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Diva peddles dreams from a distance

Hema Malini cuddles a baby while campaigning in Mathura

Hema Malini has little in common with her constituency.

Dotted with temples, pandas ready to pounce at every street corner, Mathura is like an elderly woman desperately clinging on to a proud history that years of neglect have robbed of its sheen.

Hema, Bollywood’s Dream Girl turned BJP candidate, is everything a diva should be: elegant, aloof, sometimes irritated, suddenly charming, and always beautiful.

Amid the squalor of the city with its overflowing drains, broken roads, mounds of garbage, dry taps and power cuts, the actress in her dazzling chanderi sari and makeup is like an angel from another world, promising to spruce up Mathura.

“This is Krishnanagari; it should be clean and beautiful. These people live in sadness. The Uttar Pradesh government has failed to deliver. When I come, I will give the people all that they want,” she says, swishing her ring-adorned hands as if wielding a magic wand.

“I shall bring a technique to the villages here so that people won’t even need to boil their water; they’ll get pure drinking water,” she adds, referring to a brand of water purification system that she endorses on television.

Some of her constituents, though, complain about her aloofness, saying that till recently, she wouldn’t even get off her air-conditioned car or talk to the people.

“She is peddling dreams. Many may buy into them because of the aura that Narendra Modi has lent to her campaign. But she is averse to greeting people or getting within touching distance of us; how can the people buy that?” said Mohan Lal, a schoolteacher in Govardhan, another holy town 22km from Mathura.

The actress, a former Rajya Sabha member contesting her first popular election, concedes Modi’s contribution to her campaign but protests that she has “made my contributions too”.

“I’m not like other politicians; I’m genuine. I smile and they (Mathura residents) feel happy. I can see the twinkle in their eyes when they meet me. I have made myself like that,” she says.

Hema seems to have mended her ways, though. She has recently been photographed holding a sickle, operating a hand pump and even trying her hand at farm work. It’s no big deal, she says.

“Even in movies we used to shoot outdoors all the time, braving the heat. People would crowd around us. I am used to this,” she says, sitting resplendent in her upscale hotel room, fresh from her puja and surrounded by framed pictures of Radha and Krishna gifted by her well-wishers.

Outside, fans crowd the small foyer of the hotel, where her entourage had booked almost all the 20 rooms for over a month.

“When I win, I shall find time to stay in Mathura for longer stretches, get a house here and meet people in a relaxed manner. Not in the rushed way I am meeting them now,” Hema says.

Caste challenge

While the actress has been drawing the crowds all right, local party workers are worried that she has failed to cut into the 3.5 lakh Jat votes, which seem headed for her main rival, sitting Rashtriya Lok Dal MP Jayant Chaudhary.

“Chaudhary is likely to win because he is a nice man. But one cannot entirely write off Hemaji,” said Naresh, a confectioner in Vrindavan.

“Hundreds of pilgrims come here from Gujarat and we get to hear about what Modi has done for his state. So, many of us think that it will be nice to give the BJP a chance.”

Chaudhary’s biggest plus is the legacy of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, who still commands reverence among the Jats of the area. Add a major chunk of the 80,000-strong Muslim votes, and Chaudhary emerges as a formidable candidate indeed.

Another of his advantages is the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s electoral alliance with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. The recently introduced reservations for the Jats will be doing no harm to Chaudhary’s chances, either.

Local BJP workers who are unwilling to be quoted grumble about Hema’s temper and her “inability to connect with the masses”.

Sources said the actor, who has direct access to Modi and speaks to him at least once a day, recently complained to him about lack of support from a section of local party leaders.

Two senior BJP leaders were promptly sent to Mathura to coordinate her campaign. Party president Rajnath Singh held a rally in the constituency on Saturday and Modi himself flew down to the city on Monday.

“We believe in Lord Ram’s mantra ‘pran jaye par vachan na jaye’ (better lose your life than fail to keep your word),” Modi told the meeting.

“See how Dwarka was a decade ago and see it now: there’s a lot of difference. Similarly, why can’t we promote tourism in Mathura? I congratulate Hemaji. Through popular culture, Lord Krishna has become popular around the world.”

Mathura elected BJP candidates from 1991, when the Ayodhya movement gathered momentum, through to 1999. But it elected the Congress’s Manvendra Singh in 2004 and Chaudhary in 2009.

Ironically, Hema had campaigned for Chaudhary the last time, when his party was a BJP ally.

Mathura voted on April 24