Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Lucknow

Letter from Lucknow

The girl dancing on the roadside stage couldn't have been more than twenty. Wearing hip-hugging jeans and a T-shirt that was clearly two sizes smaller than hers, she gyrated, under strobe lights, to the raunchy remix, Kaanta Laga. She was facing a crowd of not more than a hundred people, most of them passersby who had stopped out of curiosity but had stayed on to watch, their jaws dropping. They couldn't have asked for more. Neither could have the dozen or so policemen, who were trying hard not to smile as they waved motorists on to prevent a jam on the busy road.

It was a 'colourful cultural programme,' informed the huge banner in the background, to celebrate Holi (In North India, functions are held for days after the festival). There was another information the banner gave, that the chief guest of the evening was Mr... well, the name doesn't matter much. What matters in Lucknow is your political designation and in this case, the chief guest was a poorva vidhayak, or ex-MLA, as the banner announced in large, red letters.

So even is a minor roadside show like this, which aimed at nothing but giving the chance to a handful of pedestrians to feast their eyes on a dancing girl, you could see the hand of power. Lucknow is all about power. It has always been so. For centuries, the city saw power changing hands. But in the last two decades or so, the people in power have been trying to change the city, its spirit. Worse, you never know who is going to come to power next, and when. That's the story of Lucknow, better known these days as the constituency of Atal Behari Vajpayee. and somewhere between the lines lies the story of Uttar Pradesh -- the state no politician can ignore if he wants to be the Prime Minister of India, the state of which Lucknow is the capital city.

Lucknow, when it was being ruled by the Nawabs 150 years ago, it had the reputation of being easy-going. People were known for their manners (there is a legend about two Nawabs missing the train because each insisted the other get in first). Music and arts flourished. Even food was the work of art. Easy-going it still is -- the evidence being the large number of cycle-rickshaws plying on the roads. When they hapen to be a popular mode of transport, you know people are not in a great hurry.

Taking a rickshaw ride is the best way to explore Lucknow. The leisurely ride gives you enough time to see how the place is changing, and to imagine how the place must have been 150 years ago. I almost felt like a nawab being carted to the mehfil of a singing girl, or to the haveli of a friend to play chess. My destination, though, was a friend's home. He showed me around the colony. “Nice place, isn't it?” he said, pointing at the palatial of his rich neighbours. “But you can get a house here only on one condition: you should not be a Muslim.” So being a Muslim is a taboo -- the Muslim who had given Lucknow the ghazal, the kabab, the manners, its very identity.

The decline of the Nawabs is shown masterully by Satyajit ray in the only Hindi film he ever made, Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players). The film portrays, to quote V S Naipaul from India -- A Million Mutinies Now, “the decadence or blindness or helplessness of a 19th-century Muslim culture at the end of its possibilities: where the rulers play chess and conduct petty affairs, while their territory (and its people) pass into foreign hands.”

If the arrival of the British, in 1858, marked the decline of the Muslim culture, their departure, in 1947, saw the emergence of Congress culture in Lucknow. A politcian necessarily meant a Congressman who wore khadi and Gandhi cap and who had participated in the freedom struggle. The seat of the Congress government was Delhi, but the Congress leaders who mattered in Delhi derived their political clout from Lucknow. And these leaders included the Congress Prime Minister -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi. Even V P Singh for that matter.

Singh was the Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when he resigned, in 1982, accepting moral responsiblity for his failure to check banditry in the state. One of the bandits active at the time was Phoolan Devi. (On the Valentine's Day in 1981, she had shot about two dozen Thakurs in Behmai, a village near Kanpur. It was said to be an act of revenge for the atrocities she had suffered at the hands of men from the upper caste). Singh's resignation earned him the tag of an honest politcian -- an image that helped him when he took on Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors issue and went on to become the Prime Minister in 1989.

P V Narasimha Rao was the only Congress Prime Minister who didn't come from Uttar Pradesh, and no wonder he presided over the decline of the party in the state. As it is, Rao was a disaster as an organisation man; and his reticence, which helped him pull through five years in power, encouraged Congressmen to fight themselves instead of fighting political opponents. By the time Rao's term ended, in 1996, the party was in shambles. The BJP had won over the upper-caste, middle-class, television-owning homes that were fresh from watching Ramayana. Mulayam Singh had won over the Yadav and other backward castes. Mayawati, on the other hand, had opened the gates of power to the dalits.

The condition of the Congress in Lucknow today is like that of the Nawabs in Shatraj Ke Khiladi. It's like an aged haveli, past its prime, which only has old family portraits to show off. The Congress headquarters in Lucknow, in fact, is somewhat like that. The fax machine doesn't work (at least it didn't till recently) and the party has no cars to campaign. During the Assembly elections in 2002, the Congress headquarters in Delhi had despatched some two dozen Ambassador cars to Lucknow. But soon after those elections, the cars were auctioned. Rahul Gandhi has now entered the fray, like the foreign-returned son of a decaying ruler, to shore up his family fortunes. But the Congress isn't taking chances: last week, it felled several eucalyptus trees inside its office compound in Lucknow because they had become taller than the building, which is supposed to be bad omen.

The BJP office, meanwhile, has even set up an aviation cell to coordinate air travel by their leaders in Uttar Pradesh. The entire campaign is being controlled, from Delhi, by BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan, who knows the art of blending ideology with technology. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, being one-man or one-woman parties based in Lucknow, have already activated their machinery across the state. Money for campaigning should be the last of the problems for Mulayam Singh, who has a host of powerful businessmen friends. “We expect maximum orders from his party,” says Anup Agrawal, who sells campaign material in Lucknow, “They are big spenders, and now that they are in power, they will spend more.” Money doesn't seem to be a problem for Mayawati either: the entire city of Lucknow had turned blue -- her party colour -- on the eve of her rally on March 13.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the Samajwadi Party had won 26 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP had won 14. The tally of the BJP, which in 1996 had bagged nearly 60 seats, was down to 26. And the Congress, which was once Uttar Pradesh, had picked up only 10 seats. Each party, naturally, will try to push up its tally but for the two giants, the BJP and the Congress, it is the question of survival in the state. Come to think of it, they've been pushed in to this situation by two politicians who were barely known 15 years ago!
The political transition in Uttar Pradesh can be best exlained by the case of Phoolan Devi. It was because of his failure of catch bandits like Phoolan Devi that V P Singh had resigned as the chief minister in 1982. In 1996, the same Phoolan Devi was given a Lok Sabha ticket by Mulayam Singh Yadav. Phoolan won the elections. It was seen as a victory of the oppressed against the oppressors, of the lower caste against the opper caste.

The new awekening resulting from victories such as Phoolan's is visible on the streets on Lucknow. When you take a rickshaw ride, soaking in the sights of the still-handsome city with wide tree-lined roads, it is common to find your rickshawpuller, like other rickshawpullers and motorists, hurriedly making way for the sound of siren coming from behind. You look behind, expecting an ambulance, but the occupant of the appraching vehicles turn out to be the local Samajwadi Party corporator, the Bahujan Samaj Party MLA from a neighbouring district or some other minor politician.

You know the designation of the occupant because it is brass-lettered on a board, painted in the party colours, fixed in the front of the car. The siren, of course, is useless unless the car has a revolving red, or blue, light. These days, they have a new addition: fog lights. As these cars breeze past you, the occupants seem to tell the crowd they are tearing through: “Look, we have arrived.” So even if the people of Lucknow are today being ruled by their own people, the difference between the rulers and the ruled remains.


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