|The hexagonal podium that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru used whenever they addressed a public meeting in Kanpur; (left) fitness gear used by Chandrashekhar Azad at the Tilak Hall, which houses the Congress headquarters in Kanpur. Pictures by Radhika Ramaseshan
Tilak Hall is steeped in history and heritage. But were it not for the Congress flag or two adorning it, you would miss the building on Meston Road, known more for its publishing houses and gun shops.
Named after Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the building houses the Congress’s headquarters in Kanpur. It was occasionally home to party stalwarts such as Govind Vallabh Pant and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and, later, Jagjivan Ram.
To an extent, the building’s current condition mirrors the state of the party in Uttar Pradesh.
Its legacy is reflected in the Tilak quote inscribed on the doorway — “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it” — and a dumbbell that was used by the fitness freak Chandrashekhar Azad.
There’s also a hexagonal podium, painted in the emblematic tricolour, which used to be placed on the dais of Phool Bagh Maidan, Kanpur’s historic public ground, whenever Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru addressed a meeting there.
But the memorabilia lie in a state of disuse and disrepair although in 2012, the Congress released a big sum to revamp the building, inaugurated by Nehru on July 24, 1934, after the Mahatma had laid the foundation stone in 1931.
The only visible sign of refurbishment is the fresh coat of paint on the podium, which the local Congress wants properly restored so that “some day”, the present-day Gandhis can stand on it and speak to Kanpur from Phool Bagh.
Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul, though, has ever stepped into Tilak Hall.
But Indira Gandhi did. She launched her post-Emergency comeback in Uttar Pradesh by leading a procession from Tilak Hall to the nearby Haleem College, disregarding advice that a replica of Delhi’s Turkman Gate had been erected there.
The Turkman Gate had been the site of an infamous Emergency-era slum demolition drive and police firing on those who resisted it. The replica was put up to remind Indira of her son Sanjay Gandhi’s excesses against the minorities.
But Indira is said to have gone ahead and addressed a minority audience.
In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi stopped by at Tilak Hall while holding a series of road shows in Uttar Pradesh. It seems Rajiv was looking for a set of fresh kurta-pyjamas when he came to Tilak Hall. A local party worker offered him one of his own.
It was Sriprakash Jaiswal, now 69 and fighting to win his Lok Sabha seat for the fourth time in the face of anti-incumbency feelings against the Congress and palpable pro-Narendra Modi sentiments.
But coal minister Jaiswal, despite the coal-block allocation controversy, is very much in the fight against BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi, thanks to his reputation as a conscientious parliamentarian.
“Jaiswalji fights an election throughout the year, 24x7,” claimed Rajendra Mishra, the Kanpur Congress vice-president.
“He is here every Saturday and Sunday even when Parliament is in session. He is available to the people in the mornings and evenings unless he is invited to functions such as weddings or mundans (tonsure ceremony),” Mishra added.
“He keeps an open house, listens to people, accepts their complaints and petitions, and acts on them to the extent possible.”
A local publisher, Sanjay Tripati, endorsed the claims. He said that if he weren’t “overcome by a desire” to vote for Modi, Jaiswal would have been his choice.
“Joshi doesn’t even have one per cent of (Jaiswal’s) glamour or personality, but what to do? Now Modi is in the frame. Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi hai (Compulsion is the name of the game),” Tripati said.
The Congress is playing on the “accessible local versus distant outsider” theme to shore up Jaiswal’s prospects.
Mishra recalled that after this year’s Holi, when Kanpur hosted its weeklong “Ganga Mela” on the river’s banks, politicians had camped there to connect with the people.
“The camaraderie was unbelievable. There were no party labels; everyone mingled with everyone. No politician sat in one place,” the party official said.
“But Joshiji sat in a chair in his tent, expecting people to call on him. Jaiswalji did and, reluctantly, Joshiji agreed to have himself photographed with him.”
The Congress privately fears that the upper caste consolidation around the BJP may blunt Jaiswal’s chances unless the Muslims rally behind him. Kanpur has approximately 4.5 lakh Muslim voters and 5.5 lakh Brahmin voters.
Kanpur votes on April 30