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September 16, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Savera R Someshwar

'Who will you vote for if Vajpayee is set to lose by one vote?'

Raj Babbar The acrid air sears your lungs, the exhaust blackens your face and burns your eyes. There is a stench that hangs over the city like a pall; but no one notices. The roads are those by name only -- in reality, they are broken, potholed pathways that people use to travel from one part of the city to another. You could count yourself lucky if the one you are travelling on has some resemblance to a tarred surface.

There are four nallahs (huge sewers) that serve the city. They were meant for a population of 200, 000 people. Today, Agra houses a population of over 1.2 million -- the laboured, overflowing nallahs can no longer cope with the flow of sewage, which overflows into the streets.

People walk though the slush, no longer aware they are doing so. Food and vegetable carts park over the consequent muck, people do their daily shopping; it seems like, for the people of Agra, the unhygienic surroundings no longer exist. Pigs root for sustenance in the nallahs, and sometimes die there. Their carcasses are not moved for days. No one cares any more.

Welcome to Agra, the slum that houses the world's most beautiful monument to love -- the Taj Mahal.

"Saab, do minute lagenge, saab! (Sir, it will take only two minutes, sir!)," begged the young lad, desperation writ large on his face.

"Get way, you fool. Don't touch the vehicle or you'll get into trouble... Get your karyalay inaugurated by someone else. There, (pointing to someone) get him to do it."

We were in Vaibhav Nagar with Raj Babbar, witnessing the Samajwadi Party's desperate attempt at winning back the Agra seat. A seat which is also being hotly contested by sitting MP Bhagwan Singh Rawat of the BJP (he has represented this seat for 10 years, having won it thrice), former minister of state for railways Ajay Singh of the Congress (who won it in 1989) and Raeesuddin of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Babbar was beginning another one of the short election speeches that would be his pattern through the day. The open air Gypsy he was travelling in had been backed right up to the stage, so he could step from one to the other easily. The adulation in the air was palpable.

There were all the symbols of a roadside election meet -- the hastily put-up stage, the mike, the party banner, another banner welcoming Babbar, as many people as possible scrambling on the stage... even the vote-for-me-I-am-your-man speech! But, if you ignored the overtness for a minute, this was just another group of star-struck people gathered to see a Bollywood face, even if it was a waning one!

"These people have come to see Raj Babbar, the star," says one of his acolytes proudly. "Don't you see this kind of thing happening in Bombay?"

No, we are categorical, we don't.

"That must be because you have too many film stars there," says another, nodding his head sagely. "Here we have only one. And he is from this city; he is our man. He was born in Agra, you know. In Jeevan Mandi. And now he has bought a house in Agra."

Raj Babbar Meanwhile, the young boy continued to plead, eyes starting out of his skull in his intensity, "We have set up our party office; it is just here. It will take only a minute. He must come; we have worked so hard to set it up, we've been waiting for him... It is just down this road."

"You ***, don't you think he has better things to do than inaugurate your *** karyalay?" If you don't move away from the vehicle, I'll ***. Pandit, don't let anyone touch the vehicle. You two there, are your wretched hands made of butter? What are those guys in the other two jeeps doing? Get these people to move back. I don't want any one touching the vehicle."

In quick response there were four people around the Gypsy, pushing people back roughly. Children caught up the melee cried as the men continued to surge towards the stage and the jeep, while women stood on the roofs of the nearby houses and watched the tamasha from the safety of their veils.

"Lovely," thundered the tall, hefty mustachioed man in charge, at the young man at the wheel, "start the car. NOW."

"Bhaisaab, the people..." he indicated helplessly at the crowd pressing against the car.

"What did I tell you?" roared the man in charge. "Start the car. We will not go back. We are going ahead. There are many more meetings to cover; we can't waste any more time here."

Agra, the city of junk. It hoards everything, even the smallest nut and bolt. Roofs of old cars mix strangely with broken scooter side panels. Solitary car doors rest against twisted hubcabs and machine parts. Metal, and more mangled metal, merge together in high piles by the sides of the road.

Scrawny men fiddle over these piles, grimy children dressed in rags play with them, cows forage for food among them. Dust hangs heavy in the air. And rust covers everything, even the vehicles on the roads. It is a blue moon, if you spot a vehicle that is spic and span. Most of them are corroded, spotted with rust and pump black exhaust into the air.

The indifference has permeated through the entire society. In Jaipur House, an area that houses beautiful bungalows and rich families, we saw women step out of their houses and chuck the day's garbage on the road, before stopping to pick up their daily quota of milk.

Welcome to Agra -- the city that houses one of the wonders of the world.

Babbar, blissfully unaware of what had been happening, stepped back into the vehicle. Only to find it had begun to move backwards. "Where," he asked, as he continued to smile at the people around him and shake grubby hands, "are we going? I thought we had to go ahead."

"Saab," the young man grabbed Babbar's arm, only to spun away roughly by a hefty man doubling as a guard.

"LOOVEEELY," roared in-charge at the back.

"Bhaisaab," a sweaty Lovely spun the driver's wheel uselessly, "I'm not doing anything. They are pushing the car back. What can I do?"

It was Babbar's chance to plead for something other than a vote. But they would not let him go. More and more people shoved at the car from all directions. "Theek hai," Babbar gave up, "le chalo."

Lovely tried reversing the Gypsy, but the crowd pressed at it even closer. In-charge stood up, "Ok, ok, he's coming. But move away from the vehicle so that we can reverse." Then, an aside to Babbar, "Don't get down. Just cut the ribbon from the seat itself."

"You better stand up," someone else advised him. "They will quiet down if they can see you." So Babbar stood, resting his calves against the seat of the Gypsy, hanging on to the railing of the roof. And a loud cheer went up. The Gypsy inched slowly towards the party office, loud shouts of 'Raj Babbar zindabad' and victorious smiles renting the air. One even heard faint shouts of 'Desh ka neta kaisa ho...'

It is the same story at Jeevan, Shaheed Nagar, Lawyer's Colony and Surya Nagar. This is the kind of response Babbar -- the star, Agra's prince of Bollywood -- has been generating in her bowels, her slums. In Lawyer's Colony, where the rich and the poor of Agra exist out of sight of each other, the strongest khaitiya had been turned into a makeshift dais. The moment Babbar climbed on, a grandfather placed his newborn grandson at his Nike-shod feet. And refused to move the child until Babbar had named him.

Raj Babbar "Ashok rakh do uska naam," said one of the businessmen backing Babbar's campaign said. Ashok it was. The child had been named, and still the grandfather refused move him. Until another slum dweller came to the new-born's rescue, lifted the child gently, berated the fond grandpapa and rescued Babbar from what was becoming a very awkward situation.

He looked at the women, who were standing at a distance, "Why are you standing there? Come here." The invitation broke the ice -- the women giggled, the men laughed and Babbar began his speech.

When the people of Agra get up in the morning, they pray for water and electricity. No one is amazed when entire areas of the city are swathed in darkness for days. Some areas don't get water for days.

At one point in time, the water that came though the pipes was undrinkable -- it was greenish in colour, it stank and green algae and worms were found wriggling in it. The case went to the Supreme Court, which labelled the water unfit for human consumption. The local administration was ordered to rectify the situation with immediate effect.

But the government of Uttar Pradesh, were the city is located, ran its own tests and classified the water as potable. How many deaths took place on this account is something that no one knows as yet.

Today, people are inured to their fate. Those who can afford it have attached water pumps to the main lines, pumps that pull the available water to their houses. Practically every house in the city wakes up early and the only pre-dawn sound heard is the roar of these pumps.

Another essential in every house that can afford it is a generator -- the only way that citizens are able to cope with the frequent power cuts.

Welcome to Agra -- the city that annually earns Rs 2 billion to Rs 3 billion (of which Rs 1.2 billion is in foreign exchequer) in tourist income.

The elite of Agra had reserved a very different reception for Babbar. Though they were awed by this easy access to a cinestar, their adulation was subtler, limited to excited whisperings, professional shakes of the hand and pushing forward wide-eyed children clutching the mandatory autograph books.

Take, for instance, Lawyer's Colony, a residential area preferred by those belonging to the business community. Babbar was supposed to have stopped there for a few minutes at 7 in the morning. We reached there at nine. "He slept only at 5.30 in the morning," explains an organiser importantly. "Isiliye uthne mein der ho gayi."

There was also the fact that we had stopped on the way at Raja Ki Mandi to inaugurate a cycle rally by some of his supporters. Ten minutes of shaking hands with their off-screen heroes and they were on their way. "They will now go to different parts of Agra," said Babbar, "to popularise my symbol -- the cycle."

The welcome at Lawyer's Colony was pleasant -- garlands, a quiet 10 minutes in a living room where everyone stared at everyone else vacantly while chai and mithai were served, fawning assurances of how Babbar would win by a spectacular majority, autograph sessions with the little ones and, of course, the mandatory shake of hands.

In Surya Nagar, described by its residents as the poshest area in Agra, the welcome was just as effusive. Only here, the residents were vocal about their doubts concerning Babbar's affiliation with the Samajwadi Party.

Raj Babbar "We would have supported you if you were not part of that man's (Mulayam Singh's) party. But now, you have put in a big dilemma…"

And, like he had been doing through most of literate Agra, Babbar had once again to defend his political stance. "See, Papaji, this is a man (Mulayam Singh) who has never caused me any harm. He nominated me to the Rajya Sabha, even though I never asked him to. He has always supported me. So, now, when he asked me to stand from Agra, how can I refuse him?

"But I have told him that I will not use the party name in my campaign. I don't need anyone to prop me. It is not that I need this, I am already an MP; I have one year and four months left. Look at me, Papaji, if you think that I am worthy of your vote, then only give it to me. "

"No, no, don't worry, we will support you only."

"It is just that the SP..."

"That man is not trustworthy. But we believe you. We believe you will do something good for Agra."

"If we have a doubt, it is better that we clear it now itself, isn't it…"

"It is good that you have not mentioned the party. It will do you a lot of good."

"Ever since you have come, the whole situation has changed. There is a new enthusiasm among the people."

"Don't worry, you might have had the support of the masses, but now, you also have the support of the classes."

"Since you are saying we should look at you as an individual, tell me some thing -- what will you do if the present situation takes place again. Who will you vote for if Vajpayee is set to lose by one vote?"

The room is quiet. Raj Babbar smiled, an effort to break the sudden tension. "How can I answer that?"

"Even then..."

"Arre, why are you troubling him with this now?"

"No, Papaji, I'll answer that. It is my issue, the one on which I am fighting these elections, that is important. Jo isme mere saath hain; main unke saath hoon."

After the Pushkar fair ends in Rajasthan, the tourists rush to Agra. To the Taj Mahal. For this is the time when the monument is at its most beautiful. Washed clean by the rains and bathed in the soft light of the full moon, the Taj is at its gloriously luminous best.

But in the city itself, the rains are looked on with fear. This is the time when the overburdened nallahs flood the city. Children drown in its waters every year -- two more children succumbed only a fortnight ago. Flooded streets and open manholes don't help matters much.

Even when it does not rain, the city has to cope with other kinds of menace. The crime rate has shot up alarmingly -- people are not safe either on the roads or in their houses. Daylight robberies and murders are now a common instance. People still shudder over the recent incident where doctors were murdered in nursing homes in broad daylight.

Raj Babbar Nadira Zaheer Babbar, Bombay's highly respected theatre personality, has brought her group, Ekjut, to Agra. They go around the city, staging street plays in different areas, doing more than 10 plays a day. "I have been going around with them and mixing with the common people," says Nadira. "I am overwhelmed with the tremendous support that is there for my husband. In fact, only a while ago, I was telling him, 'I think you are going to win. You have a lot of work head of you."

She has also been accompanying her husband to some elite areas. "I sit with the women, listen to their concerns. You see, we have not reached that stage yet where women can sit with men and discuss issues. They men think they know better about everything. If we want to keep the peace in the house, we women have to pretend we know lesser than them and kowtow to their egos."

As far as we observed, though, the only issues that women raised were that of garbage and bad roads.

"You know, we feel ashamed to give our address to anyone. It is always described as the house with the garbage dump outside."

"There is hardly any work at home so we spend our time by going to kitty parties. And the roads are so bad, it makes it so difficult."

Welcome to Agra -- India's symbol on the international tourist map of the world.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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