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Day before results, the buzz is missing in Lucknow
Prem Panicker in Lucknow | May 10, 2007 20:07 IST
Speaking of a one-horse town in Midwest America, Dorothy Parker once quipped: "When you get there, there is no there, there!"
I am reminded of the quip, and of Parker's overwhelming desire to get the heck out of there, some 20 minutes after landing in Lucknow.
It is the day after the final phase of voting in the state that prides itself on being the crucible of national politics; it is the day before the counting and declaration of results of a crucial election slated to shape the state's political fortunes for the next five years. And you are in a state legendary for converting the election process into a three-ring circus of pomp, pageantry, color and controversy.
And yet, here I am in the political capital of that state, and there is no there, there.
In those 20-30 minutes, I have driven from the airport, through a large part of what the locals refer to as 'new' Lucknow -- the stamping ground of the leaders of the alphabet soup of political parties that are in the fray -- and the place is silent. Quiet. Tame. Dead.
There is not one single banner, bunting, four-color poster or any other form of election ephemera to be seen, anywhere.
The party headquarters of the Bahujan Samaj Party is on the route my car takes from the airport. It might as well be Fort Knox -- all you see is a high wall, and an enormous iron gate painted in a matte black and slammed tight shut.
There is probably a building or buildings behind those walls, that gate. There are probably people in there, doing whatever you do in party offices the day before your electoral fortunes are to be decided. Probably -- the probability sends a little frisson of excitement through me; such is the absolutely banal deadness of Lucknow just now that you have to manufacture excitement by conjuring up such possibilities -- Mayawati, Behenji herself, is in there somewhere, surrounded by her lieutenants, planning the moves she must make, by this time tomorrow, when the votes are all counted and announced and the horse-trading must begin.
But you don't see any of it. For the 15 minutes that I stay parked outside that office, not one person goes in, or comes out, through that barred gate.
The party office of Mayawati's arch-rival Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his Samajwadi Party, is adjacent. "It is the old office -- this is also an SP office, but there is a newer one down the road a bit," the keeper of the gate informs me.
It is as devoid of apparent life as is the BSP office. Intrigued, I get the driver to go the long way around; we check out the Congress office; then that of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The walls are not as high; the gates not as formidable � but these offices are as devoid of bustle and activity as are the other two.
It is the single thing that intrigues you about being in Lucknow today -- the total, complete lack of visible political activity; of bustle and noise and of the excitement associated with elections in India.
EVER been to a roadside tea-shop in India when elections are on? Try it sometime. All you need to do is sit at a table and ask for a chai -- within minutes, you are inundated with comment, opinion, analysis, insight and, most times, a far more accurate prediction of what is to come than the pundits on television can provide.
I enter one such tea shop, I ask for a tea, and I wait -- and -- nothing. The elections, tomorrow's counting, the possibility of who could win and what that could mean -- none of this is being discussed, debated, argued over.
"It is all very thanda, sir," says Chandra Prakash Srivastava, the gent seated across from me at that tea shop table. "Not at all like it used to be. Even polling, see, in UP there is always more than 50 per cent polling but this time, it is much less, maybe 42, 43 per cent. And here in Lucknow it was only 38 per cent.
"No goonda-gardi, no tamasha, no violence � it has all been very quiet."
He voted; he always does, he tells me, because that is the only way he can tell politicians what he thinks of them, and he only gets to do that once in five years or so. "In previous elections, it could take half a day; this time it took me 25 minutes. It was all very orderly, no crowds hanging around near the booths because the police pushed them all back; no one threatening you or promising you things if you voted for them�"
It is the doing, he says, of the election commissioner (he apparently means Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami) who, he says, has run this election with an iron hand. And a good thing too, says the man at the adjacent table, butting into the conversation in the time-honored tea-shop tradition � at least now, all those lakhs parties used to spend on cutouts and banners and posters and leaflets won't be wasted.
"Haan, that is right," Srivastava, who seems to be the cynic in residence tells me, "now all that money can be spent to buy MLAs after the counting is over!"
Neither Srivastava, nor Hariprasad Tiwary, the interloper who hands me a business card proclaiming him as the general manager of 'Shakti Spare Parts -- Specialities in Auto parts", believe the counting of tomorrow will produce a clear winner.
The BSP will get the most seats but not a majority; the SP will get a "nose-cut" in the form of greatly reduced numbers; the BJP just might edge the SP and become the number two party; and since the Congress could not possibly do worse than it has in the recent past, it will gain a few seats more.
Between them, and a couple of others who throw their two bits in, I am given a grand tour of the political scene in Uttar Pradesh (by which, apparently, they mean Lucknow � the hinterlands don't count). Thus:
The BSP: When it comes to improving quality of life, increasing industrialization (talk to people here, and it is surprising how they all tend to compare the stories they hear of rapid industrialization in other parts of the country, with the almost-zero development of UP on that front) and suchlike indicators, Mayawati and the BSP has no track record worth mentioning. Behenji's two plus points? One, when she was in office she effectively ended goonda-raj and two, she constructed the enormous Dr Ambedkar Maidan, a short distance from the airport, capable of holding 10 lakh people. How is that a plus? All political rallies and meetings now happen there, so we can go about our business in peace.
The SP: Mulayam Singh Yadav industriously improved the roads, and infrastructural amenities, of the post Gomti Nagar area -- which, being the stamping ground of the politicians and the moneyed class, didn't need improving anyway. He however totally neglected the rest of Lucknow, and UP in general. During his raj, goondas were licensed to do as they willed, with no check. Prices went up, quality of life went down. No, we can't think of a single good thing he has done -- except improve the roads and conditions in Gomti Nagar!
The BJP: No one knows whether they are fish or fowl. They started the campaign with a controversy over the CDs. No, we don't know what is in it, no one has seen it because the "election people" seized all the copies, but we understand it was to set Hindus and Muslims against each other. They made a tamasha of it for a few days, and when they found it didn't work, they changed color and began "sucking up" to the Muslims and pleading for their votes. They did nothing for UP when they were in power, and they haven't done anything during the election campaign to convince us that they will do something if they get power now.
The Congress: Ah, the Amethi party! Their biggest leader, Rahul Gandhi, stays in Amethi, at best he might run down to Rae Bareli before running back to Amethi and staying put there, as if the rest of UP doesn't count. And other than him, no one even knows the name of any other leader � or cares. But they might get a few seats this time, because after all, compared to the other parties, what harm have they done?
"A lot of Independents will win, this time -- and then they will each get a lot of money, and support some big party or the other, it depends on who has the most money to offer."
There you go, report card and prognosis rolled into one. Outside, the roads are quiet, the people go about the business of existing through another day, oblivious to the "momentous elections" that will be decided tomorrow.
Meanwhile back home in the Rediff office, I have editors waiting for me to file on the "color and light" of the elections -- and there is no there, there!
Complete coverage: The battle for UP