YEH HAI INDIA
PIC OF THE DAY
Gift your parents good health
He is youngish looking, fit, trim, in his mid-thirties perhaps.
Perhaps, because his age depends on who you ask. Dr Kailashnath Ojha, his chief election officer, says he is 28. Remember that he stood for elections for the first time in 1996. Remember too that it was claimed that he was 28 when, in February 1998, he engaged in a bloody campaign on behalf of BJP candidate Ram Vilas Vedanti against cousin-turned-foe Ratna Singh (daughter of the late Raja Dinesh Singh, erstwhile Union minister in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet).
Today, three years and a bit later, he is still 28.
A lawyer by education, a raja by inclination. A folk hero to some, a terror to others. A minister in the state Cabinet, ergo a lawmaker -- with cases outstanding against his name, for crimes ranging from murder to kidnapping.
That is Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh urf (aka) Raja Bhaiya, the current MLA of Kunda. Ensconced in the front seat of his Bolero, parked on a dusty village street minutes after completing an election rally in Bihar (assembly constituency 99 of Uttar Pradesh is called Bihar. Click for information on previous election results in this constituency) constituency's first block, Raja Bhaiya took a few minutes off to answer Prem Panicker's queries, before racing off for another meeting, in the second block of the assembly seat. Excerpts:
How does one classify you? A raja, with the princely 'Kunwar' tag to your name, seeking votes from your 'subjects'? What are you, monarch or democrat?
(Laughing) I am whatever the times dictate I should be, I guess. Ours is a royal family, you cannot wish that away. You cannot, too, wish away the fact that despite democracy and government and all the rest of it, villagers typically look up to the powerful person in their midst -- landlord, raja, whoever -- for their needs. For them, I am their raja, their court of last resort.
And you hold court. A daily durbar, at your Raj Mahal residence, where you listen to grievances and deliver verdicts none may disobey. How does that gell with the fact that you are a member of the state government?
Again, I do what needs to be done. You will have very little idea of what life in a village community is like. Here, people have real problems that demand quick solutions. Someone encroaches on someone else's land, someone illegally harvests what belongs to another, what do you expect the villager to do? Go to court? You know how courts are -- ten years from now, they will still be giving you dates, the list of postponements will swell your case file. A villager cannot afford that -- he needs justice right now, because his existence depends on getting it. If he has to wait 10 years, he will be dead. So, he comes to me, and I help in whatever way I can.
What way is that? Assume someone occupies another's land, what can you do?
I call both parties, listen to their claims and counter-claims. If I need more information the headman of the village in question is there to provide it, and after listening to everyone, I give my verdict.
And it is obeyed. Why? What prompts this implicit obedience?
Respect. Our family ruled this land. My father, Raja Udai Pratap Singh, still flies the royal flag on top of our palace in Bhadri. Every morning, people throng to him, he distributes milk and halwa, he engages in social service. We have looked after this land and its people for centuries, and people respect us for that. Look, if you go to any royal territory, you will find it is the same -- go to Gwalior, for instance, and see the respect the Scindia name commands, see how everyone goes to them for justice.
So it is only respect? Not fear?
Isn't there always some fear mixed in with respect? You respect the courts, but isn't there also some fear, fear of punishment, mixed in with that respect?
That is because the court can punish me, send me to jail. Do you have the right to punish the people here? And how do you do it?
Rights are what people give you. Courts are appointed by governments, governments are appointed by people, so ultimately, the courts too derive power from the people. So do I -- the people come to me, they ask me for justice and when they do that, they give me the power to render justice.
And in so doing, you end up with criminal cases to your name? Murders, abduction.
All of which began after I got into politics, did you notice that? Various parties have tried to establish their presence here, but our family is too popular, too well loved, for them to be able to do that. So this is their revenge, they try to tie me up with a string of false cases.
Would you say the chief election commissioner is hand-in-glove with these parties? In 1998, he prohibited you from setting foot inside Pratapgarh during the Lok Sabha campaign.
Yes, and one day later, the Allahabad high court heard my case and overruled the CEC. If I were guilty of whatever it is, would the court have done that?
So there is no truth to the reports that you depend on strong-arm tactics, on your squad of bully-boys?
When some Muslims spoke out against your candidature in 1996, Dilerganj village was attacked, five houses torched, three girls trying to escape were chopped to death, the men fled. Is that true?
That the incident happened is true. That I had something to do with it, is not. Here, you are in a feudal society -- quarrels sometimes lead to bloodshed, but how am I to blame for that? If I am supposed to be that sort of person, how is it that there are 10 people contesting against me in Kunda? Why are they not all dead?
I travelled through the constituency, and through Bihar -- and there is not one single poster, flag, bunting, party office, of anyone. Your posters are the only ones to be seen there. Surely, that is because the others are terrified of you?
It could be because the other parties realise it is a lost cause, campaigning against me here. Last time, I won by over 85,000 votes in a constituency with just 2 lakh 45 thousand (245,000) people. This time, my margin will increase. The other parties must have realised that it is a waste of money to put up flags and buntings and all that.
You mention your popularity. Is that based on your royal lineage?
Lineage alone doesn't give you popularity, it depends on what you do with it. Our family is engaged in social service. For instance, I started youth brigades, with branches in every village. The young men are encouraged to join, and to channel their energies into good works. If someone falls ill, these boys are there to take them to the doctor. No one in this area takes dowry -- our boys make sure of that. If someone needs help, the local youth brigade pitches in, finds out what is required, does it and if they can't, they come to me. These kind of things touch the lives of the people in a basic way, and that explains my popularity.
On the political front, you rounded up eight other independents and supported Kalyan Singh when his government looked likely to fall, in October 1997. Why?
Because I did not think that the state needed the wasteful expenditure of an interim election. If the Kalyan Singh government had fallen, no other party could have formed a government. Surely we didn't need another election just then?
And you were rewarded with a ministry.
'Rewarded'? Kalyan Singh was aware of all that I have done in my area, and so he thought I could play a larger role.
Yet, a year before that date, the self-same Kalyan Singh when campaigning in this area referred to you as the goonda from Kunda and promised the people that he would break your stranglehold.
(Laughing) Did he? You know what happens during an election campaign -- everyone calls everyone else names. Hasn't Kalyan Singh himself been called a goonda?
The BJP has not put up a candidate against you in Kunda. In fact, even in Bihar where you are supporting the independent candidate, there is no BJP nominee. Does this de facto make you a BJP leader?
No, the BJP figured that putting up a candidate here was a waste of time and money. Don't forget that in the municipal elections, they supported the candidate who was standing against my nominee.
Why is it that you have never joined any political party?
Because I am not politically ambitious in that sense. I am not looking to be part of any large outfit, to have a national profile. My home is here, my people are here, I am content to limit myself to this area, to these people and this place. And now, if you will excuse me, I am late for another meeting.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh