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September 8, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Savera R Someshwar

Undaunted by the odds, a Marxist-Leninist rebel challenges the BJP & Congress in Jaipur

Srilatha Swaminadhan "Chini nahi hai?" the lead actress of the Nishan Nayta Manch, New Delhi, looked questioningly at Srilatha Swaminadhan, the CPI-ML candidate contesting the prestigious Jaipur Lok Sabha seat.

"Nahi hai?" Srilatha, who is fighting the election for the first time, looked chastened. "You know," she turns to us, "with all this campaigning, and we came home late last night, there was no time to go to the market and get anything."

"Chini?" another reminder came from the actress-co-opted-into-early-morning-chai-maker -- it had just crossed seven in the morning and the barely awake household was already readying for the day's campaign, scheduled to begin by 0730 hours.

"Where is the money?" Srilatha finally found some in a niche carved into the wall facing the open kitchen, which merged into the sitting room. "Aslam...," she called. "Aslam, beta, dekho, jaake thodi chi..."

"Ek minute," this to the actress,"go and ask downstairs... they might have some sugar." Downstairs happens to be a basement attached to the Swaminadhan home at Dhuleshwar Bagh. At the moment housing members of the NNM, it is normally the location for party meetings and assorted CPI-ML activities.

A whole jar of sugar was found -- downstairs as expected -- but now came another question, this time directed at us, "Aap ko kam chai-patti wali chai chalegi? The tea leaves are over, so the chai is weak."

In the seeming chaos, no one has lost sight of the fact that there is an election to be fought, won, if possible. Which, in an assembly seat that is part-rural, part-urban and spans eight assembly seats (six -- Bani Park, Jaipur rural, Johari Bazar, Kishanpole, Phagi (SC) and Sanganer -- went with the Congress during the assembly election last November) is not an easy task. The fact that both the CPI-ML and Srilata are only two-and-a-half years old in Jaipur does not help matters much.

"But, then," she smiles, "we decided if we were going to fight them (the BJP and the Congress), we might as well begin the battle in the capital." Swami Agnivesh, the saffron-robed crusader of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, has been roped in from New Delhi.

"I am here," he says, "only for Srilatha. I am very proud of her; I know the kind of work that she has been doing. And then, ever since the CPI- ML has given up its Naxalite ways and entered the mainstream, I have supported them as well. Not that I was against them or anything like that; their motives were good. But I could not agree with the ways they were using to reach their goal."

Srilatha, meanwhile, has used the opportunity to slip into the bathroom -- "I haven't even brushed my teeth yet" -- only to come out almost instantly in a gale of laughter. "Shamshool's (who happens to be the motivating spirit of the NNM) using the potty. Lekin maine kuch nahi dekha... he had the newspaper spread out in front of him. Not his fault though, the poor chap latched one door and forgot the other one that leads to my room."

The swami, in the interim, continued to enlighten us. "I campaign for people who are close to my way of thinking. In fact, I am just back from Baithur in Madhya Pradesh, where I was campaigning for the candidate of the Kishan Sangharsh Samiti."

"Have you been talking about me?" Srilatha demanded. "I hope you have said nice things." And then to us, "He is like a younger brother to me. I have known him for so long now -- kithne huae, Swamiji? 20 years?"

Which also happens to be the amount of time Srilatha spent among the tribals of Ghantali village in Banswara district, Rajasthan. A village that is not accessible because it has no roads, no electricity, no water, no communication facilities; none of the amenities that are taken for granted by urban India. Today, the CPI-ML claims, the awareness level is high among the Ghantali tribals who are able to solve their problems with external aid.

"That," says Srilatha, "is our aim. We are interested in creating leaders, and more leaders. Other parties don't want to do that. They are afraid. Afraid that if they empower people, they will lose their hold over them."

Srilatha Swaminadhan The much-coveted bathroom is finally free and Srilatha grabs her chance. To race out, yet again, a few seconds later. "Where have I kept my sari?" Finally, 15 minutes later, she is ready and raring to go. Except that the much-needed rains have finally hit Jaipur and there does not seem any point at leaving right away. Open-air meetings do not hold much appeal under a constant, cold drizzle.

Bananas -- a substitute for a proper breakfast -- have been making the rounds, but the swami is not satisfied. With a hectic campaign schedule ahead, a late-night arrival in Jaipur at 3.30 am coupled with three hours of sleep demanded at least a hearty breakfast.

Srilatha, who was tidying up her papers aided by a very no-nonsense pair of spectacles, looked up, "There is whole wheat bread, Swamiji, will you have that?"

"Cheese hai kya?" the swami asked.

"Yes, there is. Shall I toast the bread?"

"Woh accha rahega."

As she bustled about the kitchen, there is no trace of the fact that Srilatha is the daughter of a very affluent and prestigious, Indian family. A family that has been intensely involved in the Indian freedom movement and in our political history thereafter.

Her grandmother, Ammu Swaminadhan, was a quiet, but impactful, force in the freedom movement in the south. Ammu's second child is Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal -- the soldier who Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose chose to lead the Indian National Army's all-women Jhansi Ki Rani regiment. Srilatha, in fact, bears a startling resemblance to her famed aunt.

Ammu's third child, Mrinalini Sarabhai, is an icon in the world of Indian dance and her contributions are being furthered by her daughter, Mallika. "Yes," laughs Srilatha, "I come from a very matriarchal family. A family where the women tend to embrace causes and enter the limelight while the men prefer to take a back seat."

Her illustrious lineage, though, is not being used as an election prop. Very few people seem to be aware of it and she prefers it that way. Nor are they aware that her aunt, Lakshmi, and cousin, former Kanpur MP Subhasini Ali, are staunch members of the CPI-M.

"To tell you the truth," says Srilatha, "the CPI-M has lost track of itself; its ideology. They are the ones who have spoilt the names of the Communists in India. Look at the way they are running after the Congress, it is so embarrassing. When the government fell, they ran after Sonia, begging her to form the government, saying they would support her. And she sniffed her nose at then and rejected them... How awfully embarrassing."

In fact, the house that she now lives in with her husband, Mahender Chaudhary [the CPI-ML's Rajasthan secretary who is contesting the general election from Jhunjhunu] is part of her legacy from a family. "When we divided the property, the girls got an equal share. That's how I built this house. We rent out part of it and that money is enough for us to live on."

A glance at her watch and she squeals. It is nine am and the rain shows no sign of letting up. "Chalo, chalo, chalo..." she starts hustling everyone one. "I don't think this rain is going to stop. We have to get on our way."

On our way also fell an impatient 'comrade' who has been demanding -- in an early morning phone call -- that Srilatha get some election-related pamphlets delivered to him. "Kya, comrade," she asks angrily, "you are acting like some king in some fiefdom. Where do I have the time to deliver them? Why can't you come and pick them up?"

"Ab," she told the suitably abashed comrade, "harmari-aapki khatam. From now on, you can come here only for work-related matters."

And the errant driver of the borrowed Ambassador -- "Normally I travel in a jeep. I have only requested for a car since Swamiji is here. But it looks the oldest car in the stable; its springs are shot." -- who had disappeared with the car to hunt for a cup of tea. "Listen, you can't do this. You better not go anywhere again without asking me," she warned him angrily.

We raced through the drizzle towards Mansarovar, 13 km away, through roads that were banked by brown-baked fields; the occasional crop of bajra burnt by the sun. "Swamiji," she patted his arm, "you better pray the brakes work." Little, concrete, one-room houses intermittently dotted the horizon as we whizzed past a few camel-carts and stopped at Mansarovar, where a cutout of Sonia Gandhi welcomed us.

The audience in Mansarovar was pitiful -- a measly 30-odd people was all the NNM was able to generate. Yet, they had their audience mesmerised by the tamasha -- a series of small skits interspersed with songs that ridiculed the two dominant parties in the 13th Lok Sabha election.

Masked actors representing Nawaz Sharief and Atal Bihari Vajpayee celebrated the bomb, the prime minister and a representative of Sonia Gandhi licked the feet of another draped in the Stars And Stripes... America then paraded the leaders of the Congress and the BJP as his willing slaves.

The NNM were good, there was no doubt about it. Another 15 joined the audience, clambering on to a nearby tree, a board announcing the chowk's name and even the silver-gray electricity box.

They laughed at the jamura's antics as he tried to get a ration card, but was finally forced to bribe the concerned officers. They nodded solemnly when the jamura was beaten by the police as he attempted to register a kidnapping complaint. Again, money came to his rescue. Another story depicted how the poor were looted in government hospitals, how they died at the hands of callous doctors.

Once the tamasha was over, though, the audience melted. Only 20-odd people braved the rains to hear Srilatha and Swami Agnivesh. The farmers sitting at the back made derisive faces when the former appealed to them to use the axe (her symbol) to destroy the Congress and the BJP. "Of course, we will vote for the Congress. Anyway, all of them are the same. They make promises and beg for votes, but forget about us after the election."

Srilatha Swaminadhan Others wanted to know who she was and why she was there. Some even thought she was there to set up some kind of factory. "Roz aati hai yahan." One woman, in a sunny yellow ghoongat stormed away from the meeting, angry that Srilata had not carried her young son in her arms. "Arre, what does she think she is?" she fumed, as she dragged her bawling son away.

Though the CPI-ML claims to have organised unions for the labour class (in this case, those who actually sell their labour to contractors); they have obviously not concentrated on making their achievements known to the masses since the same scene was repeated at Phagi, 35 km, away.

Here, even the shamiana had not been set up and most of the 25-odd people who had gathered to see the tamasha melted away as soon the speeches began. There were no arrangements made to control the rowdy elements who heckled the proceedings.

Another major problem seemed the lack of awareness of either the candidate or her symbol -- which, in contrast to the huge hoarding and gaily festooned jeeps of the BJP and the Congress, has not been in display in Jaipur. So much so that Srilatha, who normally does not accept garlands, was requested to wear them by her workers. This, so that the people who attend her meetings at least recognise her as the candidate.

"Actually," Srilatha confesses, "our total cost for these elections will be around Rs 60,000." An amount that automatically brings with it tremendous limitations. Also, keeping with her ideology, she refuses to take the caste factor -- which plays the deciding role in Rajasthan's politics -- into consideration. Then there is the fact that, the minute she filed her paper, the CPI-M also put up a candidate, which will affect her already limited vote bank.

Her chances of winning this seat -- which is being contested by Dr Raghu Sharma of the Congress and Girdhari Lal Bhargav of the BJP (who has firmly held on to this seat for the last three elections) -- is remote. If she wins, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Rajasthan. But, as Srilatha puts it, "It is most definitely a beginning."

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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