|Nagma campaigns in Meerut. File picture
From a distance, No. 222 seemed unlike any candidate’s central election office.
No party flag fluttered in the breeze, nor did any party workers mill around. All that you could see from a mile away were children in school uniform.
A “bark” cut through the squeals of laughter.
A dog? No, a man.
“There are two schools here and the kids gather when their classes get over. Madam has only indulged them. We keep showering them with water to shoo them away, but they keep coming back,” said Irshad, Nagma’s Man Friday, the voice behind the faux bark.
No. 222, on Western Kachahari Road in Meerut city, is the temporary home and office of Nagma, the Congress candidate from Meerut.
Unfortunately for the actress-turned-politician, none of her “fans” gathered outside the house were eligible to vote. Those who were had just come to see a “heroine”.
“She was very pretty in films and is still not bad-looking. But Meerut will vote for the BJP and Narendra Modi,” said Sanjay Gupta, a teacher in a local school in Asora village where Nagma held one of her public meetings.
Majid Khan, a farmer, agreed. “People here vote according to their caste and religion. A new person waving her secular credentials or holding our children in her lap once can’t gain our trust. She said she would come here again if she wins. But we have heard all this before.
|Congress MP Mohammed Azharuddin campaigns for
Nagma in Meerut. File picture
“The local Congress MLA, Gajraj Singh, lives 5km from here. Many of us saw him for the first time today when he accompanied Nagma. She expects us to believe she would do from Mumbai what he didn’t do living amidst us?”
That was on Monday, three days before Meerut votes on April 10.
It’s a tough battle ahead for the 39-year-old Nagma, who faces the Samajwadi Party’s Shahid Manzoor, sitting MP Rajendra Aggarwal of the BJP, Haji Shahid Ikhlaq of the BSP and Hema Mehra of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Muzaffarnagar, the theatre of the recent riots, is just 58km away, which means the elections are likely to be fought on communal lines more than ever before.
Even local Congress workers don’t seem to think much of their candidate.
“She doesn’t have the support of local leaders and is an outsider,” said Harikishen Verma, a local party leader. “She has no clue what she is up against.”
As the actress got into her SUV to drive down to Hapur, a few kilometres away, for a meeting, she paused. “Which castes are there?” she asked some party workers.
“Mixed hai (mixed communities),” one of them replied.
Knowledge gleaned, Nagma, dressed in a crisp cotton sari, set off again — a touch of lipstick and a dab of face powder, ready for the caste, class and communal divides in the region.
“It’s been just 20-odd days, it’s not easy to understand all this so quickly,” she said. “My mother is a Muslim, father a Hindu and I was born on Christmas Day. I am a symbol of national integrity. I want to be an alternative for the people of Meerut who don’t want to vote for extremes.”
At the Hapur meeting, she requested the crowd, mostly Muslim, not to divide their votes. “Don’t cast your votes here and there,” she pleaded.
“(She is working) really hard and sleeps for just five hours,” said her mother Seema, 67, who has joined her daughter on the campaign trail. “Films were a life of luxury. She would have her own vanity van and get food on the sets. Bechari now eats on paper plates on the go.”
Nagma, who now moves around with five burly bouncers after being groped several times, gives credit to her film background for her perseverance. “In films we learn to get our reflexes right. We have to observe things around us and play different reactions of anger, calm, patience. I use all these during my campaign trails.”
Was she enjoying herself?
“Enjoying myself?” she shot back. “Look around.”
Around was the heat, not from arc lights but of hinterland politics.