Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Kannauj

In Lohia land

April 27: What is common between Jaya Prada and the late Ram Manohar Lohia? It is likely that instead of answering that question, you'll ask another: Who exactly was Ram Manohar Lohia? Put that question to Jaya Prada and chances are you'll draw a blank, even though the actress today represents the ideology of Ram Manohar Lohia.

You can't really fault Jaya Prada. The Samajwadi Party -- or the Socialist Party -- she has joined belongs to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. It has nothing to do with Lohia -- the greatest socialist thinker the country has ever produced -- even though its leaders claim to be hardcore Lohiawaadis (followers of Lohia's ideals).

Mulayam Singh's brand of socialist politics breathes on caste politics while his lieutenant Amar Singh's brand of socialism thrives of society parties in Delhi and Mumbai. These days Amar Singh has taken a break from these parties and is busy addressing the final round of election meetings across Uttar Pradesh. And the posters advertising these meetings don't forget to prefix the word “Thakur” before his name.

The real Ram Manohar Lohia is preserved in the memory of Keshav Lal Gupta, a shopkeeper in Kannauj. Gupta is ten years older than Independent India and he remembers all the elections since 1952. But the one he remembers fondly is the 1967 elections -- that's when Lohia stood from Kannauj and won a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. (Lohia died the same year).

“He was such a big leader but so simple. He dressed simply and went around talking to people like you are talking to me. You didn't have four security guards following a politician then,” says Gupta. After Lohia, the leader Gupta admires is Atal Behari Vajpayee. “You can't find a better Prime Minister than him. Tell me, can you?”

Now Kannauj is a place which really looks frozen in time, cut off from the rest of the world -- that is if you discount the Coke ads. If you are making a film on a 12th-century Hindu king and want to show a town square, you can shoot in Kannauj instead of creating an expensive set. So it looks a bit out of place to watch Gupta lighting his bidi and rattle off the achievements of Vajpayee instead of whining about local problems. ”All these years America never cared for us, but now they want to be friends with India,” he says.

Today Gupta has the choice of either voting for Vajpayee's candidate, Ramanand Yadav of the BJP, or Akhilesh Yadav, the 30-year-old son of Mulayam singh Yadav, the follower of Lohia. Gupta spells out his preference by pointing to the flag on top his shop -- it is the BJP flag. But it is one of the few you find in Kannauj, which is awash with flags and posters of the Samajwadi Party. From each of them, the young, innocent face of Akhilesh looks out at you. (Mulayam Singh, during his first tenure as the chief minister in 1989, was zealously promoting Hindi. His men were putting symbolic locks in English-medium schools and he himself made it a point to write his official correspondence, even to his counterparts in non Hindi-speaking states, in Hindi. He was eventually snubbed by the then Kerala chief minister, E K Nayanar. But all this while, Akhilesh was studying in Australia).

Akhilesh also happens to be the sitting MP from Kannauj. His victory in 1999 is being attributed to the fact that during those elections, there was no BJP candidate in the fray. The BJP, as part of its electoral understanding with the Loktantrik Congress Party -- a breakaway group of the Congress led by the Naresh Agarwal who was dumped by the BJP soon after -- had left the seat for the LCP. Angry BJP supporters had voted for Akhilesh.

The present BJP candidate, since he too is a Yadav, is expected to give a tough fight to Akhilesh. And since this is his first election, he has a clean slate unlike Akhilesh, who is being charged with not doing enough for Kannauj is the last five years. “There are villages where there is no electricty, so people are angry,” says Rvanidra Shukla, a tempo driver. And there are some people who are angry for other reasonhs. Mayawati, when she was the chief minister, had taken out a chunk of Etawah (Mulayam Singh Yadav's home constituency), clubbed parts of Kannauj to it and made it a separate district. But Yadav, when he became the chief minister, cancelled her decision.

But Akhilesh's youth seems to be working in his favour. “People studying in degree colleges will vote for him,” says Jyoti Sharma, a BA student. Agrees her friend Nisha, “He represents the youth.” She pronounces the word with a typical UP accent: Yooth. They are both sitting in a tonga -- horse-driven carriage -- one of the means of getting around in Kannauj.

Moreover, dad Mulayam, as the chief minister, is doing whatever he can to help his son win. Kannauj, which doesn't betray its status in the world as one of the biggest producers of itr, or indigenous perfume, is about two hours drive from Kanpur (the nearest city). You know you've hit Kannauj when you run into sunflower fields. There are miles and miles of them and springing from between them, at regular intervals, are hoardings that carry Mulayam Singh or Akhilesh's picture and say, “Uttar Pradesh. Baney Uttam Pradesh.” (Let's make Uttar Pradesh the best state). The same message is conveyed by Amitabh Bachchan in cinema halls just before the movie begins -- and the movie usually is a soft-porn one such as Garden of Eden -- or by a recorded female voice, sympathetic to the Samajwadi Party, which keeps on playing in shops .

There are two more candidates in the fray worth mentioning -- Vinay Shukla of the Congress and Rajesh Singh of the Bahujan Samaj Party, but the locals insist that the fight is between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. The Congress ceased to matter in Kannauj in 1989, after which the socliasts and the BJP took turns in representing the seat. The last big Congress leader who won from here was in 1984 -- Sheila Dikshit, who is now pursuing a successful political career as the chief minister of Delhi.

Perhaps the only place in Kannauj unaffected by the election fever, untouched by the flags, in the centuries-old Gowri Shankar temple. The temple has a permanent, stationary flag -- made of gold. It's Monday and tractor loads of devotees -- turbanned men and veiled women shyly sucking at ice candies -- has descended from neighbouring villages to worship Lord Shiva.

There's a plaque in the temple compound which informs that somewhere around that spot, in 637 AD, the great king Harshavardhana had called an all-religion meeting in the presence of the Chinese traveller Huen Tsang. Kannauj was the capital of Harshavardhana. Today, the elections in the same Kannauj is a matter of prestige for someone who claims to be the modern-day champion of secularism in Uttar Pradesh -- Mulayam Singh Yadav.


Blogger J S Sai said...

Brilliant blog. Discovered it while doing some research. pl keep it up

12:56 AM  
Blogger Milan said...

I stumbled onto your blog while researching for my town'w history. Thanks for compliment you paid to Kannauj, my place- "its a place forzen in time". May not look like a compliment to many but its the place where old India still lives which embraces only those modern things that suit her well.

12:59 AM  

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