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February 26, 1998


Campaign Trail/Archana Masih

There's a new Scindia in town!

Yashodhara Raje's car stops midway on the Gwalior-Shivpuri road. Lackadaisical BJP workers, sauntering on the highway, spring into action and flock to her window, as the youngest of the Scindias takes stock of the day's programme -- 15 villages in the Pohri Vidhan Sabha area.

Her head covered under a simple sari, a string of pearls, diamond ear-rings, gold anklets -- Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia's petite daughter is once again spearheading her mother's campaign in the Guna parliamentary constituency.

"I have not come here to ask you for votes for the Rajmata," she tells the people of Karsena village. "But to urge you to go to the polling booth on 28th. Things will only improve if you vote."

Yashodhara Raje, who returned to India last year after spending 18 years in the US, has been her mother's campaign manager for the last two elections. After having spent her days in America as a mother and social worker, she has been regularly seen in Guna since 1989, assisting her mother with the constituency.

Though she could well have been the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate this year, that was not to be. Some cite bureaucratic glitches -- she did not fulfil the 180 days criteria, having become an Indian citizen once again only on December 23 -- others mention palace intrigue under their breath. Yashodhara Raje openly refers to herself as the constituency's ''dummy candidate.''

"Amma is much better now. I was in Delhi yesterday, she should be well enough to make it for the swearing-in," she says. The Rajmata, who will be 80 this year, took ill before the campaign began and is being treated for a heart condition at a Delhi hospital.

Hobbled by a soar throat, which she had painstakingly nursed during her stopover at the Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior, Yashodhara Raje is back in action. "I have a bad throat, if you talk amongst yourselves, you won't be able to hear me," she tells her audiences at almost every halt.

There are some who are concerned about her mother's health. Others who complain about the condition of the roads, the water supply. "We have to walk miles for water," says Deviki with her pallu pulled up to her nose. And some who refuse to reveal who they would vote for -- not even to a Scindia.

"No, I will decide on polling day," one old man tells her firmly.

Although diffused, the aura about Yashodhara Raje can hardly be ignored. Villagers flock to see her, touch her, talk to her. Many touch her feet, give her coconuts, even money which she gives to a little girl who had just lost her father. "You go home right away. And give it to your mother. This is a lot of money," she tells the little girl.

Apart from the jewelley and slogans like 'Shrimant Yashodhara Raje' (Shrimant = literally rich by birth), the social worker and polo freak bears no imperial qualms. She drinks every glass of water offered to her, chats with party workers sitting behind her car and embraces frail women. "You can call me Yasho," she tells a visiting journalist.

"The villagers are so ignorant at times that they think I am the Rajmata," she says, burying her nose in a napkin as the car travels through another cloud of dust. "The other day I was at this meeting where the crowds grew overenthusiastic. Their slogans went --'Mother of India, Rajmata; Daughter of India, Yashodhara Raje Scindia."

Yashodhara Raje's mother has won the Guna seat five times while her only brother Madhavrao has won it thrice. Her detractors in the Congress camp accuse the Rajmata of not exploiting her position for the progress of Guna.

"Vijaya Raje has been in Parliament for years, but has she ever uttered a word for its progress? No!" declares Congress candidate Devendra Singh's legal adviser A K Lohati.

Yashodhara Raje has her mother's defence ready for villagers in Amma's constituency. On a platform under a shady tree in Bhagangarh in the Pohri Vidhan Sabha segment, she tells people that her mother has no need to pocket the Rs 10 million MP's constituency development fund.

"Unless we don't have our own government at the Centre, our own MLAs in the constituency, how can we bring progress to our people? Last time when we had just about spread our files and kept our pens on the table. The Congress made us clear the table again," she thunders.

The crowd loves every moment of it. "Bharat mata ki jai; Sita mata ki jai; Rajmata ki jai," her supporters chant.

The attack continues: "Bailgaadi ka ek chakka jo kichad mein phas gaya hain, us se ab nikalna hai aur gaadi age badani hai -- yeh bailgaadi BJP hai (The bullock cart wheel that remains stuck in the mud has to be extricated -- the cart has to move again and that cart is the BJP)." Water, education, poverty, roads -- the villagers's woes are all temporarily forgotten and the crowd claps again. But there are sombre moments ahead.

The Rajmata's daughter meets an old BJP worker in the next village who recently lost his 22-year-old son. Fallen on hard days after the death of the only earning member of his family, the mourning father cries, "All these workers who are with you were in the Congress before -- so don't forget your old party workers."

Once outside his hut, Yashodhara Raje quickly summons an aide and asks him to send the grieving family some money first thing the next morning.

The small convoy of vehicles resumes its bumpy ride. "See those pillars," she points out in the quiet rocky countryside. "Those are some remaining symbols where sati was committed years ago."

The crowds, her speeches, the undulating roads in Pohri have thrown her schedule out of gear. It is three in the afternoon and there are ten villages ahead.

Many people in Guna are still getting used to her presence and often confuse her with the Rajmata or her elder sister Vasundhara Raje, the BJP MP from neighbouring Jhalawar in Rajasthan.

But as her car once again leaves the Agra-Bombay Highway for another small village, it is evident that Guna -- the longheld Scindia constituency is already preparing itself for a change of guard -- for yet another younger, dynamic Scindia.

Campaign Trail

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