Smirks that speak and a doctor with no prescription

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Mar 1 2012, 08:08am hrs
You know you are walking on treacherous ground when not merely all journalists but even fund managers on blue (stock market) channels start calling an election the same wayhung house, the SP in front, BSP distant second, Congress and BJP fighting for the wooden spoon. So dont count on me calling this election any which way. All I can do is admit that it is one of the most confusing ever. But if in five days of travel, you do not find one Dalit who is leaving Mayawati, one Yadav who is deserting Mulayam, when Brahmins are generally with the BJP, and the Muslims split 7-3 between the SP and the Congress, you can say only one thing for sure. That even after one of the longest campaigns ever, this UP election is still being fought from fortified votebank trenches. Nobody has been able to rouse the voters into venturing out of these. In 2007, Mulayams mafia raj and Mayawatis image as a tough administrator had persuaded a critical mass of upper-caste voters to walk across the battlelines of caste. No such thing is evident this time.

The BJP has had the strangest approach to this election, considering that before Mayawati in 2007, it was the last party to win a full majority in 1991. They look like cutting their losses rather than winning. So no leader has been projected in a state where they have produced two chief ministers. Uma Bhartis import from Madhya Pradesh is as much to avoid having to name a local leader, and thereby splitting the party, as to keep her off Shivraj Singh Chouhans back in their home state. Narendra Modi is unwilling to expose himself to even campaign in an unwinnable state. It is cute now how many BJP leaders you run into on campaign trail who tell you, we gave in too early, we misread the mood, only if we had come to UP with greater optimism, etc, etc. The partys minimalistic agenda is to finish ahead of the Congress. For that, it counts on its loyal, upper-caste voters and workers. The Congress, it says, has neither.

Arun Jaitley joins us over dinner in Kanpur and speaks his usual mix of candour and optimism. His theory: this was building into a development-oriented campaign like Bihar, until the Congresss promise of reservations for backward Muslims reversed it, and sent every voting group back where it had remained: in the trenches. The impression you get speaking with BJP leaders is, if that works for them, not to win it power but just to stay ahead of the Congress, it seems fine to their leadership. It has no further ambition. Only a nutcase would call Uma Bharti a leader of Uttar Pradesh. Kalraj Mishra and Balramji Tandon are both confined to Lucknow. And in whose name is a party, with a star cast of national leaders, seeking votes Through the state, but more notably in its urban strongholds, you see the familiar smiling face of Atal Bihari Vajpayee asking you to vote BJP. It says something for a party, which ruled this state with a clear majority banishing the Congress, that the only leader its current leadership feels secure enough to flaunt is the one unfortunately so sick he hasnt been seen in public for nearly seven years.

The drive into Kanpur from Unnao and then to the BJP stronghold of Kalyanpur tells you more about the rot in UP than any gram darshan. If Lucknow is Indias most improved city, Kanpur is its most rotten. The foul air you breathe, the refugee-camp roads you drive on, the lawless skyline from your 16th floor hotel room, a postprandial walk dodging paan-spit, excreta, vomit, bandicoots and mosquitoes through what is supposedly the more prosperous commercial areaall tell you a story of corruption, filth, dysfunctional governance and urban decay.

If anybody has to fix UP, she can start from here. Why give Bundelkhand a bad name You would wonder how come a truly violent insurgency has not sprung out of this city yet. What else can you expect in a city so full of young men and women with nowhere to go for a little break, a bit of fun and romance, a breath of fresh air So filthy is it that if a Bollywood romance was shot here, it would have to be called KSKT, a catchy acronym for Koode-dan (garbage dump) se Koode-dan tak.

At Kalyanpur, the stage is set for Rajnath Singhs rally but so few people turn up that he explains it away bravely by saying this is just a corner meeting and his daytime rallies are somewhat bigger. We reach it much before Rajnath does and, as usual, the crowd-warmers are at work, telling stories, rousing emotion, but there really are too few people and too many insects. Then a cow strays into the sterile clearing between the stage and the audience. Arre bhagao isse, goes the cryand then everybody freezes. Who indeed would dare to shoo away a cow, a persistent one at that, at a BJP rally

Rajnath Singh agrees to meet us before addressing the sparse crowd, probably hoping for the small ground to fill up a bit more. He is more interested in finishing ahead of the Congress than winning power in the state he once ran as chief minister. Wouldnt it have been fair and better if he was projected as his partys nominee for chief minister Realities change with time, he says.

One thing you would say about

Rajnath is that he is not as natural a

political liar as politicians usually are. For example:

Question: Can the BJP really win a majority this time

Rajnath: Why not (with a hint of smirk)

Question: Can Uma Bharti ever be the chief minister of UP

Rajnath: Why not (with more than a hint of smirk)

Question: Why is Modi not campaigning here

Rajnath: Because he is busy in Gujarat. (this time with a proper smirk)

There are such internal rivalries and distrust within the top leadership of the BJP today that to compare it to MS Dhonis team in Australia would be kind. But, for whatever it may be worth in seats, its traditional votebank is intact. It may even be coming out in numbers because nothing motivates BJP voters more than a head-to-head with the Congress, even if for minor placings.

The BJPs complacence vis-a-vis the Congress may well turn out to be misplaced. But it is mostly inspired by its rivals organisational inadequacies. And, ironically, a good example of that comes from a rare Congress stronghold outside of the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave, the constituency of Rampur Khas in Pratapgarh district that local luminary Pramod Tiwari has won eight times already, and is tipped to win again. The obvious question: if he is such a stalwart, and an articulate, smart Brahmin, why has he not emerged as at least a state-level leader, a new-edition N.D. Tiwari Answers come from his supporters. Tiwariji, you are told, has relationships in all parties, everybody loves him, so nobody wants him defeated. But Tiwari is not to Rampur Khas what Chandra Shekhar was to Balliaso adored that friend and foe conspired to ensure he was always elected. The secret of this Tiwarijis success is explained proudly by one of his workers in Rampur Baoli (the village of 10,000 boasts an old baoli or traditional stepped water tank, now in disrepair). Our friend, lets call him Mr Dwivedi, in shades, tight jeans, chest jutting straight into your face, paan, motorcycle, an MA in political science and lucrative river-sand contracts under his belt, is a character straight out of a Vishal Bhardwaj movie and shoots pictures of us with his phone-camera even as we ask him questions. Of course, he never takes the shades off. Nobody can defeat Tiwariji, he says, because he not only does so much for this constituency, but his management is also very good. What does management mean It is cutting deals with rivals so he ensures weak Congress candidates against them in neighbouring constituencies while they repay him in his. But, hang on, isnt that match-fixing Arre kya baat karte hain aap Jo jeeta wahi Sikandar. This is the Congress partys big problem. It has no organisation, and where it has a local leader, he only bats for himself. There is, therefore, no party.

What the party has, on the other hand, is a genuine national leader and star campaigner. There are three things on which there is unanimity across all party lines: that Rahul Gandhi is a good, sincere man; that he has worked very hard in UP; and that his speaking skills have improved greatly. In fact, in the current campaign, he is the best speaker, with the only possible exception of Sushma Swaraj. And that is saying something. We find him at Bhoginipur, in Kanpur Dehat, addressing a rally of the size we havent seen anybody except Mayawati attract. He has passion, facts, lines and skill. He delivers a punch periodically, and then pauses for it to sink in, in the manner of a seasoned campaigner, a far cry from the waffling diffidence we had seen in Moradabad in 2007. As a public speaker and campaigner, Rahul Gandhi has arrived. He speaks without notes, keeps eye contact with his audience and even if sometimes his passion (and maybe some excess from speech-writers with convented Hindi) results in mixed metaphors (woh kehte hain kisano ko bijli muft denge, kahan se aayegi bijli Taare toot ke zameen par gir jaayenge kya), his Hindi diction is flawless. He is attracting younger audiences, they go back home talking about him too. Then why are his partys prospects not looking much better Could there be an issue with his message

The problem with Rahul is, he convinces you of what is wrong, but provides no solutions. In a persuasive Kolaveri turn, he lists everybody responsible for UPs woes, but does not tell you how he would fix these. You can ask people to throw out the BSP, SP and BJP but why not tell them what is your plan for them, who is the leader you have chosen to implement it He has the advantage of freshness, passion, a young mind, even younger looks, an old legacy and hard work. But should he be banking entirely on anti-incumbency to deliver the state to him

Nobody raises this question more tellingly than Nazir Ahmed, owner of a tiny tea-shack on the highway in Orai. Woh (Rahul) marz to batate hain, par marz ki dawa nahin (he diagnoses the disease, but does not tell us the treatment). And then, even though this is far from the genteel old state capital, he concludes with a flourish laced with devastating Lucknawi subtlety: Aur phir woh yeh bhi nahin batate ki khud kis marz ki dawa hain (and then he doesnt even tell us which disease is he going to cure us of). People of UP know what their problems are and, mostly, also who is responsible. What they expect from a Rahul Gandhi is ideas and solutions.

Sometimes you also get the impression Rahul is trying too hard. Mocking the BJPs promise of turning Bundelkhand into Israel (by bringing in drip irrigation), he asks his audience if they want Israel here or Bundelkhand. He repeats that line thrice, but the nuance does not register, not even on the large numbers of Muslims who look as baffled as the rest. Why should he target Israel when his country has such an important strategic and commercial relationship with it And what is his solution for Bundelkhand, or for the rest of UP More money for NREGA The new Right to Food law Probably an aspirational population would like to hear from him something more imaginative than the promise of three full meals a day.

Here is what I would have liked to hear from him if I was a voter in UP: the promise of doubling IITs and IIMs, a thousand new Navodaya schools all over the country, a fifth of them in UP, a new international airport, highways, medical and nursing colleges, 24-hour power in five years and, of course, NREGA and the food bill. In short, a promise of inundating the state with tools of empowerment, dignity, better quality of life. Just the things his father used to talk about, to fire our imagination when we were young. Or, okay, younger.

Today, why is the SP talking of computers, and BSP of expressways and airports, and the Congress of merely NREGA and Right to Food But why would, or should, he listen to me I am not even a voter in UP. And politicians make their living, and fame, not by listening to journalists, but by proving them wrong.