| Uma Bharti
Birsinghpur (Chitrakoot), Nov. 25: It is a crisp winter morning and we are about to take off from Bhopal to accompany Uma Bharti on her campaign tour. She has been designated the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate if it assumes power in Madhya Pradesh.
“Today you will have to be my brother,” Uma says while climbing into the four-seater Ecureuil helicopter. Before I can start wondering what this entails, one of her assistants hands me three different packets of medicines with instructions about the frequency with which she should take them. The BJP’s star campaigner has virtually lost her voice and the medicines are to soothe her throat and somehow bring her voice back.
Then suddenly Uma leans over and hands me a polythene bag with Haldiram’s printed on it. It contains a few bundles of five hundred rupee notes — campaign fund to be carried to her constituency of Bada Malera. “Give it to me at the first meeting,” she says nonchalantly.
The other passenger in the helicopter is Britain’s new high commissioner to India, Michael Arthur. He has plunged into studying Indian elections a day after presenting his credentials.
There is a child-like innocence in Uma asking the helicopter pilot: “Can I sit in front' I always sit in front.” He tells her that is not possible as the seat is for the navigator. “Don’t fly over 200 feet,” Uma, who suffers from vertigo, tells the pilot. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel the height,” he reassures her. She calms herself by counting beads — first small ones, then big ones.
Before the first campaign meeting, she stops at the Shiva temple at Jatashankar. As she walks down barefoot to the temple situated in a gorge, the crowd shouts: “Uma Bharti sant hai, Diggy tera ant hai (Uma Bharti is a saint and she is Digvijay’s nemesis).” This is a slogan that follows her everywhere.
This is Uma’s own constituency. She does not want to give a speech but the people mob her. She says a few words but doesn’t quite warm up to the rag-tag crowd.
It is at the next stop, Sattai, that Uma addresses her first proper campaign meeting. She calls me aside, takes the Haldiram’s bag and gives it to one of her campaign managers.
Then she invites the high commissioner to the dais and introduces him to the crowd. “He has come to see how our democracy functions. Show him by raising your hands how excited you are about these elections,” she tells them and the crowd roars with both arms raised. “Are you going to show him your palms (the Congress symbol) or your fists'” she admonishes them. They quickly form fists. An amused Arthur sits on a white plastic garden chair with a marigold garland around his neck, holding a bouquet of roses.
Uma laments the lack of development in the state. She promises proper electricity supply within three months of assuming power, roads within 18 months and self-employment opportunities for the youth in three years’ time.
If elected, she says, in her first cabinet meeting she would ban cow slaughter, regularise daily wage employees, withdraw professional tax, make electricity costs commensurate with availability and abolish district administration to empower the panchayats. This is populism at its best.
Then as suddenly as she had arrived, she rushes off. “But where is the British high commissioner'” she asks. Arthur has been delayed because his shoes have gone missing. Thankfully, he finds them. A headline screaming “British high commissioner’s shoes stolen on the first day of assuming office” would not do much to strengthen Indo-British ties. “Don’t take off your shoes at these meetings,” Uma admonishes him.
At Kishangarh, Rewa, Birsinghpur and other meetings, she hammers home the theme that while the Centre provided financial help, an “incompetent” state administration did not use it.
She appeals to religious imagery only when she asks women “to become Durga and bless her”; the elderly “to become like Jambwant of the Ramayana to guide her to Lanka” so that she can destroy it; and the youngsters “to become like Bajrangbali and prepare for setting fire to the Congress party’s Lanka.”
Meanwhile, she finds time to offer the local delicacy poha, made of flattened rice, to the high commissioner and this reporter; make sure that we don’t get left behind in the election melee; and ask about our staying arrangements. She is most embarrassed by the condition of her throat and constantly apologises — “I have starting problems,” she whispers with a smile.