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February 27, 1998


Campaign Trail/Tushar Gandhi

'If the BJP comes to power, they will tear the country apart'

Suparn Verma in Bombay

Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi' is the calling card of the Samajwadi Party candidate for the Bombay North West seat. The constituency comprises the western suburbs of Bombay, an area that is home to most of Bollywood's top stars.

It is the last day of campaigning (February 26) with two hours left before campaigning ends at 1700 hours, for one last try to swing public opinion his way. But Tushar Gandhi has already wrapped up his campaign by early afternoon. "I planned it that way," he says by way of explanation as he disappears into his bedroom to change into his second starched white khadi kurta. "He changes into three new kurtas every day, the last one being worn at night," says Tushar's wife.

Tushar's modest middle class apartment is cluttered with heaps of banners, and caps, and pamphlets. "I have done most of my campaigning on foot," he says," This morning was my last public meeting, and right now there is a party meeting. Either, I speak at the meetings or I just walk and meet people. I have found a lot of acceptance. There have been some disgruntled voters who complain about their legislator or corporator, but they realise that this is my first shot at entering Parliament."

After attending to a phone call, he asks me to follow him. The campaign jeep parked outside can be termed a substitute for a campaign rath, with a huge cutout of Tushar Gandhi's face on the bonnet, and the entire roof of the jeep surrounded by his name, the party symbol, and his face. The insides of the jeep are no better -- pamphlets in Urdu and Tushar Gandhi paper caps fill the backseat of the jeep.

The traffic is heavy. People on the road are distracted by the vehicle, peeping inside, smiling, pointing out, or just walking away. For a first-time candidate, Tushar appears calm and collected about the outcome of the election. Why does he think he will win?

"My youth will gain me acceptance and my ancestry is my USP. I don't say that I'm Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of the Mahatma Gandhi, but I don't hide it either. I think I stand a fair chance of winning. A A Khan (Janata Dal) will get only the Muslim votes while Madhukar Sarpotdar (Shiv Sena) is hated by the people for his roles in the (Dec 1992-Jan 1993) riots. All this will work for me. I will get all the negative votes. I think I should win even if by a small margin. I am also supported by three parties (the Congress and Republican Party of India, besides SP), and each of these parties have their loyalists."

He gazes out at the sea of pedestrians and the rows of shops that pass us by. In spite of the Mahatma's legacy, most of his descendants stayed away from politics. In 1989, Tushar's uncle, Rajmohan Gandhi, contested the Amethi seat against Rajiv Gandhi but was defeated. How come Tushar did not join the Congress, which is identified with the Mahatma?

"My decision to join the Samajwadi Party instead of the Congress was a conscious one. The Samajwadi Party works at the grassroot level of India. Its leadership is accessible to all the party workers and it is a small party that is coming up. By joining them, I can also grow with the party."

While Tushar has a logical reason for winning, why would people vote for him? "I haven't promised my voters anything. All these years, the politicians have been making promises and now the voters know that they can't trust them. There are lots of problems in my area that need to be looked after: housing is a major issue right from the slum-dwellers up to the upper middle class; drinking water is not available everywhere; road infrastructure needs to be tended to, there is the issue of the fishermen..."

But even the Bharatiya Janata Party's MP from Bombay North, Ram Naik, is working for the fishermen... "I know that," he replies testily, "but then these problems don't change. We all have to deal with the same problems since it is the same city. It's just that we have to solve them."

Does he have any reservations about Sonia's entry into politics? "Why not Sonia? Her introduction is being done before the election, so the people have the time to make up their minds. So why not Sonia?" he asks.

What really angers Tushar is the BJP. He starts by talking about the current Uttar Pradesh fiasco. "The whole situation in UP is really sad," he declares, "Mulayam Singh Yadav was dismissed the same way Kalyan Singh was, but his case is still pending in court while Kalyan Singh's trial came up in two days."

Tushar is fearful about a BJP government. "If the BJP comes to power, they will tear the country apart. The BJP is the weakest link in the Sangh Parivar. If the Vishwa Hindu Parishad decides to carry out the other 265 demolitions it has on its list, the BJP will simply not be able to stop it. Uma Bharati on television recently said the BJP will deal with unemployment and poverty after they have dealt with Ayodhya, Varanasi, and Mathura. Vajpayee is just a front, he is a mohra (pawn) of the BJP," he warns, and then settles into silence for a while.

Isn't Sonia also a front? Isn't she being used because the Congress has no leader? Otherwise why aren't the Congress projecting a prime ministerial candidate?

"Sonia is not a front, she is a symbol. And at least Sonia has a hold over the Congress, Vajpayee can't even handle his own party people," he says, "And we are not projecting anyone because let us wait and see first who comes to power, then we will decide."

The jeep turns into a chawl lane in Andheri, Tushar Gandhi gets out, and enters the meeting area. The place is the inside compound of a building, Hawa Mahal, with the office of municipal corporator turned Samajwadi Party worker Ismail Makani, situated inside. The place is filled with red chairs, one section of the seating area is full of Muslim women, while the other section is for the men.

While the women are on time, having almost filled up their section, the men continue to trickle in. As Tushar sits down on his designated place behind the table, a mike is placed in front of him. Two tablecloths are hurriedly laid on the table. A small titter goes through the men behind the table: one tablecloth has a tiger on it, the other a lotus (symbols of the Shiv Sena and BJP respectively).

"Arre bhai, yeh kya hai?" (What's this?) asks an elderly party worker, laughing.

As the crowd fills up the place, Tushar and Makani go into a huddle inside the latter's office. Word goes out that Raj Babbar is about to join this party workers meeting, and a sense of expectancy hangs in the air.

The clock ticks. A worker complains, "Char baj gaye, teen baje se hum yahan baithen hain" (It is four o'clock, we have been sitting here since three). As if on cue, Tushar Gandhi steps out towards the table, joining his hands over his head. A small cheer starts and dies out. An announcer gets up and starts speaking in chaste Urdu.

He tells them that A A Khan might be a member of their community, but he is going to lose. A vote for Khan will be a waste and help the Shiv Sena win. Instead of voting for Khan, he says, they might as well as vote for the Sena, so that way they can then always catch Sarpotdar for their work.

Tushar Gandhi, he says, is a winner. He is here to help them, and if they vote for him, they can be sure that the laws that might be changed against them will be stopped by Tushar because they will have their man inside Parliament.

No one asks the speaker what laws he is talking about. They all nod their head understandingly, as though they have just been told about a great conspiracy.

The speaker then starts telling them that they have always supported Makani. Today, he declares, Makani, who has never asked them for anything, who has never told them whom to vote for, will tell them who they must vote for.

And just as Makani comes to the mike, the lights go off. After some time, Makani and company decide to wait for Raj Babbar. The announcer then does a rerun of every sentence he had made earlier. As he drones on, Raj Babbar arrives.

The whole bunch of speakers seated at the table retreats once again into Makani's office, along with Babbar. Luckily for the crowd, they come out quickly.

This time, Makani takes the mike, and repeats everything the first announcer had said earlier. He asks the voters to vote for Tushar Gandhi, repeating again and again that A A Khan is a brother, but voting for him will just divide the Muslim votes. As he ends, a popular Hindi song is played, with the lyrics suitably adapted for the party's symbol, the cycle: "Aaja meri cycle pe baithja, aaja meri cycle pe baihtja; Delhi main jayenge, government banayenge....' (sung to the popular tune by Baba Sehgal from Shree 420)

The ditty catches everyone fancy, including Raj Babbar's, who decides to talk about the cycle and its parts: the carrier, front handle, and the tyre tube which he asks the losers to hold. He finally gets to the point, but he is the soft-spoken guy. "Makanibhai balwaan aadmi hain, main kamzoor hoon, isliye main aap ke aage haath jodonga (Makani is a strong guy, and I'm not, therefore I fold my hands in front of you)." The sentence, as expected, ended in a round of thunderous applause. Raj Babbar gives an encore!

Finally, Tushar Gandhi, the silent man, appears in front of the mike. Tushar's voice isn't thunderous, it isn't very strong, but he has the advantage of a massive physique (he weighs around 100 kg) and an audience that had just been brainwashed by glamour and good humour, whose egos had been propped up. Tushar stresses the need for the workers to make sure that everyone they know votes, and to keep a lookout for people who plan to put in bogus votes. His speech is brief.

Despite his declaration of no promises, he makes one now to his party workers: "Give me one day's labour at the polling booths, and I will be your labourer for five years."

Elections come every year, promises are made to be broken, dreams are shown, never to be realised. Today politics is nothing more than roadside entertainment for the average Raju on the street, who has his moment of glory, being treated as a king for a day, even if he remains a pauper for a lifetime.

This is as good as it gets. This is politics.

Campaign Trail

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