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September 29, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Captain Satish Sharma

The Gandhi family retainer fights to redeem Rae Bareili

Archana Masih in Rae Bareili

Dusty. Hot. Haphazard. Rae Bareili is like any other Indian small-town. Nothing about Feroze and Indira Gandhi's constituency reflects its high profile political history. Except, maybe, structures like the Feroze Gandhi College, Sanjay Bhavan etc... Hangers-on at the local Samajwadi Party office laugh at the party's corroded organizational base -- which hasn't even found time to find a district president in the last 7, 8 months.

Some 20 kilometres away in Gangagunj, Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit -- also a Rae Bareili native -- is accepting the mistakes made by her party to a few hundred people assembled under a confluence of shady neem trees: "I know we had become weak for some time, but now Sonia Gandhi has firmly picked up the Congress tiranga to lead it into glory."

The Congress last tasted glory in Rae Bareili when Shiela Kaul won the seat in 1991. Subsequently, both her son and daughter were defeated in 1996 and 1998 respectively. Deepa Kaul even lost her deposit last year.

Sonia Gandhi nominee and Rajiv Gandhi pal Captain Satish Sharma, however, is seemingly confident. "I am positive of a victory," he says turning back from the front seat of his car, "I wouldn't come here if I felt otherwise."

Speeding on the smooth Lucknow-Allahabad highway, the former Indian Airline pilot and Union minister proudly calls himself the 'Gandhi Family nominee.' And believes that the presence of Sonia and Priyanka Vadra will rekindle the people's emotional ties with the family and revert the seat to the Congress.

Incidentally, Sharma is the first non-Gandhi-Nehru family member to be fielded by the party since Indira Gandhi first contested from here in 1967. And he has attempted to use this to boost his image in every way. Comparing himself to the Ramayan's Bharat, he has been telling people here that he is present in their midst with Rajiv's khaandan and will move away once Priyanka and Rahul decide to take the plunge.

With Sonia and Priyanka, the people now believe that their good old days are back again, quips Sharma, indicating how his campaign strategy heavily depends on the family name. Even the poster in the city asks for votes so that 'Sharma can complete the unfulfilled dreams of Indira Gandhi'.

His temporary base at the sprawling residence of former MLA Sunita Chauhan in Rae Bareili's Civil Lines is reminiscent of a crowd outside a movie hall. The driveway is taken up by numerous vehicles; every other vantage point on the premises is occupied by waiting men sporting 'Satish Sharma badges'; and a section of the verandah, by women -- who break into a frenzy at the appearance of Sharma's daughter Sarika.

In a tight braid and salwar-kurta, she is ready to leave for a padyatra in some villages between Maharajganj and Samrauta. "She read in the newspaper that BJP candidate Arun Nehru's daughter was here, so she told me she too was coming to help me," her father would add later. On the fact the daughters were helping their father -- whether it was Jyotsna for Dr Karan Singh, Radhika for Arun Nehru and Sarika for him -- he smiles and says: "After all, aren't all daughters their papa's girls?"

He also clarifies that his present residence is largely taken over by hangers-on -- than actual party workers. "They don't have any business to be there, but you can't prevent them either," he explains.

Sharma, who first entered politics as a Rajya Sabha member and came under fiery criticism as petroleum minister, reportedly did not find it easy in Rae Bareili, in spite of Sonia Gandhi's approval. Congress MLA Akhilesh Singh, a regional satrap from the influential Thakur community, was miffed on being denied a ticket in the absence of a Gandhi family candidate. Ashok Singh had won the seat for the BJP in the last two elections and recently switched to the Congress.

Currently, both Akhilesh and Ashok Singh are showing solidarity with the Congress nominee, and both spoke in a rousing manner for Sharma from the Gangaganj dais. "I spurned the BJP because they were not interested in the developed of Rae Bareili," said the outgoing MP to thunderous applause.

Some 85 kilometres from the state capital, and held by India's premier political family for most of its last 32 years, Rae Bareili, according to government figures, is one of the poorest districts in the country. Roads, jobs, irrigation... all remain a distant reality for many. "There are still many villages where people walk 2, 3 km to fetch water," says a local. "Apart from the Lucknow-Allahabad highway, there are no roads to speak of in this area," says another.

Sharma agrees with the peoples' grouses in totality and assures them that "come what may, nothing could stop development taking place in Rae Bareili if I am voted to power." Says Sharma: "Development is the only complaint of the people here. Since I am known as the Vikas Purush of this region, people have great faith in me."

Dismissing all allegation of his promises being hollow, he has a ready example to prove his doer image. "Some journalists just told me the other day that I am a good brand name for the party."

A point, of course, his detractors refuse to swallow. "Satish Sharma has hardly visited Rae Bareili in the past in spite of having two of the Vidhan Sabha segments in this district in Amethi," says district BSP general secretary and campaign convener Babadin Chowdhary.

The BSP has fielded fresher Anand Prakash Lodhi and hope to cash in on the 125,000 Lodh voters who had voted for the BJP in previous elections. The 100,000 Maurya voters who supported Ashok Kumar Maurya -- who polled over 180,000 votes -- in 1996 is also expected to fall in its kitty. The party is also banking on the 50,000 migrant Lodhi labourers working in Punjab, who have stayed back due to the monsoon.

The Samajwadi Party, which lost by a 6.21 per cent margin last year, has fielded Gajadhar Singh, a Thakur. Apart from its committed votebank of 180,000 Yadavs, the party also expects the Thakur vote since Singh is the only Thakur in the fray.

The party members here refuse to accept the widely believed contention of an eroding Muslim support base and expresses complete faith in the 80,000 Muslim voters. "The BJP only won Rae Bareili in the last two election due the personal influence of Ashok Singh," says SP spokesperson O P Yadav, "The party per se has no prominence here. As for the Congress it has no organisational base. Satish Sharma's Amethi Petrol Congress is working for him here."

However, the SP and BSP maintain that both Arun Nehru and Sharma are outsiders in Rae Bareili and the voters are not going to be swayed by their influence.

Sharma , meanwhile, says he and the Congress are working hard and considers Arun Nehru -- whom he has often passed on the Rae Bareili road during campaigning -- as his only real opponent in the fray. Neither is he daunted by his failure at the hustings last year in neighbouring Amethi. "I always take my campaign seriously," he clarifies and goes on to explain how his defeat was an outcome of poll irregularities. "When I went to complain to the district magistrate, my supporters were lathi-charged," he claims.

Known metaphorically and literally as a high-flier, Sharma, who recently renewed his flying licence, also bears the stigma of being arrogant and alienated from his people. A criticism that he refutes in totality. "I believe in the Rajiv Gandhi style of politics -- which is humility -- and I am not arrogant! In fact Arun Nehru is!"

Whatever be the reason, Sharma is thronged by supporters everywhere. And two-three kurta-clad workers guard him zealously. As his vehicle moves out after addressing a public meeting, enthusiastic supporters jostle with each other to reach through the open window and touch him. A party worker in the back seat reveals that Sharma covered as many as 30 villages yesterday and has a busy day tomorrow with Priyanka's much-touted visit to the constituency.

"Rae Bareili is the only constituency that she is doing besides Amethi." The ring of pride in Sharma's voice cannot be missed as he goes on to explain how the 27-year-old Vadra has left the BJP's Amethi nominee, Sanjay Singh, in dismay. "If she had campaigned elsewhere, there wouldn't be any stopping in the Congress," he adds.

Sharma, on the other hand, is sure the Congress's fortunes have seen a sea-change in the last two phases of the election. Giving his assessment of the situation in UP, he says the Samajwadi Party is going to be routed, and the BSP's base is dissipating. That the Kurmis, who had never voted for the Congress since 1952, is also turning to them. That the next two years will see the return of the two-party system at the Centre.... "All these changes are very very exciting," chuckles Sharma.

Past the lush green rice fields and the tree-lined road -- the convoy speeds on to the next sabha. The captain -- who does not begin his day without a half-hour jog -- is all set to take on another fraction of the over 1.1 million electorate in the constituency. "Jaat pe na paat mar, mohar lagana haath pey." Captain Satish Sharma -- the family nominee -- lifts both his hands as he once again takes recourse in a slogan perfected in the Indira-Rajiv era of politics.

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