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The Rediff Special



The Rediff Special/ Syed Firdaus Ashraf

'India has no future. Sometimes I feel my life is a failure.'

Syed Firdaus Ashraf meets Dr Datta Samant, once India's most feared labour leader, now a deeply disillusioned political also-ran.

If you get to the east Bombay suburb of Ghatkopar and ask for directions to the office of the Kamgar Aghadi office in the Pantnagar area, you will draw a blank. Say you want to meet Dr Datta Samant, though, and the merest child will willingly guide you.

When you do make it to the office of the labour leader, you are jostling with workers from a couple of dozen different companies, all come there to sob on Samant's shoulder. The leader's secretary checks with her boss, and then comes back to tell me to wait for five minutes.

Precisely at the end of that time, you are ushered into his room, and there he is in his trademark spotless white shirt and white pant, the ubiquitous mobile phone sticking out of his shirt pocket, a heavy gold ring on his ring finger, a gold watch - a picture of prosperity, in fact.

"Yes, how can I help you?" he asks. You tell him that you are there to ask his views on the strike in the Premier Automobiles factory, and he shoots back: "You see, I'm in no mood to give an interview now. Can you please come with me to the Premier factory in, say about twenty minutes?"

A press of the bell, and five workers enter to discuss their problems - which relate to, what else?, their desire to have their wages upped and their management's equally firm determination to do no such thing. Says Samant, "I'm no God to increase the wages on my own. Tell all the employees to unitedly press for an increase, and to say that if the management doesn't accept, to go on strike. Okay, now you can leave..."

"You see," he continues, now addressing me as the workers depart, "the problem with workers in our country is that they are selfish. They are only concerned with their family. They are not interested in spreading the movement. I tell all my workers to spread the movement. But they are only interested in making more money, drinking all night, and enjoying themselves. So how then do you expect change in this country? India has no future. Sometimes I feel that my life is a failure," he adds.

Pointing to some of his workers he argues, "These are my people, but they vote for the BJP-Shiv Sena. They empathise with me, but they never vote for me, they have become communal. Thousands of textile workers are begging on the streets of Bombay and Thane, but they do not want to vote for me. People vote for thugs, pro-management people..."

An aside, to shed some light on his ire: in the recently concluded election, Datta Samant lost the working class Bombay South Central constituency, dominated by the working class, to his Sena rival Mohan Rawle by a margin of 55,000-plus votes.

A beep interrupts and Samant talks into his mobile, then his secretary comes in to give the all clear and we ready to leave. As we walk out of his office, a Tata Sumo drives up, and we get in, Samant ordering the driver to go to Kalyan. The diatribe continues, the labour leader picking up where he left off: "This country is going to the dogs," he says.

"That new industry minister Suresh Prabhu (of the BJP government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which has since demitted office) wants to introduce the exit policy. I telephoned him and warned that if he dared do that, I would overthrow his government. You cannot talk about exit policy in this country, when there is no social security in the system."

Samant's pessimism, I realise as I sit back and let his words wash over me in unchecked torrents, is not merely limited to the labour movement in India. Nor to the country as a whole. No, his pessimistic outlook embraces the entire Third World in scope and sweep. "None of the Third World countries have a future. I think in my lifetime I'll not see any change in these countries. I'm very pessimistic," he adds, just in case we hadn't realised that already.

Maybe a leader like Mahatma Gandhi, to lead us out of our rut? Would that be a solution?, I venture. "No," comes the instant response. "Gandhi brought us independence externally, but economically even he was a failure. No individual can change the situation in the Third World."

By the time he has damned the Third World to its fate, the car reaches the Premier Automobiles factory gates in suburban Kalyan. He asks the workers gathered there, at the gate, whether they will be attending the wedding of a union activist. On being told that they would be present en masse, Samant takes out a Rs 100 note and slips it in the envelope meant for the groom.

I tell him I need to leave, and that annoys him. "You first have lunch, then go. Mutton, chicken, we will eat well," he says with a glint in his eye, then without a break points to some new buildings in the vicinity. "You see these? All buildings constructed by one of my officials. When the second rung leadership is dishonest, how then can you expect me to succeed? The people respect me because I am an honest man, my sole concern is the rights of the workers. I demand money from the managements, and pass it on to the workers..."

Meanwhile, the driver has taken us to the wedding pandal, and the young groom runs out to greet Samant and touch his feet. Someone orders the video cameraman to focus on the trade union leader. A still photographer meanwhile gets busy with the flashbulbs. And Samant accepts it all, as only his due.

We then go up the staircase to a cosy room on the first floor, where lunch is served. Samant eats with the concentration of one who enjoys good food, and then delivers his verdict: "The mutton is well cooked, overall the food is okay."

We rise, and Samant tells me that he has to now attend another wedding, this one at Dadar. "Why don't you come, too?"

No thanks, I tell him, I have to get back to my office.

"Okay, then some other time," he says, driving off to the next wedding and leaving me with visions of a lifetime spent exhorting workers to strike for their rights, with intervals for pessimistic rumination on the fate of the Third World and, of course, the mandatory attendance at the weddings of his constituents...

Photograph: Jewella Miranda

The Rediff Special

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