Heartland heaves in last-lap heat
Bloodless stab on Uncle Brutus
Two in a race and a pacesetter for Ray
Calcutta Weather

Lucknow, Sept. 29 
It comes from nowhere... this uneasy feeling that it is not exactly a stroll for Atal Behari Vajpayee here. No one is suggesting he would be matched stride for stride and be finally overtaken by his unfancied opponents. After all, you cannot argue with axioms, with self-evident truths. Only former Sadr-e-Riyasats like Karan Singh can peer through their rainbow filters and aspire to stage ?the coup of the century.? Vajpayee will win but the question is by how much.

?Not much,? says Abdul Khaliq, a Sunni Muslim, disillusioned with Mulayam Yadav and his unfounded fear of Sonia Gandhi?s reach. ?Not much,? echoes Markand Mishra, proponent of a vote boycott call at Mohona on the outskirts of the city. ?Not much bigger a victory margin than last time,? is the guarded response of the suave Rajesh Pandey.

Pandey is Vajpayee?s media manager and is among the new breed of BJP leaders, trying to impress you with their straight talk.

It is this fear of a diminishing victory margin that brought George Fernandes here this evening. The defence minister can always elaborate on the part played by Vajpayee in the Kargil war and Fernandes played his part to the hilt. Earlier, campaigning in Amethi, he repeated his barb against Sonia Gandhi. He said: ?Is desh ki abadi mein do se vriddhi karne se hi pradhan mantri banne ka hak unko nahin milta.?

Christians were suspicious of the move. They kept wondering if Fernandes had been invited over for the flavour of his surname. Fernandes is a common surname among Lucknow Christians and like Christians elsewhere, they too have been devastated by the brutal murder of Graham Staines and his two children.

It is the same fear of diminishing victory margin that made the uneasy BJP leadership here summon heavyweights like Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi. Joshi did not draw crowds but a post-Bellary Sushma was a hit. She ridiculed Congress nominee Karan Singh as a Sanskrit scholar who knew only one shloka: ?Farooqen sharanam gachami.?

Even Akali Dal leader Surjeet Singh Barnala was dragged here to address the city?s Sikhs. The BJP leadership here is trying desperately to alter L.K. Advani?s campaign schedule and have him here either tomorrow or day after. Pandey justified this blitzkrieg, saying that Vajpayee?s victory margin has to exceed one lakh twenty thousand, the difference he had achieved last time.

At the root of this panic is a man whom the Brahmin-Baniya leadership refer to as ?Kaaley Khan?. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister is now counting his days and the upper caste BJP leadership is waiting to take over. ?Kaaley Khan? seems to be straight out of Kipling territory. Khan, because Kalyan Singh is a hard-headed man like most Pathans, and Kaaley, not just because he is a dark OBC leader, but also because it sounds so much like Kalyan.

In the Uttar Pradesh capital, the divisions within the state BJP leadership is all too apparent, but no one wants to take the blame for a relatively poor performance by Vajpayee. But the damage has been done. Kalyan Singh?s close associate Kusum Rai (Lalji Tandon would refer to her in more impolite terms) let loose her goons on a troupe of Sahmat performers campaigning against the BJP?s ?politics of hate?.

This morning Sunil Dutt and Dilip Kumar, campaigning for the Congress, turned up at Sahmat?s protest rally at the base of the Ambedkar statue succeeded in drawing a substantial crowd. The Sahmat plea that the politics of ?mohabbat? be promoted and that of ?nafrat? discounted extracted much applause from passers-by.

At Mohona, a rural Assembly segment tagged on to the Lucknow parliamentary constituency, residents told an audience of mediapersons that Vajpayee had not visited them even once since 1991. They took the journalists around to the ruins of the primary health centre where let alone a doctor, even the anganwadi worker does not step in. The junior high school looks like a neglected mausoleum of the Nawabs and those who have finished primary school have to trudge more than 5 km to attend classes.

Wrestler Mohammad Ali agrees that Kalyan Singh has obliged the Shia community here by allowing them to take out the Muharram tazia after 22 years. ?But what about development?? he asks. He is among the 70,000 tempo-owners who were abruptly asked to discontinue their services three months ago in an effort to reduce pollution in the congested town.

Islahul Haque insists that the Sunnis have deserted Mulayam Singh Yadav because they had nothing to gain. If the Yadav leader was the real messiah, he should have helped Sonia Gandhi form the government in April. Snubbing Sonia was almost a betrayal of the Muslim cause. ?We do not know who opened the locks, we know who demolished Babri,? is the new refrain among Muslims.

Karan Singh insists he knows both Sanskrit and Urdu. But he is curt to Congress heavyweights who are camping in the capital. And he does not know Lucknow. Otherwise Vajpayee would have had a run for his money.    

Rae Bareli, Sept. 29 
It was as belligerent an invasion as invasions can get in a democratic war. Priyanka Gandhi breached the Amethi frontier this morning and strode into the neighbouring lost kingdom of Rae Bareli, every bit the dispossessed scion seeking retribution and reclamation. She was armed with a smile that concealed a tongue freshly tipped in vitriol and straining to lash at uncle and BJP rival Arun Nehru.

?There is a candidate here,? she said, without granting Nehru the honour of direct mention, ?who betrayed Indiraji?s family and plunged a dagger in my father?s back. How did you even let that traitor enter this place? A man who can betray his brother can never work for the people. Defeat him.? The crowd, packed into the small ground like potatoes in a sack, was for a moment stunned at Priyanka displaying dirty linen but recovered quickly to offer its seal of approval: uproarious applause. ?Theek bola, bahut achche,? cried an old man strapped to the barricades, ?Indiraji ki poti hai, maaf nahi karegi.? (Rightly said, bravo. She is Indira?s granddaughter, she is not going to forgive.)

As the applause rang, Priyanka herself stood back to measure the import of words she knew were going to weigh heavy, this side or that. Calling an uncle names can turn off people in what remains an extremely conservative part of the land, but fighting in the name of a departed father and grandmother can also earn you points; the more doggedly you fight, the more you gain. In any event, brutal as it was, Priyanka had executed her stab at Arun Nehru dextrously. ?This morning,? she told the meeting, ?I called up my mother and asked her whether I could bare my heart to the people of Rae Bareli. She said I could but without attacking anyone personally. I do not have her permission to say what I am saying but I am baring my heart because I am one of you. I am young and my blood boils. How has this person even dared to contest from Rae Bareli, my grandmother?s karmabhoomi??

If she had crossed the limits in striking her uncle, it was not her mother?s fault. Nor hers really; it was only her youth and its anger at betrayal. But the response wouldn?t have worried her on that count; her audience was won, suffering from visible pangs of loyalty to the new Nehru-Gandhi and pangs of regret for having banished the Congress this last decade. ?Priyanka nahin yeh aandhi hai, is yug ki Indira Gandhi hai.? Someone in the crowd had raised that slogan and the encore was unstoppable.

Captain Satish Sharma, conscience-keeper of the Congress? first family and party candidate from Rae Bareli, was rather a pitiable presence on the podium with daughter Saarika. They may well not have been there.

If Captain Sharma eventually get the better of Arun Nehru in Rae Bareli, it will be because of Priyanka?s one-day blitz. Priyanka knows too and said as much. ?I have come here because I want to reclaim the land my grandmother made her home,? she repeated ad nauseum at meeting after meeting.

She left Amethi in an eight-car caravan but by the time she had hit Rae Bareli, it was a trail two miles long: cars, jeeps, scooters, motorcycles, drumbeaters, dancers, buglemen. Her progress was impeded by its own excess; the crowds, surging out of villages and townships with Priyanka-Priyanka on their lips, wouldn?t let the caravan move. She would stick her hand out and wave but they wanted more. She would step out and chat but they wanted yet more.

When the cavalcade reached the hotel where Arun Nehru stays, Priyanka did a bit of what she wanted. She stuck her torso out of the Safari and began an impromptu little speech. ?Who do you want to represent you?? she asked, precariously balanced on the car window, ?Us or them? Tell me, us or them?? The crowd was milling round and round. If Arun Nehru were watching from his hotel window, he would have been nervous.    

Calcutta, Sept. 29 
They are as different as chalk and cheese. Yet, their campaigns seem alike.

This is most evident in the Muslim-dominated areas of Calcutta North-West.

If Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Congress? only stellar candidate, is reciting from the Quran, the Trinamul Congress? Sudip Bandopadhyay, the sitting MP, is either donning the fez or taking out mushy advertisements in Urdu newspapers.

Calcutta North-West has a 20 per cent Muslim electorate and they could be one of the key factors because of the possibility of voting as a block.

Bandopadhyay has been in jitters ever since Ray filed his nomination. So when he says that nowhere in the state does his party face a more formidable opponent, he has a point.

The CPM?s vitriolic attack on Ray, describing him as a ?killer? during his tenure as chief minister between 1972 and 1977, has actually helped heighten his anti-communist profile.

?They (CPM) are crazy, otherwise who would go to town saying that I used to drink bucketsful of human blood when I was chief minister,? Ray tells tittering audiences at public meetings.

But electioneering this time has been a little different for Ray.

In successive earlier contests, his wife, Maya, had not only been one of his chief strategists but a wily campaigner of the old Indira Gandhi gharana ? arms folded and a smile that won hearts. Not this time.

?I have health problems. I am holding fort here at the central office to monitor internal arrangements,? says Maya. The Beltala residence of the former chief minister-cum-governor-cum-ambassador has been turned into his central election office.

For him this is the third and, perhaps, the final bid to get back to the Lok Sabha after the abortive attempts in Darjeeling and Berhampore.

On Ray?s balancesheet, the absence of Maya certainly goes in the debit column. Especially so when the fight is in the core of urban Calcutta and when rival Bandopadhyay?s efforts to retain the seat are being spearheaded by actress-wife Nayana.

Taking full advantage of Maya?s absence, Bandopadhyay is pressing ahead everywhere with Nayana in tow. ?She?s been accompanying me on padayatras,? he said.

But the biggest strength for Bandopadhyay in this smallest of the city?s three constituencies, with a total electorate of 705,000, lies in its saffron core.

In the whole of West Bengal, this is one constituency where one can hear catchy slogans like those doing the rounds in the Hindi heartland: ?Raj tilak ki karo tayari / Aa rahe hai Atal Behari,? or ?Mata, Baheno, rakkhe dhyan/ Jora Phul me lagaye nishan.?

Calcutta North-West comprises the city?s central business district. The five Assembly segments of Burrabazar, Bowbazar, Jorasanko, Jorabagan and part of Shyampukur are dominated by the trading community who have a natural affinity for the BJP.

The saffron base has been evident in successive elections. ?There is a rock-solid, committed BJP vote bank of 100,000. Whoever tries to beat me would have to secure as many votes first to be in the race,? says Bandopadhyay.

With the 35 per cent non-Bengali-speaking voters in mind, the BJP-Trinamul combine despatched home minister L.K. Advani to the constituency, prompting Ray to send an SOS to the high command.

Aware of the concentration of the Marwari business community in Calcutta North-West, the AICC has sent across star campaigners from Rajasthan, including chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his Cabinet colleagues Pradhuman Singh, B.D. Kalla, Bina Kak and Harendra Mirdha.

BJP sources say an internal assessment has shown that support in urban areas for the Trinamul-BJP combine will register a five 10 per cent increase because of the Kargil war.

But it is the committed BJP vote that seems to be Bandopadhyay?s weakness, too. The full-fledged electoral understanding between Trinamul Congress and the BJP has alienated most of the Muslims.

Fortunately for him, the chances of a consolidation of the Muslim vote is slim. While Ray is a popular leader among the Muslims, the CPM is also a party they have voted for in successive polls. The more the Muslim vote splits between Ray and the CPM nominee, Rajdeo Goala, the better for Bandopadhyay.

A trade union leader and member of the CPM?s Calcutta district committee, Goala is banking on Hindi-speaking voters in Jorabagan, Jorasanko, Burrabazar and Bowbazar.

But, other than Bowbazar, the Left Front does not hold any of these Assembly segments.

The overall balance is also against them with sitting MLAs in only three of the seven Assembly seats.

No one expects Rajdeo Goala to win. Some say he is in the race only to set the pace for Ray.    


Maximum: 33.1?C (+1)

Minimum: 25.9?C (+1)

RAINFALL: 49.3mm

Relative humidity:

Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 66%


The met office predicts a drizzle or two in some areas. The sky will remain partly cloudy.

Sunset: 5.24 pm Sunrise: 5.31 am    


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