The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hema wanted, even in Lucknow
Hema: Comes and goes

There were two shows in town the night I was in Lucknow, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s constituency. Hema Malini, alias Basanti tangawaali of Sholay fame, was scheduled to speak on behalf of the BJP in the Aminabad area of the city, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was to represent his Samajwadi Party. It was an uneven contest, so uneven that the chief minister conceded defeat before the contest even started. News must have reached him that Hema was the bigger crowd-puller. And so he didn’t turn up.

The traffic in Aminabad moves at the speed of the slowest vehicle, a cycle-rickshaw, and frequently doesn’t move at all. The chaos was made worse by the police bandobast for Hema’s meeting so I got out of my car, which was a stupid vehicle to have chosen to travel in anyhow, and walked. I had set out late, knowing election speakers’ habit of not turning up on time, but I was afraid that, with all the delays in threading my way through the congested streets I might have over-compensated for that factor and missed the meeting. As I got nearer the makeshift pandal set up in the middle of a busy market, I realised I need not have worried because I heard blaring over the loudspeakers the standard patter of the warm-up men. In British music halls, they were the artistes who warmed up the audience before the star arrived. In Indian elections, they are the local political worthies who try to keep the audience entertained until the main speaker arrives.

Their exhortations to vote for Vajpayee, the praise heaped on him for making General Musharraf come to terms with India, for bringing prosperity at home, for building roads, and all the rest of it were matched by scorn heaped on Sonia Gandhi and derision on Mulayam Singh. As the clock ticked away and there was no sign of the star, the warm-up speeches were repeatedly interrupted by announcements that Hema was on her way, but she wasn’t. In the end, I have to admit I gave up. A colleague who did stay there until the finish told me Hema eventually arrived just before the 10 ’clock deadline on political meetings and said: ‘“I am here to canvass for votes on behalf of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’ and disappeared.”

From talking to the crowd I could see why political parties like to have film stars on their side. No one had turned up to listen to the speeches or support the BJP.

Everyone I spoke to said: “I’ve come for Hema.” Whether that translates into votes will have to be seen. In the BJP office in Lucknow, Vindhyavasini Kumar, the general secretary, believed stars, film and political, did attract votes, not just audiences.

“Dr (Murli Manohar) Joshi, Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini, Pramod Mahajan they are all useful and they are all coming to show their loyalty to Vajpayeeji,” he told me. “But surely you don’t need stars, you are going to win anyhow,” I suggested to the remarkably affable and relaxed general secretary. “Well yes,” he replied “but we mustn’t be complacent.” And when I asked whether they had been complacent, he said, “Yes” but added hurriedly “we are not now”. But I got no reply when I asked whether the complacency had been shattered by the fallout from the tragedy at Lalji Tandon’s birthday celebration.

I discovered there was good cause for the BJP’s concern in Lucknow. An official told a friend of mine waiting at that meeting there was still the possibility of the election being countermanded if the gift of saris was interpreted as electoral corruption. Then there could be a problem with BJP workers. Although Lalji Tandon is not exactly a charismatic politician, he is very popular with BJP workers.

Apparently, he is the only one of the BJP local leaders who bothers with the workers. Vajpayee himself is too busy elsewhere and the state leaders in Lucknow are not known for their approachability, according to local journalists. One journalist said, “there is a danger that the workers won’t turn out on election day if Tandon is sidelined.” It’s going to be very important to get those workers out. The summer heat is going to be a deterrent to voters and every party will need to use all its powers of persuasion to get the electorate into the polling booths.

Then there’s the problem of Lucknow itself. All the years it has been represented by Vajpayee haven’t exactly turned the capital of Uttar Pradesh into a Bangalore or Hyderabad. In fact it’s difficult to find any impact Vajpayee has had on this once beautiful city.

If the BJP was hoping that Muslims would listen to the Prime Minister’s appeal and vote for his party, those hopes suffered a setback with the announcement by the Milli Council, the political wing of the Muslim Personal Law Board, of the candidates their community should support in the first round of the election. Studying the list it became clear to me that the council wanted Muslims to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the BJP.

All this is not to say that the Prime Minister is likely to be defeated in Lucknow. Nor is it to ignore the fact that the Congress has shot itself in the foot by supporting Ram Jethmalani rather than putting up its own candidate. More than once I was told that Karan Singh had given Vajpayee a good fight in the last election and a strong Congress candidate would have done the same this time. What the BJP wants to achieve is “a thumping victory” for Vajpayee. There clearly are problems about that, but no one thinks Jethmalani is one. That makes it all the stranger that Vajpayee should have been so keen on his withdrawal.

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