YEH HAI INDIA
PIC OF THE DAY
Gift your parents good health
The road -- such as it is -- branches off the main Pratapgarh-Kunda road, winding its way through fallow fields.
A seemingly endless array of tractors, each carrying a full component of humanity, convoys along the rutted road, wending its way deep into the interior of Bihar.
Bihar, the reserved constituency (number 99) in Uttar Pradesh, that is, where an election meeting is scheduled for the afternoon of Friday, February 15.
Destination's end is an open field dominated by a rose-decked dais at the centre of a sea of people. The numbers that have turned out would have you believe that Vajpayee, Advani and maybe even Sonia Gandhi are sharing a platform.
Not so. This particular lot, drawn just from one of the two blocks that comprise the Bihar assembly constituency, have turned up in their numbers to pay homage to the local satrap.
Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh urf Raja Bhaiya, to give him a name.
The mood is celebratory. A music party is busy hammering out songs in praise of Raja Bhaiya, set to Bhangra rhythms. Sections of the crowd sign and clap with the music, kids dance, the party seems to be on in full swing.
And suddenly, the music is drowned by a buzz, heads turn, the crowd stands up on its collective toes, and all eyes are on a midnight-black Bolero that inches its way through the throng.
A man in black safari-suit alights. Others alight, too, but no one pays them any never-mind. The safari-suited one walks through the crowd, hand over his eyes to shade them from the rose petals that come pelting at him.
He ascends the dais -- and the party workers assembled in front of the dais go completely nuts.
"Vote nahin rasgulle hain
Kursi khullam khulla hain"
The chant is picked up, and voiced at full-throat by most of the 8,000-plus crowd. Meanwhile, it continues to rain roses.
Raja Bhaiya -- around five foot eleven in height, slim, with tousled hair and a carefully trimmed moustache -- stands at ease, smiling, eyes surveying the people.
Two people struggle up on to the dais, carting an outsized rose garland, which is placed around his neck. He pretends to stagger under the weight, the crowd laughs. He then grabs a nondescript, elderly gent clad in a once-white dhoti, kurta and sweater, pulls him close and shifts the garland on to his shoulders.
The crowd roars. The man favoured by the Raja's attention simpers, visibly swelling up with importance. And so he should -- the elderly gent is Ramnath Saroj, the independent candidate contesting the Bihar seat on the 'chair' symbol.
These are his people, his potential voters. And yet, he fiddle-foots on the dais, clearly aware that he does not belong. Painfully aware that the crowd is here for Raja Bhaiya, he takes off the garland and fades into the background. Never, in the meeting that lasts 25 minutes, will he be seen, or heard from, again.
Raja Bhaiya, meanwhile, continues to smile benevolently at his subjects. And then, a quick glance at his wristwatch, and impatience strikes.
He holds on to the mike and tries to speak. The chants drown him out. An imperious hand is held up.
'Yeh naarebaazi abhi band kariye aur hamaari baat suniye."
In the silence that follows, you could hear a rose petal drop.
He starts to speak, then stops, seemingly bugged by the fact that some 50 people, all seeking importance by association, are standing behind him on the dais.
"Sit down!" he says. They sit. There is among them a Member of the Legislative Council (Raja Bhaiya's cousin Akshay Pratap Singh aka Gopalji), the candidate himself, two municipal councillors, assorted other local dignitaries. And yet, at a word, they sit, like perfectly trained pups at their master's voice.
The master -- a young man in his early thirties -- seems satisfied that he has everyone's attention. And, with the customary salutation to the maas, behens and bhais, slips easily into his speech.
The style is casual, yet imperious. There is no effort -- it is almost as if the Raja woke up, wandered out of his bedchamber, found a few audience-seekers and decided to tell them what's what.
"The BSP is contesting. The SP is contesting. Some independents are contesting. So why am I here, asking for your votes?" he asks. "They are big parties, all of them. I am just a small man, your brother. Why must you vote for me?"
'Raja Bhaiya zindabad, desh ka neta kaisa ho, Raja Bhaiya jaisa ho!' goes the crowd.
His Majesty is not amused. "Maine kaha na? Naara baazi bandh!"
Silence reigns. And Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh slices it with his words.
"Anyone can say he is your representative. And occasionally, he will tar a stretch of road, or add a few streetlights, or get a new well dug. Anyone can do that. But what do poor people really need?"
The crowd thinks it is their cue to go Raja Bhaiya Zindabad again. They are quickly disabused of that notion.
"What the people need," Raja Bhaiya says, "is someone to intercede for them when they get into trouble with the police; someone to speak on their behalf to government babus and get their work done. Someone to solve their problems. You people go to court and what do you get? Tareek pe tareek, tareek pe tareek, that is all!"
Clever, that. Sunny Deol, thanks to the recent spurt of 'patriotic' movies, is an icon in these parts. And that tareek pe tareek line is from his cameo in Damini -- Raja Bhaiyya's delivery of the line is a fair attempt at mimicry.
Point made -- they need him, because only he can stand up to the cops, to the government; only he can get them justice where the courts can only get them dates.
He shifts gears, seamlessly, into an attack on the "others". "Look at these parties that are coming here asking for your votes," he says. "One day, this fellow is BSP, the next day he is SP. Ek din haathi pe savaar hai, to doosre din cycle pe chal raha hai bechara!"
The reference to the BSP's and SP's election symbols, the elephant and bicycle, respectively, draws an appreciative laugh. Raja Bhaiya rides the crest of that laughter and nails home his point with perfect timing: "These people, who cannot even stay faithful to their parties, how do you know that they will be faithful to you?"
Applause and laughter.
Seamlessly, he moves into a personal attack on cousin-turned-foe Ratna Singh, Pratapgarh's Member of Parliament, scion of the royal family of neighbouring Kalakankar, daughter of the late Raja Dinesh Singh, minister in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet in the Seventies and early Eighties.
"You know," he says, "lowering his voice to confidential undertones, "a member of the assembly gets Rs 50 lakh every year, to spend on good works in his constituency."
Fifty lakh, to the assembly, is an unimaginable sum. A collective gasp goes up.
"But," he says, raising his pitch just a fraction, "a Member of Parliament gets two crore a year! Two crore every year to spend on you. Look around you -- do you see any sign that she [he doesn't deign to refer to his fellow royal by name] has spent even a fraction of the money on you?"
NO! yells the crowd. Meanwhile, you listen, and marvel at what a skilled orator can do -- the crowd has completely forgotten the Rs 50 lakh each MLA (and Raja Bhaiya is one) gets in their indignation at the MP sitting on two crore a year. "Joote maarke bhagaana chahiye aise logon ko," Raja Bhaiya thunders, shaking a fist. His words, his posture, are aides memoire -- of the many armed, and bloody, clashes between his supporters and those of his estranged cousin, backed by Congress bigwig Pramod Tiwari's men.
The crowd is appreciative of the sentiment. Amusingly, the cops surrounding the dais fiddle-foot in embarrassment.
Raja Bhaiya, meanwhile, segues into another track.
"Why am I an independent?" he demands, rhetorically. "Lots of people with bagfuls of money have come to me, asking me to stand on their party's symbol. I told them, no -- I don't need a party, I don't need a flag, I don't need their money, because I have something far more precious. I have your love, your support, which no money can buy!"
This time, the applause just won't stop, ditto the sloganeering.
Raja Bhaiya lets the crowd roar its head off -- this time, there is no imperious hand raised to still them. And then -- using a time-honoured trick of practised orators, he speaks again, his voice pitched so low the crowd has to shut up if they want to hear.
"Do you remember the last time I came to you for votes? That was to elect the municipal councillor. Do you remember what happened then? There was your candidate, Patelji. And against him, there was a candidate supported by the BJP, the BSP, the SP AND the Congress. Arre," he says, voice dripping sarcasm, "nowhere in India do you see these parties all coming together and agreeing on something, if they did then India would be so much better off now.
"Lekin," he adds, his voice and demeanour a caricature of 'poor-me', "aapke is bete se, aapke is bhai se ladne ki baat ho to sab ek saath ho jaate hain. Chalo, hum ladne ke liye bhi tayyaar hain, hum lade hain haath mein talvaar lekar aur zaroorat pade to aur bhi ladenge."
You have to remember this is a well-fed, cherubic young man, standing there spouting fighting words. And yet -- such, perhaps, is the intangible but all too real impact of fear -- Raja Bhaiya is suddenly shrouded in menace. And the audience stares, mesmerised.
This man knows how to play people like a violin. A long pause for the prevailing mood to take deep hold, and Raja Bhaiya switches tack again.
"They say of me that I am autocratic," he tells the audience with the air of a reasonable man -- the sort of reasonable man Don Vito Corleone was, for instance -- explaining his point of view. "They say I am against Muslims, that this is Thakur-raaj. But I swear on Bhagwan Sri Ram that any decision I take is purely based on truth and on justice, it is never based on caste, on religion."
He waits. Till the audience, clued into the cue, breaks out in applause.
"I do not have to ask for your votes -- the fact that so many of you have come here today is proof enough that you love me. Tomorrow, Mulayam Singh will come here, Amar Singh will come here. I know that they will pay people to come for their meeting, they will pay for crowds, but I also know that they won't get the kind of crowd that is assembled here, that people won't go..."
It is all said quickly. Is there an implicit threat? You can't really tell, as Raja Bhaiya quickly moves on, into the last leg of his peroration.
"The BSP, the SP, they have brought people, goondas, here from outside. Let them be, they can't harm you as long as your bhaiya (elder brother) is here for you. But on election day, on counting day, if they do anything, I ask you to break their hands and their legs, their heads if need be. No outsider should be allowed to come here and tell us what to do!"
Full-throated yells -- this time, from his workers gathered in front of the dais, while the crowd is largely silent.
"I was joking," he says, smiling. "See, our police friends are looking worried; they think there will be trouble. But you and I know there will be no trouble. The elections will be peaceful, and you will all vote for me. I know that -- after all, can't I see the love that you have for me!"
And with that, he relinquishes the mike, and quickly trots down the dais, pushing a couple of people away to clear a path for himself.
He heads into a little tent adjoining the dais -- where, on trestle tables, an array of every conceivable kind of sweet and fruit has been kept. He takes a sip of Pepsi, a bite into a laddoo. Meanwhile, people push and pull and tug and scramble, in a frantic bid to get near him, touch his feet.
He stands there, all by himself, sans police, sans his own squad of troubleshooters, accepting the homage. He singles people out, calls them by name and they puff with pride.
"Mukhiya, you have to help us, get us the votes from your village," he tells someone.
"Raja Bhaiya, aap hamse yeh kehkar hamein sharminda kar rahen hain, aapko nahin to hum saath kisko denge!"
Abruptly, he puts the Pepsi bottle back, extends his arms, pushes people aside, and strides away. Clambers into his Bolero. Picks up a hand-mike and, through the twin speakers mounted on the roof of the vehicle, calls out names of villages as he passes the parked tractors, saluting them individually, letting the roars of the crowd wash over him.
The Bolero leaves the venue. And the crowd, which has travelled an hour or more to get here, for this 25-minute speech, gives itself a collective shake and starts drifting away.
At no time has Raja Bhaiya bothered to mention the candidate by name, though he is here in Bihar ostensibly to support Ramnath Saroj's candidature.
At no time has Saroj said a word.
But then, he doesn't have to. As far as the Pratapgarh region with its five assembly constituencies is concerned, they are all shadows. Raja Bhaiya, alone, is the substance.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh