The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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At hustings, an eye on hitmen
- Surrounded by gods, lord of Dagdi Chawl prays for votes

Mumbai, Oct. 8: He has built around himself a wall of gods.

The first thing that catches the eye on stepping into Dagdi Chawl ' Arun Gawli's infamous residence ' is a temple with three gods; one of them is Lord Krishna.

At the entrance of the four-storey building that Gawli has constructed adjacent to the old chawl as his living quarters is another temple, about 12 ft tall, to Lord Shankar Mahadev.

The walls of the god-fearing Gawli's office on the ground floor are equally fortified. There are pictures of Krishna, Ganesha, Shirdi ke Sai Baba and Goddess Lakshmi; a Buddha idol rests on a mantel crowded with other deities, and brass idols of gods and goddesses nestle in tiny alcoves lit up by small bulbs.

The fourth-floor terrace where Gawli, who is contesting the Assembly elections from Chinchpokli, receives his visitors is also spiritual. The terrace would look like a mini resort with a fake fountain, cane lattices and a green imitation-grass carpet if the view was not of the sprawling chawl and slums.

But a Shiva idol is installed at the head of the fountain, there is a small marble temple to Radha and Krishna on the ter race and a Hanuman fresco on a wall.

For Gawli, the ex-dreaded

don once spoken of in the same breath as Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan but now would-be MLA tipped to win, lives in fear of death - an "encounter killing" or just a stray bullet that can happen any moment - and wants the gods to intervene.

His party, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena, is fielding five candidates from Mumbai, including him, and 10 from other parts of Maharashtra.

"Who is not afraid'" demands Gawli, surprisingly small, frail and mild mannered for his reputation.

Called "Daddy" because of his "father figure" image - the slum dwellers nearby are both scared of and obliged to him - Gawli arrives with two pleasant looking young men as bodyguards who take their positions behind him and listen intently as he speaks.

"There may be orders to Mu-mbai Police from 'above' to do away with me. Someone may be after me," says Gawli, who was convicted twice of murder and illegal possession of arms but the high court set aside the convictions. He did not even step out to cast his vote during the Lok Sabha elections because he was scared, though he contested (and lost).

But this time, he is going

out every day - from 4 in the evening to 10 at night - and then meeting people at his home till 4 in the morning. "I am on the alert always. There are also people looking after me," he says, looking at his bodyguards.

Gawli says he has appealed

to the police several times but they have not provided him enough security. About 10 policemen guard Dagdi Chawl, which Gawli has converted into a fortress and built a high wall around it where 300 other families live.

A police van also accompanies Gawli on his campaigns, say the policemen on duty outside his house entrance.

Gawli, many feel, is set to win. He looks set to benefit from patching up with Nationalist Congress Party leader Sachin Ahir, his nephew who contested the Lok Sabha polls against him.

Gawli, whom people listen to out of fear, also enjoys real support at the ground level -- residents say he has helped widows in the locality with generous amounts of money and arranged for the marriage of many young women.

"I will win 110 per cent," he says. He looks at his young bodyguards, who nod vigorously.

"I have worked hard in this area for four to five years. I know the ground realities. I know what the problems are in slums and chawls - day-to-day life, living conditions, toilets," he says slowly in his soft voice.

"Unlike other party leaders, I give people time and they can come directly to me," he adds.

But he will not be drawn into a detailed conversation on his past. "Ram aur Hanuman ke jaisa logon ka seva karna chahta hoon (I want to serve the people like Ram and Hanuman)," says Gawli, pointing at the Hanuman painting on the wall. "I always wanted to do so. That's why I joined politics," he says.

"I had to see the other side

of life. I had to see grief," he adds, signalling that he is not more willing to speak of his past as "don".

Gawli also brushes aside the suggestion that the money funding his campaign may have anything to do with the underworld. He says it is collected through legitimate channels by party workers. Gawli says his party always has its accounts audited.

"Audit bhi hoye lai," he adds in

Mumbaiyya in a final tone.

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