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February 12, 1998


The bandit queen may be dethroned this time

Sharat Pradhan in Mirzapur-Bhadohi

She was the prodigal returned, the worm that turned, the epitome of insulted Indian womanhood, all rolled into one.

But just one-and-a-half years after Phoolan Devi was swept into Parliament and had movies being made about her and banned, she seems to be back in the wilderness. And her chances of her getting re-elected are getting remoter by the day.

Things have indeed changed from those days after she surrendered to the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, when she was feted and toasted by the great, wooed by political parties, trailed by reporters, writers and film-makers, and surrounded by awed crowds everywhere she stopped.

A lone Sumo bounces over a dusty road, jeep trudging along. Not one of those milling Samajwadi Party workers who backed her in 1996 are with her now. This time it is her security men who take care of the nitty-gritty of her campaign.

Barring two brief halts, which included one to condole the death of a possible voter's child in a road mishap, Phoolan did not come across more than two people who waved to her. The two party election offices where she alighted from her vehicle to inquire about the progress of her campaign expressed their inability to help, claiming problems like "paucity of funds, non-availability of vehicles and shortage of workers".

Now the lady who fought many a gritty battle alone, appears to have lost her early confidence. Of course, she asserts quickly enough, "I will win," but she adds reluctantly, "if there is a fair election." According to her, "The BJP people will indulge in vandalism, violence and intimidation to see their candidate thorough this time." She accuses Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh of turning a deaf ear to her woes.

"Far from providing me respite from the constant threats I get, he simply gave a curt suggestion, 'Keep away from the election -- you have many enemies and you will be eliminated'." Despite fresh threats to her life, additional security has not been provided to her, she complains.

Asked why she had not taken up the matter with the Election Commission, she says, "You are right. I will now send a fax to the Election Commission." Her party apparently can't offer any help on this.

But with the kind of firebrand aggression, she was famous for, how had she not retaliated to the attacks, Phoolan says, "How can you revert to habits that you have left behind?"

She claims the reason she had no one to work with her is because they were all "busy campaigning for me down in the villages. This is a sprawling constituency with a vast rural area which is not easily accessible due to absence of roads or very poor road conditions," she says.

But wasn't fixing that part of her responsibility?

"It's the BJP government's neglect," she claims, evading further questions about what she had done in 18 months as an MP. Pressed insistently, she says, "I was bogged down with health and other personal problems that kept, me away from this area. As a result of this a number of things I had thought of for the development of this region remained unattended."

She was referring to her stomach tumour that required surgery and the 64 criminal cases she was fighting. Thirty-four of them, she points out, have been withdrawn by the Supreme Court. She declines to speak about the remaining 30, including one relating to the Behmai massacre, when her gang allegedly gunned down 22 upper caste Thakurs whose kith and kin were responsible for her being tortured and gang-raped.

The trial court at Kanpur had issued a non-bailable warrant against her. Phoolan evaded arrest, staying underground till she eventually got relief from the higher courts.

But her personal problems cut no ice with the people of Mirzapur-Bhadohi. And though she has the patronage of some powerful carpet manufacturers close to Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, there are others who refuse to back her this time.

But she does get a place in the mansion of famous carpet exporter Nizam Khan in Bhadohi town and at Mannan Khan's who "does the needful in Mirzapur to ensure that Phoolan retains her seat with a bigger margin than she got last time." In 1996, she defeated Veerendra Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party by 44,000 votes. She is pitted again the same adversary, but some things have changed.

Most of the carpet barons seek a more vocal member of Parliament, one who can defend them against the international campaign which wants Indian carpets banned because they allegedly use child labour.

S K Gupta Islam, another exporter, alleges that it is a campaign to help Chinese and European carpet-makers. And that Phoolan isn't bothered.

Businessmen like Islam seek someone who can "counter the propaganda about child labour abuse" not someone who in enmeshed in personal problems. Even the 1.1 million workers in the Rs 6 billion industry do not think much about Phoolan's apathy on the whole issue.

"These foreigners have been twisting facts in collusion with self-styled reformers running voluntary organisations. There is no one to straighten things out for us," says one of them.

Phoolan's current preoccupation is the Muslim vote, which shifted the Congress way with that party picking Mohammed Hadi as its candidate. She brushes aside suggestions that Sonia Gandhi could dent her party's chances. One thing in her favour is that Mulayam Singh has finally heeded her desperate pleas to address a rally in her constituency. Perhaps her only real hope of a turnaround, but her rival isn't fretting.

"Every day is not Sunday," says Veerendra Singh. "Phoolan bagged this seat simply because of the media hype given to her at the time. That chapter is now over."

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