Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Rampur

Jaya Prada live

April 23: Fifty-fifty. That's how R K Khandelwal, a hotelier in Rampur, rates the chances of Jaya Prada winning the elections.

This should make the actress happy, considering that the rating comes from a 70-something man who must have stopped watching Hindi films after the departure of Madhubala and Nargis and who, above, all, thinks women don't make good politicians.

But at the moment Jaya Prada does not need a Khandelwal to make her happy. She has entire the Rampur descending on the streets under the afternoon sun to watch her travel in an open jeep to file her nomination as the Samajwadi Party candidate for the May 10 Lok Sabha election. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of party workers who follow her shout slogans, beat the drums and burst crackers.

Khandelwal remains seated on his desk at the reception (he doesn't seem to trust anyone else doing the job) while his staff -- the waiters, the roomboys, etc. -- gather outside the hotel to watch Jaya Prada's procession pass by. The actress, whose beauty was once praised by none other than Satyajit Ray, is clearly aware that Muslims form nearly 60 percent of Rampur's population. So she wears a green embroidered salwar kameez and a matching dupatta to cover her head (she has her head covered whenever she appears in public here). She is also wearing sunglasses so you can't make eye contact with her, but there she is, waving at you.

Standing next to her in the jeep is Mohammad Azam Khan -- the man to who people like Khandelwal attribute her fair chances of victory. Khan hails from Rampur and is the urban development minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav's government, and a powerful minister at that. Before the procession took off, Khan told Samajwadi Party workers: “(The Rampur election) is a question of my political life and death. So make sure Jaya Prada wins.”

“If Jaya Prada wins, it will be only because of Azam Khan,” says Khandelwal. If she wins, that is. The more you travel around Rampur, the more you talk to people there, you realise even the other candidates have 50-50 chances of winning.

The most visible among them is Begum Noor Bano, the sitting Congress MP and a member of the erstwhile Nawab family that once ruled Rampur. And unlike Jaya Prada, the Begum doesn't have to dress up as an elegant Muslim woman -- she is as elegant as aristocracy can make you, but that could be her drawback as well.

“Unlike Jaya Prada, she doesn't hug a village woman or pat the cheek of a child. After all she is a Begum and she has to keep a distance. But that could make all the difference,” says Jai Prakash Sharma, a roadways employee.

And the actress is promising voters that she will settle down in Rampur if she wins. Not a bad idea, come to think of it. She won't find so much of open space and greenery anywhere else in the country -- not at least in Mumbai, where she owns a rs 48-lakh apartment, not even in Hyderabad, where she owns a Rs 92-lakh house and a Rs 35 lakh worth plot, or in Chennai, where her husband Srikant Nahata owns a Rs 35-lakh house in T Nagar and where she herself own commercial properties worth crores. In all she is worth nearly Rs 9 crore -- according to the affidavit submitted by her while filing the nomination.

But locals doubt if she will really settle down. The Begum, on the other hand, might be aloof but she belongs to the local ruling family -- something the typical Indian voter always idenitifies with. Also, she has been an MP twice -- in 1996 and 1999. And her husband, the late Nawab Zulfiquar Ali Khan, had been a long-serving MP from Rampur.

The biggest charge against her is that she has not done anything for her constituency in the last five years, but many locals are not against giving her another chance. “After all she is going to stay in Rampur. We can always approach her,” says Suraj Singh, who runs a phone booth in Rampur's Civil Lines area.

The two women are banking primarliy on the Muslims voters -- constituting nearly 60 percent of the 13 lakh electorate. And that's where the problem is: the Muslim vote is bound to be divided. On the other hand their two main rivals, Rajendra Kumar Sharma of the BJP and Afroze Ali Khan of the Bahujan Samaj Party, do not have such problems.

Sharma, who defeated Noor Bano's husband in 1991, is assured of the Hindu votes, consisting mainly of influential Punjabi traders. Afroze, on the other hand, is assured of the Hindu dalit votes -- amounting to nearly two lakh. On top of it, if Afroze manages to win some of the Muslim votes, he could be the winner. On the contrary, however, if the Muslim and some of the dalit votes gets split between Jaya Prada, Noor Bano and Afroze, the BJP man could be the winner. So it's a tricky situation for each of the candidates.

But Mulayam Singh's administration is clearly trying its best to see the actress sail through. A couple of theatres in Rampur are re-running old films of Jaya Prada -- tear-inducing films such as Maa. And last Wednesday, when her procession reached the collectorate for the filing of her nomination, the state police had no problems with the huge Samajwadi Party crowd gathering at the collectorate. But on the same day, when the BJP candidate filed his nomination, the police chased out his supporters from the collectorate compound.

Jaya Prada's presence, however, has breathed some life into this quiet town in Northwestern Uttar Pradesh where the main occupation of the people is agriculture. There used to be a textile factory and a sugar factory once upon a time, but they have closed down. Today Rampur is known for its distilleries and wood-carving and embroidery workshops.

More than anything else, the South Indian actress has made Rampur famous -- famous even across the borders of Uttar Pradesh. Till the other day, Rampur was just a dot on the map, located quite close to Nepal -- a dot they generally ignored because nobody ever went there except for, say, a wedding in the family.

But there was a time when Rampur was famous, especially among the British rulers. “In April 1905, His Excellency Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy, visited Rampur. During his two days stay Lord Curzon visited several of the public institutions and offices of the state and expressed himself well satisfied with all he saw,” says the Rampur State Gazetteer. Many of these insititutions, at least their splendid buildings, exist even today, including the 225-year-old Oriental University and the 100-year-old Raza Library.

The Nawabs -- the descendants of the Rohillas of Afghanistan -- were so faithful to the British that they opposed the 1857 mutiny and saved the life of the British soldiers and their families in their state. For this gesture, Queen Victoria decorated Yusuf Ali Khan, the then Nawab, with the title of the Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Star of India.

There is much more of Rampur's history hidden in the palatial Raza Library. None of the candidates has talked about, say, setting up a museum to tell the world that better things happened in Rampur other than knife-making (Rampuri chaku, or knife, is legendary). But then, Indians politicians are not known to save history: they only exploit it.

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