Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Allahabad

Joshi faces the heat

April 16: Those pirates struck in the high seas, these pirates strike in the river, rather the confluence of the two great rivers of India which makes Allahabad famous. They glide their boats alongside yours and even before you realise, you've been persuaded into performing a boat-to-boat puja for the well-being of your near and dear ones.

Since all this happens in the middle of the river, you can't even walk out. All you can do is console yourself watching other would-be victims getting rowed into the trap of the priests and the pandas -- as the middlemen between God and mortals are called -- who throng the river.

Still, thousands gather everyday at Sangam, as locals call the confluence of the three rivers -- the third river being the underground spring Saraswati, which is supposed to have dried up. When and how, nobody knows. Murali Manohar Joshi, soon after he became the human resource development minister in 1998, commissioned a project to explore if the river existed.

One does not know what came out of the project. Perhaps nothing, or else that would have been mentioned prominently in the long list of Joshi's achievements that is being circulated in Allahabad these days.

Topping the list is the construction of a bridge across the Yamuna that will take the loads off the existing bridge that was built in 1927. The bridge, built by Hyundai with money given by a Japanese bank, is almost ready. Other prominent achievements include the setting up of the Indian Insititute of Information Technology (called Triple I-T by locals) at Allahabad and the institution of a space chair at the Allahabad University. Besides, there are dozens and dozens of other achievements -- a swimming pool here and a park there, a road here and a drain there and so on. Not to mention what he claims to have done for the Muslims -- modernising the madrasas, promotion of Urdu, etc.

“He has done so much for the city,” says Vipin Gupta, the BJP activist who gave me the list of Joshi's achievements, “and you must not forget that Allahabad is a city of intellectuals, and Dr Joshi (who taught physics in the Allahabad University) is the only intellectual in the fray. So even if they don't like the BJP, they will vote for him.”

But Joshi, who has won Allahabad thrice since 1996, himself doesn't seem to share Gupta's confidence. Or else he wouldn't have spent this entire week in Allahabad, campaigning especially in the rural and Muslim areas. Last Tuesday he visited a village of Patels -- a backward caste in Uttar Pradesh -- and sought to win them over by comparing them to Vallabhbhai Patel, who belonged to Gujarat where Patels belong to the upper caste.

The mild state of panic that Joshi is in at the moment is best explained by a local journalist -- we will call him Ramji Shukla -- who has been associated with Joshi in some manner or the other. “It's like this,” says Shukla, “Dr Joshi has been winning mainly because of his support in the urban areas, where the main voters are Brahmins, Kayasthas and Bengalis. They are sophisticated voters, who don't vote for the typical rustic Indian politician -- the kinds you find in the Samajwadi Party or the BSP. But this time Mulayam Singh Yadav had planned to field Jaya Bachchan, and that's what gave Dr Joshi a scare. She would have easily picked up the Kayastha (Amitabh Bachchan is a kayastha) and the Bengali votes, besides the regular Samajwadi Party votes. That's why Dr Joshi has been coming to Allahabad so often in the last six months.” Forunately, for the HRD minister, Mrs Bachchan refused to contest.

Joshi got another scare when Rita Bahuguna, who lost against him in 1999, suggested that Priyanka Gandhi stand from Allahabad. Locals -- from journalists to rickshaw-wallahs to paan-wallahs -- insist that had Priyanka contested, Joshi would have lost without doubt.

Still, things aren't going to be easy for Joshi. His primary opponent is Samajwadi Party's Reoti Raman Singh, who is the transport minister in Mulayam Singh's government. Singh has been the MLA from Karchana -- an Assembly segment of Allahabad -- for eight terms now and has a strong grip on the rural votes. Joshi's other opponent is Satyaprakash Malaviya, the veteran socialist-turned-Congressman. A Brahmin, he expected to bite into some of Joshi's votes, besides winning back the old Congress voters who see the party rejuvenating with the entry of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.

Joshi has to consider two more things. One, the percentage of votes polled by him has dropped consistently -- from 42.7 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 1999. Two, if you translate the 2002 Assembly election results in Allahabad into Lok Sabha results, then the Samajwadi Party wins hands down.

For the situation that Joshi is in today -- unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee in Lucknow and L K Advani in Gandhinagar -- he himself is to blame. He has always been seen as arrogant and unapproachable. He is also seen, by some, as an outsider -- he hails from Almora in Uttaranchal. Last Wednesday, Ravi Bhushan Wadhawan, a former mayor of Allahabad and one-time associate of Joshi, called a news conference to say that the contest in the city was “Allahabad Vs Almora.”

The Yamuna bridge, Wadhawan claimed, was cleared by V P Singh when he was the MP, and that Allahabadis did not benefit from the IIIT. Only people from Almora were getting jobs there, he said, adding that during Joshi's tenure, most of the industries of Allahabad, like the Indian Telephone Industries, BPCL, HCL, etc. had only closed down.

In any case, there is an interesting contest on cards, even though people of Allahabad have witnessed far more interesting fights in the past. This is a high-profile contituency, after all. It gave the country its first two Prime Ministers (Nehru contested from Phulpur in 1952 when Allahabad was part of the constituency. After that Allahabad became a separate seat and Lal Bahadur Shastri won from there in 1957 and 1962). In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan defeated political heavyweight, the former chief minister H N Bahuguna. And in June 1988, all eyes were on Allahabad when V P Singh, the new national hero, defeated Shastri's son Sunil. Locals remember Singh campaigning on motorcycles.

But when you ask people who will win the 2004 elections, they say without a thought, “Dr Joshi”, just like they say “Atal Behari Vajpayee” when you ask who the next Prime Minister will be. Maybe because the Opposition candidates aren't high-profile enough. Who will eventually win you will know only on May 13, but if Joshi wins, it would be a hard-earned victory this time. For he is doing what he really hasn't done in the past -- going out in the heat and dust and meeting people.


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