singh Nagar Rakshak Samiti has officially come out in favour of the SP might also aid Ali. The SP is supportive of the Samiti's stand that if at all Uttarakhand has to be created, it should be done at 540 feet about sea level.
"What is the point?" asks Ali, "in creating a weak state near the Chinese border? To add to that, you are creating a problem for the traders who have links with Lucknow. If they are part of a separate state, they will have to pay double octroi and taxes. You should also consider the fact that the people of the plains have a different culture -- social and economic -- from the pahadis. They feel that if a new state is formed, they will be in a minority and hence will be exploited."
He believes the election in Nainital will make or break the country, and the next government at the Centre. "I am telling you, Uttarakhand is an issue on which the government can fall. Look, these guys are willing to go to any extent to keep way from the pahad. If the BJP forms the government and goes for Uttarakhand, we will take the issue to every state. And the Congress can never implement Uttarakhand because they can never form the government without us."
"People," he continued, "are now realising the relevance of Mulayam Singh. Earlier, the people of Uttarakhand and the people of the hills did not like him. But you must understand, you know, that the media is controlled by the upper echelons of society. They don't want a backward to rise. Mulayam has always had to fight against these and other odds. But he has a clean, pure mind and a good heart. He is down-to-earth and understands the pulse of the farmers. And my heart is in the farmers. I am very close to him."
Like we said, diffused. So why exactly did the SP select him to contest a constituency that has always displayed strong slant towards either the BJP or the Congress?
"That is why you need a person with stature, with a strong viewpoint. Otherwise, even if you are a good speaker, no one will take you seriously. This is a tough fight all right, if you know what I mean. I'm taking on N D Tiwari on his home ground, where he has been chief minister for the last 25 years. But, you know, Tiwari is having nightmares ever since my name was announced. He's even had second thoughts about fighting these elections, you know. And Naina Ahmed (the BSP candidate), even though she is a good friend, I have to say she is cutting no ice. It's only the Miss India hype. She is concentrating on the Muslims and the Dalits are feeling neglected. As for the BJP, they did have an upswing here, but now they have burnt themselves out. Anti-incumbency factor, you know. Personally speaking, I believe I am going to win by one lakh votes at least. What do you think?"
Confident, like we said. Yet, in the five hours that we spent with him (in Rudrapur, Haldwani, Lalkuwa, Mukhani and Lamachaur), neither he nor his supporters were able to gather more than 20 people for what we had been told were much-publicised meetings.
"Oh that," Ali waved his hands in dismissal, "This is the city. All these people are shopkeepers and you know how shopkeepers are. They are always nice to everyone. You can see they have BJP flags over their shops. But they have promised us their votes. You see, they are scared of showing us overt support. And what matters is whom you vote for, and not which flag you display. You should have been with us when we were campaigning in the rural areas. There is a tidal wave in favour of the SP and Mulayam Singh. It's incredible, you know, the kind of support I am getting."
"And," added district SP president Abdul Madin Siddiqui, "it has been raining and we have been late for our meetings." A fact confirmed by bystanders at Lamachaur. "There were about a hundred or so people on the morning but after some time they went away."
But the SP unit at Rudrapur (now Uddham Singh Nagar), which is part of the Nainital constituency, has its own tale of woe. "When the list was being decided," mourned the SP workers, "we had fought very hard for Raj Babbar. There are 1.5 lakh Khatri votes in this constituency and they would have gone straight to him. But the Agra unit fought harder. And they had the advantage of the fact that he was born there."
What will also effect Ali's chances is the lack of unity among the SP workers in the area. They are unhappy about the lack of reimbursement. Other workers have lent their vehicles and lost track of them. "I don't know where my vehicle has been for three days," complained one worker. "I don't know where it has travelled, how much petrol has been used…"
"If it is so much of a problem," Meera, Ali's no-nonsense wife attempted order in the chaos, "then you can take your vehicle back."
There are constant clashes centering around Ali's programmes and, or so they claim, the lack of attention towards certain areas of the constituency.
"Madam," pleaded the president of the SP's Rudrapur unit with Meera, who is orchestrating her husband's campaign, "You have not come to our area. And the new campaign office has still not been inaugurated."
"But we were there yesterday," countered Meera, "and you were not able to generate any kind of audience. Why should we waste our time then? No, Rudrapur is over. He is not going to come here. He will go to places where people are more organised and he gets a better response."
Two minutes later, Ali, unaware of what has happened, committed his time to inaugurate the office. And then wandered off to check if enough pamphlets were being distributed to the youth who, he believes, are his strongest supporters.
"They look up to me," he says. "They find I am young at heart and respond to the energy I communicate. They are very excited about the fact that I am planning a film city and a film university here. It could be very broadbased university of humanity and aesthetics, you know, it could cover communications, information, design… it could be a mix of NIIT, Jamia and Pune. I could blend all this into a fantastic base here. The university could be partly in the hills and partly in the plains. The youth are going berserk over the idea."
Other plans include vocational education through a Dwar Phirozi Prashikshan Sansthan, sericulture, weaving and embroidery ("I want to do something for women; they are the carriers of culture), handmade paper, perfumery ("France has made perfumery a national industry, why can't we do it here?"), wool ("We should learn from Australia, Shetland and Scotland…") and growing medicinal herbs ("Look how bountiful Nature has been to this region.")
And there is the issue of the 90,000 odd Bengalis who reside in the state and have been clamouring for SC status. Ali plans to fight for their cause as well "so that these poor displaced guys can derive a few benefits that they will then be eligible for."
Of course, all these plans are subject to the fact that he wins. If he does not?
"Mast aadmi hain," said Ali, running his hand through his shoulder length hair. "Kahin bhi chale jayenge. I don't belong to one place. I am a man of the world."
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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