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November 20, 1998


'Pokhran ke liye Vajpayee ko vote do!'

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Text and photographs: Vaihayasi P Daniel

Uma Bharati A white speck appeared in the dark overcast sky from Saranpur in the west. The hundreds of villagers in Berasia, the assembly constituency of Laxmi Narayan Sharma, who had gathered impatiently for an hour or more at the dusty central maidan let out an awed, collective, "Aaa gayi Umaji. Aaa gayi!

As the helicopter hovered over the ground, it whirled up a dust storm. And from the middle of this ball of dust emerged a diminutive figure, swathed in metres of dull orange. Uma Bharati. Age: 38. Profession: agriculturist. Education: primary school. People's Representative from Khajuraho since 1996. Union minister of state for human resources development since March 1998. Fiery sanyasin since she was 12.

As the minister headed for a waiting Maruti, the ecstatic crowd surged forward. "Umaji ki Jai!" Local BJP leaders rushed to touch her feet. Flowers and slogans flew thick and fast. In 120 seconds or so she was borne away to the election pandal as hundreds ran after her car.

Berasia was honoured. One of the BJP's star campaigners had dropped in to add her weight behind the election initiative, in this constituency of 450 odd villages. Sharma has been returned to the Vidhan Sabha from this rural borough consisting of 153,438 voters six times since 1967. In the last assembly election, the margin was a wee bit tight, but Sharma made it home with 3,838 votes more than his Congress rival.

Located just 37 km northeast of Bhopal, Berasia is a prosperous area in the soyabean belt. Its farmer folk -- 24 per cent scheduled castes, 8 per cent scheduled tribes, 7 per cent other backward castes, 17 per cent minorities and 44 per cent forward castes -- have access to a fair amount of state government largesse -- courtesy, the BJP will tell you, stable BJP governance. Plenty of schools, a number of them RSS-run, good roads, electricity, telephones and onions for only Rs 14 a kilo. Crops flourish in the green fields.

Says Sharma's son, a mechanical engineer from Raipur's Ravi Shankar University and a political aspirant (who in fact, sources say, wanted to contest this election instead of his father but was denied a ticket), "The main problem of Berasia is water. The water table is very low here. My father has been working over the years to rectify this. Now the constituency has 7 talabs or ponds. This has brought up the water table. Work has not gone ahead on 13 more talabs that are on the anvil. But we have not been in power in the state..." Other sources say Sharma, agriculture minister in the previous BJP government, uses this excuse all too easily.

Uma Bharati Uma Bharati is a frequent visitor to Berasia. Says young Sharma, "She has known our family for many years. She comes here during the election even if we do not call her. She is a very respected and strong leader. I consider her to be my elder sister. A very ordinary person, she like music, movies. A very lively person."

Bharati's magic with the crowds is tangible. The crowd squatting in the gaudy pandal at the Berasia chauraha listen in a lacklustre manner to the show put up for them. Speeches. Songs. Poems.

Then she sweeps in with an entourage in tow. A wave of electricity surges through the crowd. Huskily, she pronounces, "Bharat Mata ki Jai. Bharat Mata ki Jai. Hath uthao. JaI Sriram."

Her speech is peppered with fiery rhetoric that has the crowd sitting ramrod straight in attention. Plenty of Digee Raja bashing, kesri-rang sentiment and patriotic urgings.

..."Digvijay Singh's jyotish has told him if you jhapo (recite mantras) about the onion tragedy he will get siddhi (nirvana). I have been to a jyotish in Indore and he has given me another mantra. Congress ko satta ke khatiya se utar do or kan mein ram nam suna do (Take the Congress off its death bed and send it on its way to heaven)."

..."Everybody has praised Vajpayeeji for the nuclear tests. India has been called powerful because it is overpopulated. But the population of worms can be high too. And no importance is given to them. Shankar Bhagwan wraps snakes around his neck, his body and even his feet. But even around his feet he has no place for worms. No place for kayars (cowards). We need to be a strong country and now we have acquired strength. Everybody is talking about India in international circles. Pokhran ke liye Vajpayee ko vote do!

..."We have travelled through 50 years since Independence. What has the Congress given us after 50 years? I cannot ask Soniaji that. Because 50 years ago she was not here. She was in Italy."

..."We are a land of so many rivers, great women, scientists, tapasya... But we are not successful. That is not your fault or a fault of our soil. It is the fault of a scarcity of proper organisation"

..."There must be many Congress workers in the crowd. We are only ideological enemies. I am called didi (sister) in the BJP Yuva office. But I am also a didi to Congress workers. I want to tell the Congress that we have had so many powerful and wonderful leaders. Lokmanya Gangadhar Tilak, Subhas Chandra Bose, Lala Lajpat Rai, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru. And they worked to send the British away. And now you (the Congress) are bowing before the shoes of a foreigner."

... "People often ask us... Why does crime decrease when you are in power? The bureaucracy is the same. The same collectors. The same SPs. No, we are not importing collectors from Japan or Germany. These same collectors help us rule. But when the Congress is in power they help the Congress to loot the country. A knife in the hands of a surgeon and a knife in the hands of a killer have different powers."

... "What has happened in Jhabua. These poor nuns have suffered a small death. They are living corpses. And Digvijay blames it on the Bajrang Dal. Bajrangbali snuffed out Lanka so that Sita's honour would not be besmirched. And Digvijay nun ke ijjat par roti sek rahe hain."

... "Many have asked us when the temple at Ayodhya will be built. We will build it. The word Ayodhya mean something that cannot be conquered. I want to make the whole of India an Ayodhya."

... "What is happening in Kashmir? Eight years ago Kashmir was a place for honeymooning couples to roam arm in arm. It was a place where movies were shot. A place where people went for pilgrimage. And then it became a place for coffins. First the Hindus left and then the Muslims. That is now changing. Do you know that in the last eight months some 300,000 tourists visited Kashmir. Terrorists are leaving. Like Punjab, Kashmir is being cleared of terrorists. We are cleansing Kashmir. Just like a priest cleanses a temple. First the old flowers and garlands are cleared away. The new flowers come in. New tilak. And the devta ki arti happens. But we are still at the cleaning phase. The pujari's (priest's) first task of the day is cleansing. We are cleaning the whole desh of this brashtachar (corruption)."

..."We have been told that we are enemies of the Muslims. Since we began ruling Rajasthan have we sent any Muslims to Pakistan? Since we began ruling Delhi have any Muslims left for Pakistan? The other day I had been to a meeting where I was overcome with emotion when a Musallman bhai accepted something from my hands. I told them that my saffron colour has not changed. It has not softened. They said I did not have to change. That they had to change. And that it is better to have an imandar dushman (honest enemies) rather than a beiman dost (dishonest friends)."

Uma Bharati Her speech lasts 20 minutes. Then she is off like a streak. The orange sari-dhoti has now been smothered by more orange -- orange garlands. Back into the Maruti that takes her back to the Deccan Aviation helicopter that has been keeping a legion of Berasia youth enthralled for the last half hour.

Uma Bharati's brother Swami Prasad is in the election fray this time. Says the minister, "I was so upset when I heard he wants a ticket. For one day I did not eat anything. I don't want more people in my family involved in this. The media has got this completely wrong. Will you set this right for me? Yes, I am campaigning for him and everybody else."

"I think," she says, "compared to the 1993 election we will get a majority. The onion factor has not affected these parts. MP is an agricultural state in its own right. It is not affected."

As she climbs into her helicopter -- which has been virtually her home for the past few days -- bound for Piparia, with her packed lunch from Berasia, there is another round of paying obeisance by the local leadership. Berasia bids farewell. Almost regretfully, the curious little children watch the white bird with its tiny orange occupant head into the horizon.

On the road back from Berasia, we stop at Lal Ghat, a village of 5,000, many of whom work at a nearby quarry. Their daily earnings: Rs 35 for digging and loading one 'trolley' of stones. Who will they vote for? "Congress, perhaps. Or whoever we feel like when we get to the voting booth. Nobody stops here to talk to us. Sharma never has time to do our work. At least the Congress leader, even though he is not in power, helps us. We have no schools and each family in this village has four or five children. Just two taps. No doctors. No hospitals. No patta (property deeds). Only 300 to 400 of us have names on the voting list."

Assembly Election '98

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