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February 27, 1998


Campaign Trail/Vaihayasi P Daniel

The caravan moves on...

His shoes are badly scuffed.

Scarred. And noticeable.

The brown leather has turned a sad, worn-out white from miles of walking. And the backs of them have been bent flat from constant slipping off and on... before he enters modest temples in quiet Mazgaon neighbourhoods. Or in front of tiny shrines to Ganesh tucked away in crowded Bombay wadis. Outside memorials to B R Ambedkar and Lord Buddha in dilapidated chawls. Or inside Muslim kabrastans (cemetries) where he lays a large floral wreath.

Indeed this election is likely to cost Shiv Sena sitting MP Mohan Rawale his shoes.

But not his seat.

Three hours of tramping behind this two-term member of Parliament on a padyatra or walkabout on the last day of his campaign trail leads one to the conclusion that Rawale is likely to 'romp home with a thumping majority', as the television psephologists would put it, by the time the votes are counted next week. His main opposition comes from the Janata Dal's Sohail Lokhandwala.

Rawale's Bombay South Central constituency sprawls across the mill worker heartland. It is the city's staunchly red neck area. About 50 dreary textile factories are situated in Parel and Byculla. And thousands and thousands of predominantly Maharashtrian Hindu workers inhabit the endless lines of grey chawls or tenement housing nearby. House doors are just two feet apart. And homes just about eight feet across. A few inches beyond the doorstep are rodent-infested garbage heaps, sluggish drains and the water taps and rank communal lavoratories. Daily life around here is rudely punctuated -- actually dictated -- by the sound of wailing sirens that signify the end of a shift.

Nobody knows better than Rawale what the problems of mill workers are. His father worked for 46 years at the Tata Mills, nearby. That mill ran huge losses and is today run by the National Textile Corporation, a government organisation that bails out sick mills.

"I am a chawlwallah myself. I live in 180 square feet of space." With his wife Indira. And two children.

As he tramps down narrow chawl gullies and inside cramped slums he faithfully presses flesh. A handshake here. A quiet word there. A benign namaste for the ladies, a few steps ahead. An upwards wave as we sail around the corner. A little child is picked up and hugged. "Would you like a candy?" He quickly bends through to a low doorway to talk to a troubled constituent. And, of course, the endless pilgrimages into neighbourhood shrines.

A soft spoken man, he says little. No fiery, combative Marathi speeches. Much is conveyed with his warm smile and gentle black eyes that seek out each face as he moves.

Our little caravan consists of his demure, dignified wife, a few Shiv Sena workers clad in vermillion car rally-type vests, a close adviser on whose shoulder he rests a tired arm from time to time, the local corporator, who everyone calls tai or auntie. And a hoarse-voiced announcer who is attached by a microphone wire/umblical cord to a battered bicycle, on which is perched a car battery -- "Mohan Rawale aah rahe hai. Mohan aye hai. Aapka keemti vote Mohan Rawale ko deejiye. Give your costly vote to Mohan Rawale."

As our procession moves swiftly -- Rawale walks fast -- through the streets, like the Pied Piper we gain people at each corner. Up and down we go. To hut colonies built on oober-khabar (uneven) ground along hillsides. Down alleyways of musty slums. Dodging sleeping dogs, snoozing cats, defecating kids. Past girls washing clothes, housewives rolling rotis, women picking lice from their hair and groups of squatting men gabbing.

Folks pop out of their houses to have a curious stare. The windows are full of people leaning out. Some smile shyly in greeting. Others gaze blankly.

He is garlanded with heavy flower malas and even a rupee note garland, every few furlongs. And feted with noisy fire crackers.

A well-dressed businessmen with a polished briefcase joins the entourage for a few moments to request a favour. A few words are exchanged and some thank yous and he melts away.

We pause in front of the compound of a mosque. And a flock of Muslim voters come running out. "Yes we would like to vote for Shiv Sena."

Rawale turns to me and says. "See they are coming around. Last time they all voted for their own candidates. But this time around they have appreciated the peace our governance has brought. And they want to vote for us. I am organising that their mosques get extra FSI (muncipality permission to build more floors), so that they can pray within their mosques and not on the roads."

The Muslim voters eagerly shake hands. Asks one elderly gentleman. "But what's your name? Who are we voting for?"

A few yards down the road the procession sweeps into another rather pretty mosque and graveyard. Namaz is on. A few worshippers stare in outright suspicion at the saffron brigade approaching and mumble angrily to themselves. Time for a photo opportunity. Several traditionally clad, aged mullah types are hauled, bewildered, into the frame. Click. Click. It's down there for posterity. Mohan Rawale standing chummy-chummy with the neighbourhood Muslims.

He then strides over to the graveyard to lay a floral wreath on the grave of a popular saint. He and the corporator solemnly bow and pay their respects. He looks around for his wife, calling her to join him. But she stays away.

Children stand in the background, up to mischief. "This one has not come with hats for us," says one bunch, waving hats printed with Vote for Sohail Lokhandwala. "Vote for Lokhandwala," mimics a few boys, sotto voce, as Rawale passes.

"But we haven't got our voting cards," a group of Muslim voters tell me. "It is already the last day."

And who will they vote for?

"Not for him for sure!" says one group.

"No, no if they give us our cards we will vote for him,'' declares another group.

Has he done anything for your community?

"Oh no, we see him every five years."

Says another, "We do go to his office if we have a problem. And he usually says, 'Come tomorrow, I will solve it.' And it goes on that way. Tomorrow after tomorrow."

From the mosque we duck into a labyrinth of Muslim slums. More photographs. Garlanding. This time Muslim women and children are brought into the portrait.

"In my last term I have given the Rs 10,000,000 I received from the government for development, for roads, computers in schools, bathrooms, and improving the water supply. When I come back into power I plan to do something more for the Muslim areas. There is one chawl near here where 135 Muslim families live and there are just two bathrooms. Can you imagine?? In my chawl we are nine families and we have two bathrooms."

And then we head for the Hindu parts of town again. To khattar (hardcore) Maharashtrian labour neighbourhoods. There's much bon homie. Back slapping. And happy Marathi bhai-bhai, mila-jula oneness.

This is Rawale turf. Home of the 173, 900 constituents who voted him in, in 1996 instead of trade unionist Datta Samant. The phenomenon called The Sonia Factor is unheard of over here. "Irrelevant," declares Rawale.

Crowds line Rawale's path. In India, like no other country in the world perhaps, religion and emotions are inextricably linked with every other activity, including politics. A political moment is also a sentimental, religious moment. Rawale's padyatra is a never ending round of religious ceremonies. In each gully and tenement, beaming women stand on the side of the road with shiny trays filled with puja samagrih (the essentials for a ceremony) -- an oil lamp, a coconut, sugar, flowers. As the MP approaches, they purposefully advance and a shotgun, streetside puja is performed, even as lorries toot for right of way. Another garlanding ceremony. Much touching of feet. Another floral tribute is laid before a favourite idol. More oil lamp aartis...

Two hours go by... Going on three... Still we tramp along, baking under the hot winter sun. Rawale's crisp, startlingly white shirt and mustard trousers have gotten grubby. His neck is weighed down by 20 kilograms of garlands. Another two dozen are looped around the microphone bicycle.

It is nearly four o'clock. In one hour, campaigning, according to Election Commisison rules, must come to an end. Rawale is going strong. I log out. Rawale trudges on. He walks off into the horizon. To a happy future, probably. Followed by the bicycle, the orange vests, the firecrackers, Indira and the happy hordes. The saffron standard is flying high. "Teer ke chaap per vote do. Vote for the arrow. For Mohan Rawaleeeee."

Campaign Trail

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