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September 30, 1999


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Campaign Trail/Arun Nehru

'I think very many people are in for a surprise in Amethi'

A Ganesh Nadar in Rae Bareili

Arun Nehru The Uttar Pradesh tourism department has a bungalow in Rae Bareili which was inaugurated by Arun Nehru. He is now using it as his election office as he fights for the third time from here. He won on both previous occasions.

There are a few cars around, but hardly any crowd. Most people you realise are either his family or his friends and you wonder where the party guys are. "I don't encourage hangers on, all the workers are in their respective areas. One comes with me only up to his or her area. Once I reach there he gets off to do his work, I carry on with the next person," Nehru says by way of explanation.

Sanjeev is an advertising manager with a major newspaper in Delhi who has taken time off to help Nehru who is his relative. A fair lady with a ready smile -- Subhadra, Nehru's wife -- is also here to campaign. And what does she tell the people? Well, vote ''both for Atalji and my husband.'' She is very happy canvassing. She calls out to a young man ''bring me some badges; the children on the way ask us for badges all the time.''

Helping her are Nehru's cousin's wife Sadhna and her two pretty daughters, all raring to go. Radhika, his daughter, has gone back to Delhi because her son's exams are on. ''She will be back on Friday," Nehru proudly tells us.

Then there is Dinesh Trivedi, the Trinamul Congress MP from Kutch. He is here as an alliance party worker and more importantly as Nehru's friend. Nehru tells him ''today you go with the ladies...where is Sanjeev isn't he going?''

Hariram Khatri is an ex-MLA from Delhi who too has come here to help in the campaigning. A local journalist Vijay Karan Dwivedi was explaining the winning formula as we waited for the big man to commence campaigning. ''In the villages everybody canvasses and everybody has their party affiliations. But on the last day -- actually night -- there is a party. Liquor, sweets and money are freely distributed. At the polling booth next morning the Thakur says 'yaad hai naa' and they reply ' haan ji...' You cannot get away with lying because the Thakur's man checks where you stamp the ballot paper or punch the button.''

Jai Kalreja is the district general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He says, ''in every segment we are fighting different parties but all of them are fighting us. In Rae Bareili we are fighting the Congress which has the local MLA. In Sataon we are fighting the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Sareni the Congress again and in Dalmon and Bachrava we are fighting the Samajwadi Party.'' About Congress candidate Satish Sharma he says, ''he never used his area development fund and he calls himself vikas purush.'' He admits the BSP and SP have an advantage in that their candidates were announced well in advance.

The conversation veers to Mulayam Singh Yadav. BJP workers say that people are fed up with caste- based politics and that he will be decimated. This is disputed by Arun Nehru. ''This is a media created story. Mulayam will get 20 per cent of the votes and 15 seats, Mayawati will get at least 10 seats, you just wait and see.''

Subhadra Nehru has been involved with spastic children in Calcutta. She is very happy she is doing her bit for her husband, but admits ''it is scary when it gets dark in the interiors because we are 15 women in a group and there are only one or two men with us.'' Sadhna accompanies her.

Ashish Dikshit is a young man wearing a BJP cap. He says he joined the BJP because he likes its ideals and there is no corruption. Anket Mishra is in the third year in college. He is studying geology. He is called ''mini-Atalji'' because he imitates Vajpayee in his speech and mannerisms. He says he likes Vajpayee ever since he came to know about him in 1989.

Arun Nehru came out looking fresh and ready to fight the day's battle. He raised his eyebrows in my direction. ''Rediff On The NeT? Oh! That's you, come we will chat for a while and then we can go campaigning,'' he says. He led me into a room and backed out in a hurry. He smiled at me. "The ladies have taken over this room let's go elsewhere,'' he remarks. We found another room.

What are his achievements; after all he has been MP here twice. ''Where you are sitting now, I built it... (starts laughing). Between '80 and '89 we spent over a thousand million here in Rai Bareili,'' he says, and adds, ''and basically now the expectations are that it will be a VIP constituency again and the VIP syndrome will help the constituency, expectations are very high.''

''We had concentrated on the infrastructure. We got 100 per cent electrification and schools and hospitals. It used to be the number one district. You see once we establish a VIP syndrome then the routine work goes on and routine work is not enough. It is not that work has not been done in the last seven years. It has been done. We used to give it that extra push as VIPs,'' Nehru explains.

A person who has done so much for his constituency does not normally shift his constituency but Nehru did. Here's Nehru's take on it: ''Basically in 1989 I could have fought from Rae Bareili but Rajiv Gandhi had put up my father-in-law's elder sister Shiela Kaul. The Nehru family was already fighting each other and I didn't want to fight on the other side. Basically I could have fought from Sitapur which is my grandmother's constituency or from Kanpur or from Bilaur, for me there was no problem.''

The past does not haunt him. In fact he says it is an advantage. ''There is not a village I do not know, there is not a person I do not know,'' he says. He denies he withdrew from active politics: ''I never withdrew, I think I did a smart thing. I didn't think that the government would last. It is not a secret that I was offered this seat much earlier in '96 and '98, but the fact is that I refused to take it up because I knew that the government won't last. I write in newspapers and I have a web page. I had been writing that the government won't last.''

And now he is making a comeback through the BJP? Nehru launches on an elaborate defence: "In 1987 when we formed the Jan Morcha and then the Janata Dal we fought against and defeated the Congress and when we did that our partners were the BJP. So far as I am concerned there is no contradiction in that the Janata Dal is now a part of the BJP alliance. My option was whether I should fight on a Samata Party ticket or a Janata Dal ticket. No matter from where you fight you have to fight with the BJP's assistance. So it is much better to be a member of the BJP. I have known Atalji for decades and we have worked together in the past. There is no reason one should have...why have hypocrisy? Taking their help in the past and you are going to take their help in the future, then fight on the party ticket. ''

Nehru says, ''development is the key issue in any election. Now when you go into the interiors with me they will say, 'now that you have come we know that work will be done.' Basically, stability is the main issue. Without stability there can be no development, so I think in any village of India, in any town of India development is always an issue.''

He continues: ''Rae Bareili is the number one district. Statistics say this is the most progressive district in the whole of Uttar Pradesh. They talk about Amethi being a progressive district but Amethi doesn't even have the infrastructure that Rae Bareili has. Rajiv concentrated on putting up a few big factories, we concentrated on putting up the basic infrastructure. Go anywhere in Rae Bareili, the link roads are there. All these link roads have been made by me between '80 and '89. If they don't have the link roads how do they get their produce to the main roads. I think it has progressed in a very sensible manner. Put in an industry where there is no infrastructure and the industry will shut down.

"My problem today is the incomplete work. Yesterday, I visited a village in the interiors of Sareni; for 26 kilometres the stones were laid but they have not been cemented. The road will cost more than ten million rupees. They spent half the money and for twelve years it has been lying just like that. These works were done out of the budget, they were not done out of the routine funds. You know work done in a routine manner is not enough, the funds are very restricted. And the problems are so many what do you do? First when we used to fight elections here the electorate used to be six hundred thousand and now it is 1.2 million."

Nehru now moves on to Sonia: ''There is always a curiosity factor; Sonia came here last time and the Congress still lost their deposit. We have progressed from a stage where (laughs) dynasty was important to where it is no longer necessary. In fact I think very many people are in for a surprise in Amethi. You know a lot of people still think that the magic wand will be waved and everybody will vote. The reality on the ground is different. You will find deep in the interiors where we will go today that the public mood is up. They are not camouflaging their feelings. Meetings will get bigger, bigger as you go into the interior. And they will raise both hands and say for whom they are voting. Same thing is happening in Amethi. And Sonia is yet to reach her constituency. You cannot run away from the problem, you cannot run away from the fight.''

Is the BJP weak in UP compared to 1998? "My latest chart -- you know I also write -- gives the BJP and its allies 55 seats. It will come down by seven seats all together. Causes for the come down? Many reasons: when you have 62 seats in UP it is hard to hold on to them, the anti-incumbency factor is there. The damage was in the first two phases. If you look at it all the opinion polls are giving 34/54 seats to the BJP; 22/23 seats in eastern UP is all BJP and 5, 6 of Mulayam and the BSP,'' he explains.

We are interrupted by a call from his daughter in Delhi. It's about something she had read in the papers. ''Beta, don't worry, that particular paper thinks that it can fight Sonia's battle from Delhi. You must not have negative thoughts at this stage. We must spend our time canvassing, not worry about what biased papers say. Now put that thought firmly out of your mind, I am going canvassing deep in the interiors," he pacifies her.

He turns to me: ''These people plant stories and others get worried. You have said that Kalyan Singh is not an issue in this election and everybody else says he is an issue? The spotlight is now on Uttar Pradesh and Kalyan Singh is the chief minister. The fact is that he is the leader of a very major community. I can tell you what I see on the ground. In Rae Bareili we had the biggest meeting -- Kalyan Singh's meeting: 25 to 30,000 people out of which one third were women. I saw women walking 5 to 10 kilometres. Not a single vehicle was used. Opinion polls are showing that there is no anti-incumbency factor. In fact they did a poll that showed that more people wanted Kalyan Singh back than those who did not want him. The man is a mass leader. You cannot deny that.''

I tell him Satish Sharma has accused him of giving a dhoka to the Gandhi family and that such a man cannot win. Nehru counters: "He is welcome to his opinion, the point is that the Nehru family has 50-odd members. All off us are individuals, none of us need a birth certificate from Satish Sharma. There are many members of the Nehru family here. My mother will also be coming to campaign. She is the oldest member of the Nehru family. Is he calling us all traitors? My sisters are coming, my cousin sisters are coming -- they are all members of the Nehru family. He is calling the whole family traitors. Neither Indiraji nor anyone else ever said that anybody of foreign origin should be the prime minister. Sonia is the bahu of the family and in any case in the 21st century it is sad if you bring politics down to this level. It reflects on your own character not on anybody else.''

He continues: ''Today we will go into the most interior part. It will teach you a lot. It teaches us humility. You will realise that people expect a lot from you. They have faith and that is what makes it all worthwhile. Yesterday an old women, 90 plus, she gave me two flowers and said 'in 1982 you opened a post office and gave my son a job.' You don't know what to say, you are so touched. In a village of 1,000, only four people got a job and they remember it.''

Unlike Satish Sharma whose gypsy travels at 100 kilometres and above per hour Nehru's convoy travels at 50 kilometres per hour. In Sharma's case you had to fight to get into the man's car. Here there was nobody else but you and one single local man and, of course, the security. There were only five cars with us. Nehru waved to some and others he greeted with folded hands. And they responded. He talked to us and continued to wave, his eyes darting back and forth.

The first roadside meeting was well-attended. Nehru made them hurry up with the introduction. The garlands he received were very small and of the cheapest flowers. Very unlike Tamil Nadu where you get garlands which have to be lifted by elephants and the most expensive roses are used. He made a short speech. "Make Atalji's hand strong. Somebody asks your vote on the basis of caste another will ask your vote on the basis of religion. These are divisive forces. Vote for a constructive force,'' he harangues the crowd.

The next crowd is larger. Here he spends some more time. "We can win on the strength of our cadres, '' he whispers to me, and then addresses the crowd, ''October 3 is the date, the kamal is our symbol. There are two forces. One who wants to join the entire nation, the other who wants to divide. You made Vajpayee the prime minister. Some leaders brought the government down for their own ends. Vajpayee is standing with folded hands in front of the country. He wants your vote. He is coming tomorrow, come listen to his ideas. My brothers and sisters, a lot of women have come and I am happy. Everybody must vote. Many people say what does one vote matter but remember that Vajpayee's government came down with one vote. Give Atalji a massive mandate."

Then we left the main road to make our way into the real Hindi heartland. The road was half finished. They had put the big stones but were yet to tar it. ''Khana lao,'' he told the security men. They gave him a box. He ate the same food that the cops had eaten earlier -- four puries with bhaji, one sweet meat and one pickle. Dust flew in through the window and settled on his food. He ate on unmindful of the swirling dust. Maybe he was very hungry or maybe he likes the smell of dusty village roads. ''This is India,'' he declared dramatically.

The first village we stopped at was Radhabalampur. There was a big crowd waiting. ''I am trying to visit all the villages in all the 15 blocks. You know me and my symbol,'' he told them. He harped on stability and linked it to development. ''It is easier to destroy but difficult to construct. Vote for a stable government. Think what you will give to your children. Your vote is the strongest shakti. Don't let the shakti be divided,'' he tells them.

The road meandered deeper into the interior. And while we travelled district BJP president Srikant Mishra kept us entertained with Uma Bharti stories. He quoted from her speeches. He kept giggling and made Nehru laugh a lot.

The biggest crowd we encountered was at Jagatpurbadhera. Nehru repeated his earlier words. Then we were back on the main road after two hours of travelling on those untarred ones. He gave me and my driver two lunch boxes and bid adieu with a smile.

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