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Lalji Tandon: The CM of Lucknow Chowk
Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow |
April 16, 2004 17:03 IST
Last Updated: April 16, 2004 17:46 IST
The last decade saw a portly man try to emerge as kingmaker in the country's biggest political playground, Uttar Pradesh.
Lalji Tandon, who is considered little more than a creation of circumstance, is not exactly a kingmaker today, but he sure is one of the most famous faces of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Lucknow.
His political prospects were severely marred last Sunday when a stampede at his 70th birthday celebrations in Lucknow left 21 women and a child dead. The women had gathered for lunch and free sarees that were being distributed to mark the occasion.
The incident snowballed into a major controversy, embroiling none other than Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Tandon is the prime minister's campaign manager in Lucknow and many saw the saree distribution programme as an attempt to garner votes for Vajpayee.
Tandon was an obscure politician when Vajpayee picked him to handle his poll campaign in Lucknow in the 1991 Lok Sabha election. Before that, he ran the family's chikan embroidery business.
Tandon began his political career as a municipal corporator. Lacking a political base, he struggled for years before making his debut in the state legislature. It was a back-door entry, as they say in politics. He was elected to the Upper House of the legislature.
Despite the long years he has spent in public life, Tandon could never acquire a profile beyond that of a local leader. But he has substantial following in the walled city of Lucknow. His not-so-secret ambition of becoming chief minister of Uttar Pradesh earned him the sobriquet 'chief minister of Lucknow Chowk'.
But Tandon's career took off once he came in contact with Vajpayee. The years that followed gave him position, stature, and wealth. He even succeeded in getting elected to the Vidhan Sabha, the Lower House of the legislature.
He shot into prominence when he played a key role in striking a deal with Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati in 1995. His stature rose dramatically once Mayawati became chief minister at the head of a BSP-BJP coalition.
In later years, he struck a personal rapport with Mayawati. Pictures of their bonhomie when Mayawati went to his house to tie him a rakhi made the front pages in local newspapers.
Tandon in his enthusiasm thought that with such gestures he had initiated a unique relationship between the upper caste-dominated BJP and the lower caste-dominated BSP. But the alliance lasted just a few months and assembly elections followed. Yet, once the results were out, he was back in the reckoning as the BJP was left with little choice but to knock at Mayawati's doors for a post-poll alliance.
Mayawati called the shots, while Tandon played the role of patron.
When Kalyan Singh took over as chief minister as part of the deal between the two allies, she tried to bring down the coalition government but failed because Singh proved too smart for her.
Tandon was relegated to an innocuous position only to bounce back into the limelight after the 2002 assembly election, which again threw up a hung assembly.
The BJP chose to strike another deal — the third one — with the BSP. Rekindling his 'sibling' ties with Mayawati, Tandon played the role of go-between with aplomb. The photo-ops during the Raksha Bandhan festival returned, but this time the bonhomie was short-lived.
At one point of time, Tandon with Rajnath Singh and Kalraj Mishra were seen as Uttar Pradesh's powerful trinity. But without a mass base, Tandon was nothing but a go-between. He had served his purpose, that of helping Mayawati open a direct line of communication with Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. She did not need him any longer and treated his demand for the deputy chief minister's post with disdain.
When Mayawati's third government was replaced by that of Mulayam Singh Yadav in August 2003, Tandon was left with few friends and little to do.
The announcement of the Lok Sabha election gave him another opportunity to hog the limelight at the head of Vajpayee's election campaign in the company of the latter's personal secretary and old confidant, Shiv Kumar.
Tandon had pushed many development schemes in the prime minister's constituency whose downmarket areas witnessed much improvement in civic amenities. Yet, he drew a lot of flak on account of the fact that the quantum of work carried out did not match the flow of funds.
His years as Uttar Pradesh's minister for energy and, later, for housing and urban development gave Tandon not only a high profile but also transformed his fortunes both in political and financial terms. His chikan business expanded and he diversified into construction and automobile trading. Of late, he had even begun to celebrate his birthday in public.
Affinity and proximity with all kinds of people was a natural corollary. So, it comes as no surprise that the man who hosted the fateful saree distribution function for Tandon has a long police record.