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September 27, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Archana Masih

Doughty Karan Singh hopes to put it across to PM in Lucknow

I have shattered the myth of invincibility that surrounded Atal Bihari," says Dr Karan Singh, adjusting the stack of newspapers at the back of his Ambassador car. The standard Indian politician's vehicle with an 'Election Pass' crisscrossed through the old and new parts of Lucknow city on a sultry Sunday morning. Word in Lucknow was that Karan Singh was compelled to give up fancy cars and ornate chairs to offer an element of proximity with his electorate.

"I have been with Saheb for the last two days, he was travelling in a different car before," says Sohan Lal, the mono-Sardar driver from Ropar, Punjab, who had brought his car from Delhi for Dr Singh's campaign. His second stint at electioneering after having driven security personnel in J&K, Lal said he was at ease with his relatively easier job this time.

Strictly adhering to his written schedule for the day, the Congress candidate was a punctual campaigner: 9 am at the gurdwara, 10.30 am at Justice Srivastava's home; then to the Congress office at Nehru Bhavan on Mall Avenue.

"He was meant to meet the Youth Congress workers. He is here, but the boys haven't shown up yet," said a dismayed Congress worker. The irritated man further explains how he had reached several venues in time, only to find workers still propping up the stage!

A fresh entrant in Lucknow's electoral race, Karan Singh is the strongest candidate against Atal Bihari Vajpayee so far. More so, in the light of the deplorable Congress position in 1996 and 1998, when party nominees were routed disgracefully. Mulayam Singh too pitted glamorous candidates against Vajpayee in 1996 and 1998: Muzzaffar Ali lost by 219,222 votes last year and Raj Babbar by 118,671 votes in 1996.

The Congress, which drew a blank in UP in 1998, last won the constituency in 1984 when Shiela Kaul repeated her 1980 performance, helped in no little way by the Rajiv whirlwind that had snuffed out the Opposition.

That is not a detail that deters Karan Singh, however, who seems sure of the strength of his candidature. "For the first time somebody has come who can match Vajpayee. I think my track record is as good, if not better than anybody else's in India," he says emphatically.

Hopping briskly between party offices and house visits, Karan Singh proves a genteel campaigner. Walking to the ground outside, he gives an encouraging pat to the leader of a cycle rally, a patient ear to whoever approached him and meeting workers and locals in Lucknow's rather rundown Carlton Hotel.

Room 22 in the sprawling hotel is his home for the moment. The Congress candidate has also said repeatedly that once voted in he would spend a great deal of time in the city. The 90-year-old building -- now owned by a certain Ajit Singh who occupies a part of the first floor -- has seven of its rooms on the ground floor occupied by the Congressman's entourage.

Taking up residence in # 27 is son-in-law Dhyanendra Chouhan, who along with wife Jyotsna -- a former lecturer at Delhi's Lady Sriram college -- is actively involved in the campaign.

"I was staying in someone's else's house, that's why I asked you not to call me there. It might inconvenience the family," she softly tells a worker. "But did you see your picture in the paper yesterday?" Jyotsna strikes a pleasant air of camaraderie and moves into the crowd of women discussing the day's schedule.

The shady space outside the ground floor corridor is taken up by throngs of party workers. Queued outside # 22 is a wide array of people -- MLAs, former ministers, favour-seekers, even ordinary folks like the lady in a soiled green sari who refused to give her name but patiently stood for a hearing from the man inside who became regent of Jammu and Kashmir at 18. "I need some medicines," she said clutching the thin green plastic bag, and was assured of an audience with Karan Singh staffer Ajit Pratap Singh.

"This hotel is quite a khadahar (ruin)," laughs the energetic young boy who had specially been summoned for help during electioneering. Quick with words, he relates last night's incident when a drunkard strayed into the hotel and walked right into Karan Singh's room.

The scion of the erstwhile kingdom of J&K and health minister in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet, Karan Singh is elated by the response in Lucknow. "I have met thousands of people, they are now ready for a change, in fact they are eager for a change," smiles Singh who has served as a Union minister at different times for 11 years.

A scholar with a mastery over the Vedanta, he has also served as ambassador to the US and now stresses on the need for stability and the development of Lucknow.

His long political career and erudite image is being regarded as a fitting reply to Vajpayee's popularity. "I don't think there is anybody in India -- if I may say so -- who has the sort of experience and exposure in public, political and intellectual life," says the Congress candidate about himself.

The general perception in the city is that Vajpayee is going to see a reduced margin in this election. Moreover, party workers's dissatisfaction with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh has driven some away from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress is also hopeful that disillusioned with Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Muslims are now returning to its fold. And if the presence of Muslims at the Carlton is any indicator, the party has reason to be positive.

A most talked about local grouse is the resentment among Lucknow's auto-rickshaw drivers. Peeved with the government for stopping their movement on all routes except one, the rickshaw lobby is believed to have shunned the BJP. "They are now sporting Congress flags," says a local at the state BSP HQ.

Aware of the perceived dent in the BJP's popularity, Karan Singh and the Congress are hopeful about their chances. Singh, for his part, has great faith in his image as a thinker-politician and draws parallels with Sri Aurobindo, Nehru and Maulana Azad. He stresses he has returned to electoral politics to pursue politics with a value orientation.

"If you divorce politics from the intellect you give up the struggle for good governance," thunders Singh. "I do not agree with the wholesale condemnation of politics and politicians."

He further dismisses all allegations of being a party-hopper, and traces a long association with the Congress party: he is known to have first met Indira Gandhi when Rajiv was 5, and also attended the Rajiv-Sonia wedding.

"The Congress broke up from time to time, but I have never been a member of any party but the Congress. So when I was given this present challenge I accepted it -- I have come home in triumph," he adds dramatically. Karan Singh resigned from the Rajya Sabha because he was elected with the National Conference's support, before joining the Congress in July.

One of the many assisting him is Devi Dutt. On Singh's personal staff for the last 20 years, Dutt is a coordinator between him and the people. "Dr Singh is very gentle, that is what endears him to others," he says politely and goes on to reveal his boss's campaign schedule. The day begins at 0900 hours, Karan Singh returns to the hotel in the afternoon if time permits and then again hits the road at 1430, 1500. The last two days were spent with his sambdi (son's father-in-law) Madhavrao Scindia, and Rajesh Khanna was to be in town later on in the evening.

A few metres away from the safari suit-clad Dutt were a band of Congress workers. Under a tree with garlands wrapped on its bark, they sat rehearsing slogans for the rest of the day. However, the loudspeaker sporting jeep following Karan Singh's car was scarcely impressive. "Karr Singh ko vote dijiye, Karr Singh, Kaar Singh," droned an enthused voice as the convoy passed the state BJP HQ opposite the Vidhan Sabha.

With just a few days left before the end of the campaign, Karan Singh says he has thoroughly enjoyed it and is undaunted by his opponent's formidable reputation. "I have never been a run-of-the mill politician. I am an exception," says the man taking on the prime minister. "I am quite ready for the battle."

On the next street another political spectacle is unveiling -- draped in BJP-coloured saris a group of women are set for apadyatra. "Jitengey jitengey Atal Bihari jitengey... " Their slogans rent the air as they started their walk ignoring the scorching sun overhead. The battle for Lucknow has never been better.

The Rediff Election Specials

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