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February 25, 1998


Campaign Trail/ Savera R Someshwar

Amid slush and filth, campaigning goes on in full swing

As far as constituencies go, Bombay North Central is no different -- a nice mix of the rich and the poor, the upper middle class and the lower middle class, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, fisherfolk...

This constituency is a particular favourite with the Shiv Sena -- it houses the Sena Bhavan and encompasses Chief Minister Manohar Joshi's assembly segment.

It also happens to be the seat that the Republican Party of India-Congress-Samajwadi Party combine candidate, Dalit leader Ramdas Athavle, hopes to snatch from the Shiv Sena's sitting MP, Narayan Athawalay, the padayatra (walkabout) way. So we drive to Machimar Colony, where the padayatra is scheduled to begin.

Only to walk into confusion, and consternation. For there is no banner, ergo no identity -- a problem that is to be the identifying mark of the padayatra. A minion is dispatched with urgent, explicit instructions -- to bring a banner from the nearest office, and return it as soon as its purpose was served since the office concerned had only one banner.

Practically all of the small crowd that has gathered to welcome Athavle at Machimar Colony scrambles onto the makeshift stage to welcome the candidate. Only the women wait at a graceful distance, sitting comfortably on chairs until the padayatra begins.

"Koun jinknar, koun jinknar (who will win, who will win)?"

Pin-drop silence.

Responses, it seems, are only given to tried 'n' tested slogans.

"Ramdas Athavle aage bado… (go ahead, Ramdas Athavle)"

Ah! There is a toned-down "Hum tumhare saath hain (we are with you)" in reply.

Not a slogan crowd, this. Neither are the curious, who have gathered in the balconies to see the live tamasha, in a very wavy mood. No one responds to Athavale's waves and he puts forward one brave foot after another under the unsympathetically hot sun. He too, seems more interested in either whispering into his cellular phone or confabulating with certain, selected aides.

"Saheb, look at the amount of people in that building; you must wave to them."

"Saheb, saheb, here too; look at building number 13."

And Athavle waves, to blank, unresponsive faces peering down at him. Most of the residents don't even know who the candidate is; his only identification is the garland around his neck.

He stops to talk to what looks like a group of labourers -- they are dusty, and tanned black by the sun. He asks for their votes in Marathi; they smile uncomprehendingly. He moves on.

"Koun tha who (who was he)? Koi bada aadmi lagta hain (he seems like an important man)? They were from Mizarpur, had come to Bombay in search of work and were presently begging on the streets. They did not understand Marathi and had no idea that an elections is on.

Meanwhile, the slogans continue -- different people in different parts of the procession raising different one so the end result sound something like…

Hamara nishan

Sonia Gandhi

Congress ki nishani

Ugavtha surya

But the cacophony bring more people onto the balconies, so that pamphlets identifying the candidate's symbol can be distributed.

A little distance ahead, we can see a small path lined with people; it leads up to a small stage where the mandatory speech will be taking place. As we reach them, flower petals are showered on Athavle. Seems sponataneous; until you move ahead where RPI and Congress workers are prompting the people.

"That man, the one with the garland around his neck, he's the one on whom you have throw the flowers."

Not that the people know exactly why they are there. "We just came here because we were asked to. They gave this little paper pudis (packets) of flower petals and asked to shower it on the important leader who is going to come here. We don't know who he is, but they said they will let us know."

Athavle pauses before a group of eunuchs; the leader, dressed in bright yellow and smeared in turmeric, does his aarti with a burning coconut. "This is to bless him and remove the evil eye," says another eunuch. "It will make him victorious in these elections."

They are supporting him because he gave them a patch of land to stay on. They have built temporary houses of thatch and cardboard; but he has promised them they will have permanent houses after the election. When asked if the land had been made out in their names, they shrug their shoulders in despair.

"Behanu (sister)," says a eunuch, "at least he has given us a place to stay. No one has done even that much for us before. Nobody wants to give us a job, no one cares whether we live or die."

"You see," adds another eunuch, "we are the people who don't have any malice in our hearts towards anyone. Tomorrow, if his rival comes to us for blessings, we will bless him too. We are not against anyone."

In the background, Athavle was winding up his speech with an appeal to vote for secular forces who have the good of the nation at heart and who were the only people who would tackle their problems.

The next destination is a market, and the road (if you could call the narrow, dusty unpaved path that) winds under huge drinking water pipes and is bordered by slush and filth. As the processions moves on, a few women break away and race towards a small group gathered around a big slush-filled pond.

A dog was attacking something there. "Last week, too, a dog was eating something there. When we went to see, it was small child who had drowned in the filth. I hope it's not another one today."

"Arre," came a shout from the front, "why are you so quiet back there? Raise some slogans…"

"Sonia Gandhi aayee hai…"

Athavle passes a new one, "Vote for the rising sun (the RPI) symbol; else there will be darkness in your lives."

"Saab, that's a new one, they won't know how to respond… we'll use it later."

And we continue -- through lanes so narrow that two people walk abreast with difficulty. Houses here have come up haphazardly, there is no drainage system, the gutters overflow, children play in the slush and the filth. It is a place that an ordinary middle class man will think twice before entering.

Yet, it is a place where people live because they have no other options. Where leaders appeal for votes and then wipe out the foul memory of the place until the next election come round. For Athavle, it's back to the Tata Sumo, the next padayatra, his pristine white safari still clean. The gold watch, gold ring and gold chain still sparkle. The only evidence of the walkathon are his white shoes. They are dusty.

Campaign Trail

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