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|September 25, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Savera R Someshwar
'If I looked like an ordinary person, they would not even look at me'
'Oh, look at the machli. Yummy, yummmmy!" Yet, her favourite food is but a momentary distraction for Naina Ahmed nee Balsavar, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate in Nainital, Uttar Pradesh, who could turn out to the dark horse in this particular race.
She was not the BSP's original choice for this constituency. But when 75-year-old ex-wing commander Raminder Singh bowed out of the fray, the mantle fell on Naina. She claims her husband, senior BSP leader Akbar 'Dumpy' Ahmed, had nothing to do with the matter, "The leaders of the gram panchayat recommended my name. I was selected by popular demand."
Whatever the reason, it is a decision that seems to be working in the BSP's favour. She has been drawing 500 to 1,000 plus crowds even at roadside meets and, if this translates into votes, both Balraj Pasi of the BJP and N D Tiwari of the Congress will have cause for worry. But then, there is the feeling too that people could just be coming to satisfy their curiosity about a former Miss India, a former model, a former television actress.
"It is very nice to have a little bit of glamour," says Naina, incongruously pulling her pallu more firmly around her face. "People come there to see you. They have hope in you. They think of you as a goddess. If I looked like an ordinary person, they would not even look at me. I even consider my being Miss India as part of God's act. It's made it that much easier for people to recognise me. They came to see me, heard me and went back saying Bhabhi ne dil jeet liya."
In keeping with the style of her party chief, Mayawati, who likes to be called Behenji, Naina has anointed herself the Bhabhi of Nainital. Pasi, in particular, ridicules this particular fetish. "She calls you devar and sasur," he points out in his campaign, "but where will she give you tea -- Bombay or Delhi?"
Though he evokes sporadic laughter, she is the one who evokes an immediate response when she says, "Bhabhi ka saath doge?" After that one statement, she has the crowds eating out of her hands. She can make them keep quiet, raise slogans and even make way through the crowds that surround her each time she stops the car.
Which does not mean she trusts the crowds she draws to behave themselves. She is also very aware of the fact that, as a woman, it is not safe for her to campaign at certain areas at night. "Who set the meeting at Gandhinagar? It is not a good idea to go there at night -- all the men are drunk; there could be trouble."
But that does not stop her. She enters Gandhinagar with an invisible cordon around herself. The mandatory policeman is always with her. As are a couple of senior party workers. And Adil and Fazal, Dumpy's nephews. Urvaiz, the son of a friend. Her trusted driver. All of whom have become adept in not letting any stranger get too close to her. Politely. Unobtrusively.
They also provide her with salient local issues to pep up her speech, point her in directions where potential voters are vying for her attention, hand her the mike whenever she need it, focus the jeep's lights on her at night and even fan her if she needs it.
Naina's political experience, to date, has been limited to campaigning in Bareilly for her husband. But she claims to have always been motivated by politics, "My husband can vouch for that."
Which was why, when it was clear that there would be another Lok Sabha election, Naina told her husband she was keen on contesting. "He said, well, if it is going to happen, it will. I'm not going to do it. So when Behenji called me on August 3 and asked if I'd be interested, I did a somersault. I was so happy."
Party workers are still stunned at the meticulousness with which she has plunged into the electoral process. "They were worried," recalls Naina, "about how I would react when faced with my first crowd, about how I would deliver my first speech. But I spoke from my heart and they listened with theirs."
Naina transformed overnight into the consummate politician. Dawn meetings with party workers, 15 or more hours of campaigning every day and problem solving and strategy sessions late into the night, she goes through everything with a smile. After which, she sits down in front of the television. To critique her day's performance on video, recorded by nephew Adil.
"I don't know how she manages," Adil shakes his head in wonder. "She makes time for whoever wants to meet her. She drinks water wherever it is offered to her, eats food of the roadside. I've lost track of the amount of speeches she has given till now."
Naina has adopted a very hectic campaign style. Her constant mode of transportation is an Esteem, but she transfers to an open jeep when passing residential areas and markets. She grabs the roof rod for support and plants her canvassed feet on the back seat, greeting Muslims with an as-salam alekum and Hindus with a namaste.
She claims to be a concerned citizen, "As we got involved in issues of mandir, masjid, jaath-paath, we forgot that very essential element -- humanity. The people here don't get electricity or water -- even drinking water. Who sees caste and religion under these circumstances? We should be more concerned about the increasing atrocities, corruption, inflation, unemployment…"
Which patriotic sentiment undergoes dramatic and drastic change the minute she has a mike and potential voters, particularly Muslims, in front of her. "Has there been no leader worth the name in our community since Maulana Azad? Have we reached such a nadir that we, an 18 crore strong community, have to accept Mulayam Singh, who comes from six crore Yadav community, as our leader?"
She points out the high regard with which Behenji views the Musallman community. "Behenji has given so much importance, so much responsibility to two Muslim leaders. Tell me, when do you give someone responsibility? When you trust that person, isn't it? Look at how much she trusts Muslims -- she has given both Arif Mohammed Khan and Akbar Ahmed Dumpy the status of national leaders."
She spices it up with a demand that the nation display its trust in the Muslims by "opening a Musallman regiment in the army. If we have a Jat regiment and a Gurkha regiment, why can't we have a Musallman regiment? After all, we too have sacrificed our lives for the country. Look at how many of us died at Kargil?"
And wraps it up with a request that they should vote for Dumpy's wife, since he has done so much for them.
When it comes to the Dalit community, she raises the issue of Dr Ambedkar. "He was the one who drafted the Constitution and gave equal rights to everyone, whichever caste or community he came from. But what is the respect that he got from all these parties? Nothing." She promised education and jobs, reaching out to women and pointing out that, as a mother herself, she is can understand and sympathise with their concern for their children's future.
She is quite happy with the reactions she is evoking among her opponents. "Obviously, I have shaken them, if they are reacting against me. If I was a non-entity, they would not have bothered. The fact that they are all saying things about me means that I am the sole contender."
And does not hesitate in tossing a few sticks into the fire herself.
To Balraj Pasi (who accuses her on being an outsider in Nainital): "I have three homes here -- one in Kiccha, one in Ramgad and a resort in Gazia. I have five telephones, one at Kiccha, one at Ramgah and, by God's grace, three in Gazia. That, by the BJP standards, makes me more of an insider than anyone else."
To Narain Dutt Tiwari (who has accused her and Muzzaffar Ali of contesting the election only to cut his votes): "I'm contesting because I expect to win, not because I want to cut anyone's votes. This is Tiwariji's age for sanyas, not for active politics. Anyway, he does not have time for this constituency, he is more interested in what is happening in Delhi. He had once referred to me as his bahu. So I went to his village to take my sasur's blessings. But he was not there…"
To Muzzaffar Ali: "I am feeling bad because Muzzaffar Ali is a good friend of mine and I do not want to say anything against him. The poor man is like a cow trapped among goons. He did not even want to contest, you know. He was forced."
She knows the issues have been the same from time immemorial -- water, roads, electricity, education, hospitals and, like the others, she promises to redress them. "Every sou, every penny of the MP's 2 crore fund will be invested in the constituency, besides what I can raise from my friends. I cannot understand how people live in such conditions, I would have started a civil disobedience movement by now."
As for the plethora of attacks, especially the one that she is a light-headed social butterfly playing at politics? "Who cares? My commitment to the people is genuine. I don't have to wear rubber chappals and cotton saris to show that I sympathise with them. They know I do. I don't have to prove to the people who live in the big cities about what I am and what I am not. Who gives a damn?"
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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