YEH HAI INDIA
PIC OF THE DAY
Gift your parents good health
You don't notice it the first time, or the second, or even the third. But as you travel through the assembly constituencies of Bihar and Kunda in Pratapgarh, you ultimately realise that the denizens have a body language peculiar to themselves.
Thus, stop any person, male or female, in the most deserted of places and ask, 'What kind of man is Raja Bhaiya?' Invariably, the person you address will glance sideways, or back over his shoulder, before answering. And as invariably, the answer will be words to the effect that he is a good, if misunderstood, man.
Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiya, a lawyer by education and king by inclination and upbringing, casts a long shadow in this part of the world. And no one will tell you anything about him -- except platitudes, and praise. As a cop on duty at a Raja Bhaiya election rally tells you, "People are sensible, they have a care for their health."
Raja Bhaiya, son of Raja Udai Pratap Singh of Pratapgarh, exploded on the political map of the district in eastern Uttar Pradesh in 1996.
Exploded is, come to think of it, the mot juste. As Raja Bhaiya's storm troopers fanned out across Kunda assembly constituency, which houses the palace of Bhadri, the political opposition vanished like dew at dawn.
Contesting as an independent, Raja Bhaiya polled 98,700 of the 120,000-odd votes registered in that election. The BJP's Shiv Narain Mishra was a distant second, with just over 17,000 votes.
More, the Raja Bhaiya writ ran in the adjoining reserved constituency of Bihar as well, with an independent candidate trouncing the Congress and Samajwadi Party nominees.
Remarkable results, when you consider that in highly politicised Uttar Pradesh, independents winning at the hustings is an aberration.
As you travel through Bihar and Kunda, you realise why. Every tree, every lamp post, every house, sports posters bearing the visage of Raja Bhaiya and his election symbol, the chair. There are some eight candidates in Bihar, 11 in Kunda -- and yet, barring Raja Bhaiya, not one of them has a poster, an election office, a representative.
Apparently, none of the people here have names, either. Because, if you ask someone about Raja Bhaiya and then ask them what their name is, they ask, "Why do you want to know?" and quickly sidle away.
A teashop owner and ex-military man gives me the answer to the puzzle. "In 1996, Raja Bhaiya's men went down tearing every other poster off. If it was stuck on the wall of a shop or a home, they grabbed hold of the inmates, asked them how they dared support someone else. If you protested and said you didn't know who put the poster up, they pushed you around and asked you why you hadn't torn it down, and then they made you stand in the middle of the road and yell Raja Bhaiya ki jai!"
That was the year fear spread like a cancer across the region. Fear that was fuelled by tales of shootings. Of Raja Bhaiya brazenly pushing policemen around. And, most importantly, of Dilerganj where a group of young Muslim boys muttered, sotto voce, against Raja Bhaiya's candidacy.
Two nights later, an armed group attacked the village in the dead of night. Five houses were torched. Three young women, attempting to run away from the flames, were chopped to death. The menfolk fled -- and till date, have not been heard from again. The village, once dominated by Muslims, has been 'purged' and today, is another Raja Bhaiya stronghold.
If all this catapulted Raja Bhaiya on to the political stage, then Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party contributed, unwittingly, to his further prominence. In October 1997, the BSP withdrew support from the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh, and it seemed as though interim elections were the only option. At which point, Raja Bhaiya stepped up, to pledge his support and that of eight other independents, thus rescuing Kalyan Singh from oblivion.
"We formed the Independents Legislature Party," Raja Bhaiya tells me, of that incident.
The saviour was rewarded by being named minister for programme implementation. He had nothing to do by way of official work -- but the 'minister' tag was a handy umbrella, shielding Raja Bhaiya from official action. Interestingly, on the same day that he took oath as minister, a non-bailable warrant was taken out against him, on a charge of kidnapping.
Nothing has been heard of that charge since. Nothing was heard of the police inquiries into the Dilerganj incident. Nothing, too, was heard of the CBI probe, launched in February 1998, into another incident wherein Raja Bhaiya reportedly slapped a policeman on duty, brandished a revolver and threatened mayhem.
Election campaigning was on at the time, and Raja Bhaiya had thrown his weight behind BJP candidate Ram Vilas Vedanti. Opposing the BJP was Ratna Singh of the Congress, scion of the Kalakankar royal house, distant cousin of Raja Bhaiya, daughter of the late Raja Dinesh Singh, Union minister in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet.
Ratna Singh had the backing of Congress strongman and local landlord Pramod Tiwari. On the day of filing nominations, her men clashed with Raja Bhaiya's bunch. A few days later, Ratna Singh's motorcade was attacked. Then came the incident involving the police.
Chief Election Commissioner M S Gill intervened and prohibited Raja Bhaiya from setting foot in Pratapgarh until the election had been completed. The minister promptly went to the Allahabad high court, and obtained a stay on Gill's edict.
Incredibly, Ratna Singh won against the odds, thanks in part to the reverence her father's name commands in the area, and in part to the fact that Pramod Tiwari could match Raja Bhaiya man for man, muscle for muscle.
The setback only made Raja Bhaiya more determined to consolidate his hold on the region -- and the means adopted was the setting up of 'Youth Brigades' in every village.
The simple expedient of procuring space -- no big deal for the family that, uncaring of the fact that zamindari has been abolished, continues to hold title to most of the land in the region -- and setting up youth clubs earned for Raja Bhaiya a captive army of young men.
On the plus side, these youngsters bustled about importantly, intervening in local disputes, interceding with Raja Bhaiya for help for the ill and the needy. On the other side, they served as Raja Bhaiya's local muscle, ensuring that his writ ran unchallenged or so help you god.
"We do good work," says the head of Bihar constituency's youth brigade. "I am only a humble servant of Raja Bhaiya, why do you want my name?" he asks an instant later (someone else, later, tells me he is named Babban Tiwari).
"We ensure that no dowry is asked or accepted, we take the ill to hospital and make sure they get treated," Tiwari says. "We are there for the people, whatever they need. If people are harassed by the police we let Raja Bhaiya know and he handles it."
Handles it, and how. When Jasbir Singh took over as district police chief, he decided to curb the power of the self-styled Raja who, by then, had become a local legend with his early morning horseback rides, his armed escorts, his goon squad, and his hair-trigger temper.
Raja Bhaiya hit back. Filing FIRs and such proved to be of no avail -- Raja Bhaiya, remember, was a minister. Finally, the cop gave up, and sought a transfer outside the area. His successors, mindful of that lesson, now allow Raja Bhaiya free rein.
Between 1998 and now, Raja Bhaiya has consolidated his hold on the region to an extent unimaginable unless you actually travel through the place. The land is his. A 100-acre lake in the region is, de facto, his -- the family exercises fishing rights over that body of water. The local cooperative bank is his. All of which effectively means that every single one of the locals is in his control.
And, to reinforce that control, Raja Bhaiya is systematically getting his men -- dummies all -- elected to every post that falls vacant. Thus, the municipal councillors are his men. As is the local MLC, a relative by the name of Akshay Pratap Singh aka Gopal Bhaiya.
"We are so popular," says Raja Bhaiya's chief election agent Dr Kailashnath Ojha, "that we are not even bothering about the opposition. Our only challenge is to make sure that Raja Bhaiya and the candidates he supports increase their winning margins this time.
"The only election we lost was for the Pratapgarh parliamentary seat, in 1998. Ratna Singh won that.
"But," Ojha continues, "it is only a matter of waiting till the next election. You wait and see -- next time, the Member of Parliament from here will be Raja Bhaiya's man!"
And why not? In a constituency that is only one of seven or eight to be declared hypersensitive in this volatile state, the 'chair' symbol is everywhere.
And on it, in regal state, exercising the unconstitutional but very real power of life and death, sits the daunting figure of Raja Bhaiya.