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Cool Pappu in fray just for people

Madhepura, April 20: The appointment was for sometime past half eleven, “closer to midnight will be better”, so the crackly voice on the mobile phone told me. Pappu Yadav has a private number but he seldom answers it himself; a flunkey does, and depending on “saheb’s” mood or who it is, hands it over or does not.

His elaborate retinue keeps Pappu bubbled in a VVIP protocol, but there are more reasons why he is wary of direct contact — it’s the necessity and the practice of a lifetime of tormenting and dodging the law, a lifetime of running on the rough side.

From killing to kidnapping, robbery to ransom, Pappu Yadav’s history sheet makes a formidable catalogue of crimes. He is what they call — duly, but often also deferentially — a “bahubali”, mafia don. Now, he is also an aspiring Rt. Hon. Member of Parliament. Acquitted of the murder of the CPM’s one-time Purnea MLA, Ajit Sarkar, after conviction by lower courts, he has emerged from prison to renew his lease in the Lok Sabha as Lalu Prasad’s man from Madhepura — a one-man battlement deployed to demolish the RJD boss’ one-time friend and foe, Sharad Yadav, president of the JD(U) and incumbent MP.

But today, he’s been engaged elsewhere, on another errand. Pappu is campaigning for his wife and Congress candidate from neighbouring Supaul, Ranjeeta Ranjan, in a remote recess of the Kosi plains. “Barah baje raat,” the voice on the phone amended itself, “barah se pehle nahin.” (At midnight, not earlier.)

Madhepura sleeps late in summers but by midnight, it has given up battling the mosquito armies and rolled off to slumber. Dogs howl at shadows in the ramshackle townsquare, and scratch about rubbish heaps; the more robust among them chase after paramilitary parties arriving in preparation for the polls of April 30.

When we arrive at the appointed place — the two-storeyed backstreet house of Professor Rajkishore Yadav “Laltu” that Pappu has made his campaign HQ — we find three policemen and a couple of Pappu campers, all stripped to their undergarments and spreadeagled on cots in the open. It’s a muggy night, they’ve surrendered their dignity to the elements. “Aaj ab saheb nahin aayenge,” one of them announces, clearly wishing us quickly gone, “subah try maariye”. (Saheb will not return tonight, try tomorrow morning.)

Back to “SK”, the murky, mosquito-ridden pride of Madhepura hospitality, the best hotel in town — you open your room door and there’s only enough room to mount the bed, you dismount the bed the other side and you land into the doorless bathroom. There’s running water, meaning the tap can’t be turned shut. There’s also air conditioning, meaning noise emanates from panels fitted in the window. There is, effectively, no air and no conditioning.

“SK” has morphed into a multi-storey stereo box since we left an hour ago. A “baraat” has arrived and noise is belting off refrigerator-size speaker sets, boys have taken over the dark lobby, beer’s split about the place, flies have arrived in droves to sup. The quiet night has come alive in the “SK” lane, it’s disco time, time for some heavy-duty “PAANI, PAAANI, PAANI!!!” The irony is lost on everybody that Madhepura was all “PAANI, PAAANI, PAANI” when the turbulent Kosi changed course in 2008, barrelled into town and left it smashed.

When we leave “SK” at five the next morning for Pappu’s, the flies are still buzzing about the beer, the “baraat” boys are lapsed all over the lobby floor.

Pappu is at home; the firmest sign of it is the throng at the gates of Professor Rajkishore “Laltu” Yadav. The lead cars of Pappu’s caravan are being washed.

In a corner of the front yard, security guards are bathing under a hosepipe. From the kitchen somewhere at the back, wafts the smell of savouries. It’s only six in the morning, “saheb”, having returned at two, has begun his court on the first floor.

We are ushered up and a man leads us into a hall lined with cots and sofa seats. Just a few men lounging, eating cupfuls of curd. There are more men, gesturing animatedly on the balcony, behind a diaphanous screen. But no “saheb”. He’s inside, we are assured, he’ll come. “Some dahi, meantime, some rasgullas? Madhepura dahi is world famous.”

Presently, after two or so hours, Pappu emerges from an anteroom, in a lungi and a vest; a towel rests on his shoulders. Everyone stands, Pappu motions them down. He walks up and takes a seat by me, revealing an awesome fold of flesh under the topline of his vest, a fold tempting to be called a cleavage. “I have some work,” he whispers to me, “and I also need a bath, so wait.” Then he’s gone, instructing a minion to fetch the laptop. “Dikhao saheb ko!”

A laptop arrives and a youngster begins scrolling files; he is to show me films from the Pappu Yadav campaign in the Madhepura countryside — Pappu astride a bike, churning dust on the Kosi riverbed, Pappu riding a pony through villages, trailed by crowds, Pappu seeking blessings at local temples and at the feet of village elders, Pappu negotiating a causeway on foot.

All men in the room have gathered behind the laptop. “Bejod abhiyaan hai,” one of them remarks ecstatically, “Hero se kam nahin hain!” (What a campaign, he is no less than a hero.)

Pappu peeps out the room and calls out to his host the professor: “Laltu!” Professor Laltu runs across the hall, then returns, then hurries back with a towel. Someone whispers in my ears Professor Laltu was caught in an embezzlement case sometime back. “Khud jail kaa hawa khaa kar ke aaye hain.” (He has himself spent time in jail)

A little later, Pappu steps out, towel, toothbrush and soap case in hand; the bathroom is across the hall, to the other side. “Naha ke aate hain,” he says as he passes me, “footage dekhe? Kaisa laga?” (I have to have a bath...did you see the footage? How was it?) He’s gone before I can respond.

He shuffles back into his room five minutes later, wrapped in a towel, nothing else, a mountain of a man, flesh cascading down his torso. When he finally comes out again, he’s in a scarlet T-shirt and black trousers. “Boliye!” (Tell me). He sits down.

The room has become fuller now, campaign managers, security men, partymen, hangers on, Pappu’s personal guardsmen. One of them has a revolver stuck visibly into his belt, a burly man with a moustache and a roving eye. “Naashta kar lein? (Should we have breakfast?).” He motions to Professor Laltu without waiting for my answer. Meantime, he has his campaign staff to talk to — complaints from the Election Commission about the number of cars he is using, the hours he is keeping.

An accounts man is worried expenses are not being put on paper. Someone buts in saying Sharad Yadav has violated the poll code and he has video footage. “We must complain, Sir, band karwa denge, we will shut his campaign down.” Pappu calms him down. “Do you know Nitish Kumar is in town and will stay here for a week? Why? Because he is afraid of Pappu’s popularity, no need to fight against Sharad Yadav, he has already lost.”

Naashta” arrives — paranthas, several varieties of fried vegetables, dal, heaps of salad, higher heaps of dahi. “Khaaiye!” Pappu exhorts, eat. So who is it that Pappu is fighting in this election, and what for?

Pehle khaaiye naa, Pappu fighting nobody, Pappu fighting for people, janata ke liye.”

But should he be sent back to jail because the government has appealed his acquittal in the Supreme Court?

Eee government rahega tab naa, eee government apne jail jaa raha hai, janata bhej rahi hai.” (But will this government survive? This government itself is going to jail, the people will send it there.)

Pappu gets up, asks a minion to fetch water to wash, then says, “Achha, ab humko kuchh kaam hai. (Okay then, I have to tend to some work now.) And he vanishes into his room.