February 21, 2002



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The Election Interview/Suneeta Devi

'Our leadership has been decimated in UP'

Mahona stands apart from the other seven assembly constituencies in Lucknow proper.

Firstly, in the fact that it has a schizophrenic, half-urban, half-rural makeup. Thus, 650 villages coexist with urban areas such as Gomti Nagar, Janakipuram, Vikas Nagar and Indira Nagar -- the whole providing a voter base of 4,60,000-plus, which makes Mahona one of the largest constituencies in Uttar Pradesh.

Election 2002

And secondly, in that it is one of the very few constituencies you come across, where there is among the voters a perceptible empathy with the Congress. Typically, in UP these days, mention of the Congress evokes feelings ranging from sarcasm to indifference. Here, though, people in the same breath admit that the party is struggling just now -- but hasten to add that the time is coming when people will get disgusted with prevailing casteist politics, and shift their loyalties back to the Congress.

Seeking election from Mahona on the Congress symbol is debutant politician Suneeta Devi -- niece of none other than Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Suneeta Devi is the daughter of late Justice CSP Singh, elder brother of the former prime minister. Ironically, CSP Singh was murdered during VP Singh's own tenure as state chief minister.

Like so many other candidates in UP, Suneeta Devi claims royal blood. A member of the erstwhile talukadari family of Tirwa in Kannauj, Suneeta married into another royal family of the area. Relatives by blood include the likes of Garima Singh, ex-wife of the Raja of Amethi Dr Sanjay Singh, and Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiyya, the strongman of Pratapgarh.

Mahona's list of candidates include two-time sitting MLA Gomti Yadav of the BJP, Maya Bhatt of the Nationalist Congress Party, Rajendra Prasad of the Samajwadi Party, and Sheetla Baksh Singh of the BSP. A formidable array, and yet, as you tour the constituency, you come across a lot of goodwill for Suneeta Devi's first time candidature.

Whether she will win what has become a BJP pocket borough is doubtful. That she has had an impact in the area is not. Excerpts, from an interview with Prem Panicker:

Is the Congress at all serious about Uttar Pradesh? You don't see any big names campaigning, the party's own cadres are inactive -- it is almost as if the Congress has conceded UP to its rivals. Why so?

You have to remember that elections are taking place in four states. Neither the Samajwadi Party nor the Bahujan Samaj Party seem to be even remotely interested in the other states -- and so they have been able to focus their entire attention on UP. And this leads to the impression that there is a terrific campaign here by these two parties. Whereas this time, the Congress has preferred to concentrate its energies on those states -- Manipur, Uttaranchal, Punjab -- where we believe we have a chance of forming the next government.

Yeah, that is what I said -- the Congress has given up on UP!

Maybe so, as far as this election is concerned.

And yet, UP was once the bastion of the Congress, its single biggest stronghold. How do you explain this dramatic slump in the party's fortunes?

Well, to be honest, the party has made its fair share of mistakes down the years. The result has been that UP is shorn of leaders of stature -- today, unfortunately, there is no state-based leader in UP, no one capable of capturing the public imagination, of rallying the people behind our flag. Our leadership has been decimated. Some died, unfortunately, while others have lost their credibility. This absence of local leadership has in turn had an impact at the grassroots -- with no one to show them the way, the cadres have begun drifting away from the party. Those Congress candidates who are doing well depend on their individual reputations in the respective areas, and not on the leadership, and that is why the pockets of Congress influence are dwindling.

And yet, when making your political debut, you chose the Congress -- why is that?

Because these mistakes I was talking about does not obscure the bigger, more relevant picture. Over the past 12 years, UP has gradually been taken over by the politics of caste. Ideologies are not relevant any more -- elections are merely a question of calculating caste arithmetic in various constituencies. The upshot has been frequent changes of government, horse-trading, the criminalisation of politics, instability and, most importantly, the complete lack of development. The Congress alone has abstained from the politics of caste, and stood for all-round development. Right now, the casteist parties are doing well because they are new -- but another election, maybe two, and people will begin to realise that the politics of caste is the enemy of development. And then the people will come back to the Congress. Besides, Congress is the only party that can claim to be non-corrupt.

Anti-caste, anti-corruption? Strange you should say that, since the perception of analysts is that it was the Congress that started playing the politics of vote-banks, by catering to Muslims, to scheduled castes, et cetera...

That is neither true nor fair. The Congress got its support from Hindus and Muslims alike, from forward and backward castes. It is just that the Congress cared for the welfare of minorities, of the repressed classes, and therefore these sections flocked to the Congress. But the Congress never asked for votes in the name of caste and religion, as the BJP, the SP and the BSP are now doing.

Would you say the Congress never specifically asked for say the Muslim votes?

Not in the way the BJP asks for Hindu votes. Yes, the Congress has cared for the concerns of the minority community, and they in turn have backed the party.

The other point you raised is corruption. You say the Congress is not corrupt and yet your uncle, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, broke away from the Congress on those grounds, fought the Congress -- specifically Rajiv Gandhi -- on the grounds of Bofors, of corruption. Surely there is a dichotomy here?

Firstly, my uncle never broke away from the Congress -- he was dismissed by the party. Even today he is a Congressman at heart -- in fact, it was he who advised me to join the Congress. And his parting of ways had little to do with corruption. The truth is that Amitabh Bachchan, the Hindujas, the Ambanis, all formed a charmed circle around Rajiv Gandhi. And when my uncle's actions as finance minister began to hurt their interests, they schemed and manipulated to create a rift between Rajiv Gandhi and my uncle, and forced his exit. If my uncle is anti- any party, it is the BJP, not the Congress.

So corruption -- as exemplified say by Bofors -- is not a taint on the Congress?

The BJP keeps raking up this issue -- and yet, despite being in power for more than three years now, what has the BJP proved? Nothing -- whenever it is politically expedient they keep raking up Bofors, that is all. Meanwhile, the BJP itself has been hit by the Tehelka scam, by umpteen other scams -- and this is the party that claimed to be non-corrupt.

You made a point about Congressmen, these days, surviving only through individual merit. Which brings us to you -- what have you done that earns you this rapport with the electorate?

I've been working with the farmers and mazdoor (labour) class for quite some time. I am the women's wing president of the Kisan Manch, which my uncle founded. I am also UP women's chief of the Kisan Naujawan Party. For some years now, I have been working with farmers' and labourers' groups across the state, attending to their problems. Mahona, my constituency, has a large component of farmers and labourers and they are aware of my work, and hence the rapport I enjoy.

Given that you have been active with those two organisations, why then this sudden desire to stand for elections? Do you think an assembly seat, assuming you win one, will make a difference to your activities?

Certainly. As a member of an organisation, there is just so much you can do. By being an MLA, you open more doors, you can get problems redressed that bit quicker. It is because of this perception that I decided to stand for election.

And how do you rate your chances of winning?

I don't know, frankly. Look at my opponents -- you will find that several of them are notorious in this region, they have history sheets at the local police station. They use money and muscle unabashedly -- I don't have such resources, nor would I use them, I was not brought up that way. Throughout this campaign, we have been harassed -- by rival candidates, even by the police. But I do believe that I have the support of a sizeable section of the people -- god willing, that will make a difference in my favour.

You mention harassment -- in what form? Could you give us examples?

The usual forms -- our workers are threatened, for instance, and even the police and administration work against us. On the last day of campaigning, for instance, I was taking out my final procession. We had six vehicles. It is true that there is an Election Commission norm that there should be no more than three vehicles, and the truth is that when we started out there were just three cars. Then, in the Gomti Nagar area, three more cars, of friends and supporters, joined us.

The station officer in Gomti Nagar, one Abhay Chaturvedi, stopped our procession, told us that we were taking out an illegal procession, and demanded that we drive to the police station. When we got there, he seized our vehicles. I was pleading with him, that it was the last day of campaigning, so many areas remained to be covered, but he would not listen.

Then, while we were arguing, a BJP convoy went past, right in front of the police station -- and there were over 60 vehicles in it! So I told the officer that if I have violated a law, okay, I'll pay for it, now why don't you seize all those vehicles, since the same law applied for all of us?

If that convoy hadn't passed by at that time, we would have suffered. But when that convoy went past -- and we were shooting pictures, plus some press people had come there as well -- the SO was in a fix, he didn't know what to do. Obviously, he couldn't seize the BJP vehicles. So he told us that this time, he would let us off, and told us to go.

We refused. We said, you have seized our vehicles, we complied, now go seize the cars in that convoy. The police threatened to drive our cars out of the station compound if we didn't take it out ourselves -- so we stood in the path, and told them they would have to drive over us.

It is just one example of the way we have been harassed throughout this campaign.

(Station Officer Chaturvedi, speaking on the phone, confirmed the incident, and told that the Congress candidate had violated the order relating to the number of vehicles, and therefore the police had taken them to the station, then let them off with a warning. Asked about the BJP convoy, Chaturvedi said he was not aware of it, and had not seen any such convoy. A few local newspapers, however, carried eyewitness accounts of the incident, and these reports pretty much tallied with the story told by Suneeta Singh)

To backtrack a bit, what is the future of the Congress? Do you think it will ever make a comeback in UP?

I think so. Not in this election, but in the Parliamentary elections, certainly. And as far as the state is concerned, in the next assembly elections, whenever that is.

The reasons for your confidence?

As far as the Parliamentary elections are concerned, it is a different ball game, the stakes are different, and I think the mood in the country is already changing. The BJP support base has been slowly eroding -- haven't you noticed how they have lost state after state? The people have begun looking positively at the Congress once again. Also, if the party did not concentrate on UP this time, in the Parliament elections it will be different. Plus, the entry of Priyanka will make a difference -- she should not be underestimated.

If she could make such a difference, why then did the party not field her in the state this time?

I suppose because the reading was that the Congress this time would in any case not capture power. Therefore, it makes more sense for us to consolidate what we have now, regroup, plan for the future and start working right now with the Lok Sabha elections in mind. So, since we did not think there was a chance to capture power in the state, there was no point in fielding Priyanka here this time.

To get back to the election -- what is your reading of the results? Who do you think will form the government?

I have been busy with my constituency, and haven't toured much. But based on the feedback I have got, I suspect that the results will surprise a lot of people.

You mean the Congress will make a comeback?

Not exactly, I did say at the outset that this time the Congress is focussed on the other states. What I meant is that we have been hearing of BJP waves and Samajwadi Party waves -- I think that those who have bought that talk might get a surprise.

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