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February 25, 1998


Campaign Trail/ Prem Panicker

Trick knee, determined rivals and vengeful Pawar add to Kalmadi's uncertainty

Suresh Kalmadi has a problem.

His left knee is swelling up. And medication, supplemented by a tightly wound surgical bandage, are not helping much.

Come to think of it, the high-profile Kalmadi would perhaps have preferred swelling in both knees and maybe even his elbows to the situation that confronts him on February 25.

At 11 am on the day, I am at the Kodarinagar ground in Pune -- or rather 'at' is the wrong word, 'near' would be nearer the mark. All approaches to the ground have been sealed off by armed policemen. From where I stand, I can see bulldozers and excavaters working frantically to level the vast open space.

City Congress chief Mohan Joshi, personally supervising the arrangements, bustles up to the police checkpost to organise god knows what. ''We are making sure that today's event is the biggest thing that Pune has ever seen!"

The event referred to is the rally, at 4.30 pm on Wednesday, by Sonia Gandhi on behalf of Congress candidate Vittal Tuphe. And the party is pulling out all the stops. Where ever you go in Pune, there are signs saying 'This way to Sonia rally'. At every important corner of the city, there are signs saying 'Special buses courtesy the Pune Municipal Corporation will ply to the venue.'

"The ground can accommodate about five lakh people and we expect a houseful show," Joshi tells me. "This will be the turning point in the campaign here."

A tour of the constituency suggests that Joshi could be spot on. For Suresh Kalmadi, the sitting MP and former railway minister who in 1996 won the seat with 50.6% of the votes polled, seems to be in serious trouble.

Money is not a problem -- the Kalmadi campaign, orchestrated out of his home, Kalmadi House, in the heart of the city, is obviously cash-rich. Banners, posters, vehicular support, you name it and it's there, in your face, wherever you turn.

Nonperformance, the Achilles's heel of incumbents, is not much of a problem either. For whoever I speak to, from the owner of a local tea shop who greets my announcement that I am a journalist with an effusive "Congratulations," to Divya, the almost 20 collegian checking out Sidney Sheldon's latest at a roadside bookshop, to the Wagle couple who hitch a ride in my hired cab from Hadapsar, all agree that Kalmadi has during his tours as central minister done much to enhance the city's position on the rail map of India ''Aadmi hai achcha,'' says Wagle, "Lekin..."

Wherever you go, whoever you speak to, that one word remains, enjoined to the Kalmadi name like a diabolical twin, Lekin...

At 8 pm on the 24th, Sharad Pawar, addressing a rally in the Swargate area, spells out that Lekin... for an appreciative audience.

"What kind of man is this Kalmadi?" Pawar thunders, in a direct attack at his erstwhile protege. "He quit the Congress, saying it was beneath his dignity to bug Sitaram Kesri for a ticket. And what does he do then? He goes to Thackeray, literally begging for support. Thackeray makes him sign a letter, promising to be faithful. And having made Kalmadi his bonded slave, Thackeray ridicules him, calls him 'a beggar in a Mercedes Benz.' And this man can still show his face before you? He can talk of dignity? If he had some self-respect, he would have rejected the BJP-Sena support when Thackeray called him names." It is a shrewd blow aimed well below Kalmadi's belt for in this constituency, among the voters, Thackeray's barb is coming back to haunt Kalmadi. It's like the saying goes -- With friends like these...

But the real Achilles heel for Kalmadi lies in his own attempt to be all things to all people. Thus, the BJP-Sena-backed Independent, whose symbol is the clock, talks secular when he finds himself in Christian or Muslim areas and toes the BJP-Sena line in areas dominated by the majority community.

"I heard three speeches by Kalmadi in two days," says computer professional Biju Thomas, "and each time, his line was different." Such comments, from the city's professional segment, spell real danger for Kalmadi -- simply because it is the city dweller on whom the candidate is banking for support; in the hinterlands of Pune, his rivals are ahead of him in the popularity stakes.

If his ideological flip-flops are confusing voters, it is also disenchanting a section of the BJP cadre. A city-level party official sipping a cup of tea while Kalmadi addresses a streetcorner rally in the city on Tuesday afternoon says, ''He shouldn't have criticised the Babri demolition, our people don't like that. It is difficult for us to motivate them into working for him!"

Added to which, there is an undercurrent of resentment that the party choose to support a Congress rebel, rather than one of their own. Anna Joshi, who on the BJP symbol won the seat in 1991, rebelled when the BJP announced its support to Kalmadi. He only made things worse by later recanting and joining Kalmadi's bandwagon.

The voter is bewildered. The Sena is confused by Thackeray's insulting references to the candidate he professes support for. And the BJP cadres are less than enthusiastic. Taken with his trick knee, that seems to be sufficient baggage for Kalmadi to handle.

Only there is more. In the person of Avinash Dharmadhikari, Independent candidate with an arrow for a symbol. The former government employee who retired prematurely as aide to Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, is a product of the Gyan Pramodhini, an educational institution with an RSS-like ideology.

The 38-year-old with a squeaky clean image has been setting a punishing pace. Minus vehicles and suchlike paraphernalia, Dharmadikari's modus operandi is the padayatra. And as he walks down Bajirao Road on Tuesday afternoon, he is greeted by the locals as one of their own.

"People like him should enter politics," says Anant Dhumal of the rather grandiosely titled Ramnath Paan Merchants, a wayside pan stall. "We are sick of career politicians and their kokla (empty) promises, it is time to vote for someone new."

What is interesting though is Dharmadhikari's support cast. Kamlakar Mhaskar, the most prominent member of his entourage, is a card-carrying RSS member. Another is Kaalchakra Samachar Trust chief Vineet Narain, credited with first exposing the hawala scandal.

"Dharmadhikari may not win this time," admits Narain. "But his support base is growing and he is young. The next time round, he should be the hot candidate here."

And yes, admits Narain, the hardcore RSS cadres are backing Dharmadhikari -- never mind that Kalmadi has BJP support. Why? "The RSS is about an ideology -- and what ideology has Kalmadi got?"

Dharmadhikari, for his part, admits to mixed feelings. "It is very tiring. We don't have money for cars and things, so we walk, 30, 35 kms a day, addressing dozens of street corner meetings. But it is the response that makes it all worthwhile."

And your chances? "The RSS is with me. The slumdwellers are with me. A section of the Sena and BJP is also with me. Yes, I will win here," he says, like he is telling me the time of the day.

That last may be debatable, but there is no denying that Dharmadhikari is splitting the loyalties and votes of the RSS-BJP cadres.

Is Kalmadi sure of his backing? "Of course. The strength of the BJP-Sena is its disciplined cadre and that is what is making my campaign a huge success." But what of the Thackeray barb? "No comment, I think too much is being made of it. Balasaheb openly announced his support for me and that is that," says Kalmadi wincing a bit as an aide fiddles with the bandage on his knee.

Kalmadi believes his track record -- "What have Tuphe and Dharmadhikari ever done for Pune? " -- his glitzy campaign festooned with sports stars and the climactic punch of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee rally on Thursday, February 26, will swing the election firmly into his corner. "Last time I polled over fifty per cent of the votes, this time I am going to do even better thanks to the BJP-Sena backing," he insists.

Congress candidate Vittal Tuphe uses the same figures -- to argue against the rival. After a brisk colloquy with an aide, Tuphe says, "Kalmadi got around 50% votes in 1996. But that was with the backing of Sharad Pawarji and the Congress. In that election, the BJP with Sena support only got 33 per cent votes. So how does Kalmadi think he is going to win?" Tuphe demands to know.

The Congress candidate, despite the handicap of having recently crossed over from the Janata Dal, appears to have his party's total backing. "Tupheji is a very good man, very clean, totally uncorrupt," says Mohan Joshi. "We all welcomed him as the candidate, he is the best choice to defeat Kalmadi.''

An aide of Joshi says that besides the full backing of the party machinery, Tuphe's greatest asset is the flat-out effort by Sharad Pawar in his favour.

"Pawarji has taken Kalmadi's defection as a personal insult," says the aide. "In fact the whole party here feels that way. We were the ones who worked hard to help him win last time, and now he has gone over to the Sena-BJP. For this we will not forgive him."

Pawar seems hellbent on teaching Kalmadi a lesson. He stormed into Pune on Thursday afternoon and promptly hit the stump, addressing rallies at Hadapsar and Swargate, besides a series of impromptu street-corner meetings. His speech is hard-hitting and 'a beggar in a Mercedes Benz' is his leitmotif.

Hardhitting though the Pawar blitz on Tuesday was, Mohan Joshi believes it will be the Kedarinagar rally that will finally break Kalmadi's back.

"Everyone is going to be there," Joshi exults. "Pawarji, Ranjit Deshmukh, Prakash Ambedkar, R S Gavai, and of course, Soniaji. And," adds the city Congress chief, lowering his voice I can't quite figure why, "Pawarsaab told me Priyanka will also be there."

Campaign Trail

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