Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Rae Bareli

Resurrection of Indira Gandhi

March 27: The roads in Rae Bareli are so bad that a rickshaw ride around the town can give you a backache the next morning. You can't call them roads: they are beds of stones, the asphalt having been washed away many monsoons ago. So the rickshaw goes bump, bump, bump and you curse yourself for being here.

But soon you realise you are not the only one cursing. The people of Rae Bareli are cursing too. They are cursing the day Indira Gandhi died. “She was like our mother. She used to come often. The same roads used to sparkle once, but after she died, nobody cared for us,” says Bhagwan Din, 52, who takes care of a small Shiva temple on a busy tri-junction.

Today, people like Bhagwan Din are pinning their hopes on Sonia Gandhi -- who has decided to stand from Rae Bareli -- to bring back the good, old days to their town. If Sonia wins, which she is a near certainty, and if she wants to live up to the hopes of her constituency, she will have a lot of do.

If you discount the Reliance India Mobile hoardings and the shops that sell electronic goods, Rae Bareli looks a lot like a 19th-century town. And if you count them in, the place looks like a 21st-century village. The narrow, battered roads are lined by either dilapilated buildings -- one of them houses the electricity maintenance board and another the wights and measurements office -- or shops that sell basics needs of man: groceries, garments, cooking stoves, bathroom fittings. Barber shops, 'beauty parlours' and puncture repair shops are scattered all over the place.

Only one shop seemed to be selling mobile phones and connections. The number of ATMs is only two -- both belonging to the State Bank of India. The people of Rae Bareli don't seem to have discovered the advantages of e-mail yet. There are, however, quite a few wine shops, selling both 'foreign' and country liquor. The entire district has just one degree college, named after Indira Gandhi's husband Feroze, and only one park, if you can call it so, in the name of sight-seeing. The park, naturally, is named after Indira Gandhi.

Nothing indeed seems to have moved in Rae Bareli since 1984, when Indira Gandhi died. On the contrary, the locals say, the town has moved backwards. Most of the industries she had set up in the area, mainly paper and cotton mills, have shut. The Indian Telephone Industry, which once boasted of 650,000 employees and was the prid of Rae Bareli is today down to 2500 employees. Locals blame ITI's decline on “unionbaazi” -- or trade unionism. No wonder in this Congres bastion, the only red flag you see -- a fading one -- is in the sprawling ITI campus.

“There were 156 industries here once, today only 56 remain,” says Paras Jaiswal, who sells figurines and framed pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses near the town's Ghantaghar Chauraha, or the Clock Tower. “Those days, you also had regular power supply. Now there are frequent power cuts because of which thefts in the nights have become commonplace,” says Paras. “We hope things will improve now that Soniaji has come here. She will understand our problems. After all, she is Indiraji's bahu (daughter-in-law).”

Thirty-sevenyears ago, in 1967, Indira Gandhi had also come here to seek votes as a daughter-in-law. Rae Bareli was the seat of her husband, Feroze Gandhi, who had won from here in 1952 (when the first ever Lok Sabha elections were held in the country) and in 1957. He died in 1960. In 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru died and Indira Gandhi was elected to the Rajya Sabha and she became the information and broadcasting minister under Lal Bahadur Shastri.

In 1966, Shastri died and she became the Prime Minister. In 1967, it was time for general elections and Indira had to hunt for a Lok Sabha seat (those days, a Prime Ministers had to be a member of the Lok Sabha. They don't seem to be care much now: H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral were member of the Rajya Sabha when they were Prime Ministers).

Senior Congress members were of the opinion that Indira should contest from Phulpur, near Allahabad, which was Nehru's constituency. But Gaya Prasad Shukla, a Rae Bareli Congressman who was one of the coordinators of Feroze Gandhi's election campaign, pleaded that Indira contest from Rae Bareli. The Congress then organised two public meetings by her -- one in Rae Bareli and another in Phulpur. The response in Rae Bareli was stronger and that became her seat. She went on to stand from there in 1971, 1977 and 1980. In 1977, when India was in the grip of a general anti-Emergency feeling, she lost to Raj Narain.

The man who was instrumental in getting Indira to contest from Rae Bareli, Gaya Prasad Shukla, is still alive: he looks as ancient as the two-storeyed Congress office which, according to Shukla, used to be the “pilgrimage centre” for the who's who of the Congress. Local Congressmen now hope that the crumbling building will return to life with the entry of Sonia.

One thing is clear: people of Rae Bareli are fiercely loyal to the Gandhi family, but not necessarily to the Congress or even to distant members of the Gandhi family. In 1984, they elected Arun Nehru -- Rajiv Gandhi's cousin -- and in 1989 and 1991, they elected Sheila Kaul, an aunt of Indira. Kaul was the urban development minister in Narasimha Rao's government, but she, as locals, say, thought nothing of Rae Bareli's development. “Ever since Indira Gandhi died, middlemen and contractors have had a field day here,” says Bhagwan Din.

So the mood turned anti-Congress and they punished the party in 1996 and 1998. In 1996, Sheila Kaul's son Vikram came fourth, getting only 25,000 votes. In 1998, Kaul's daughter Deepa came fourth too, getting less than 50,000 votes. In both these elections, the seat went to BJP's Ashok Singh, an old lieutenant of Arun Nehru. Ashok Singh is today Samajwadi Party's candidate against Sonia.

The 1999 contest was interesting and explains the sway the Gandhi family holds on the electorate here. On one was Satish Sharma, the Congress candidate and a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi, and on the other hand Arun Nehru, the BJP's candidate and Rajiv's relative. In the words of Santosh Singh, a local taxi driver: “Satish Sharma, like the Kauls, was seen as an outsider. They had done nothing for the people. Arun Nehru, on the other hand, had managed his campaign very well. Moreover, there was a pro-BJP mood. So Nehru was all set to win. But then, two days before the elections, Priyanka Gandhi came to Rae Bareli. She must have spent hardly two hours with the people here, but overnight the mood turned in favour of the Congress and Sharma won.”

But Sharma, says Santosh, was all set to lose the coming elections had he contested. “He rarely came. And whenever he came, we got to know about it only from the papers. Now Congress' victory is certain. Sonia's coming has given the party a new life here,” he says.

It is as if Indira Gandhi has been resurrected. “Hum sab Gandhi parivar ke diwane hain (we are all crazy about the Gandhi family,” says Jaiswal, the man who sells figurines of Gods near the clocktower. But he says nobody is as crazy as is 60-year-old father, who he describes as “mentally disturbed.” As in? “Well, he is so obsessed with the Gandhi parivar that he never cared about his own parivar. He keeps talking only about them. You can have no other conversation with him,” Jaiswal explains.

It is perhaps because of this obsession that you almost forget to ask people if they see Sonia as a foreigner. When you do ask, the answer in obvious. “She is our bahu, not a foreigner,” says Devi Dutt, a postal employee enjoying his tea break outside the post office. But doesn't she look like a foreigner and talk like one? “Sir,” says Devi Dutt, “even you don't look like us and your mother-tongue is not Hindi either. But aren't we able to communicate our thoughts?”

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