Beni babus chashma

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Mar 7 2012, 01:37am hrs
Politicians are often ruled by party discipline and for the most part toe the party lines. Infractions are swiftly punished and penitence extracted from shamefaced leaders. An exception to this rule in India are the crusty socialists flogging their maverick politics from the heydays of the 1990s.

Who can forget Sharad Yadav and his par kati remark on the Womens Reservation Bill, or Raghuvansh Prasad Singh calling Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P Chidambaram anti-rural, anti-poor during a meeting to discuss the MGNREGA. Now added to this list is steel minister Beni Prasad Verma. His statement that the Congress would be better off allying with Mayawati rather than his erstwhile leader Mulayam Singh Yadav in a post-poll scenario in UP has stirred a hornets nest, but surprisingly brought no action against him.

What makes Beni babu, as he is known, so important to the Congress What makes him prefer Mayawati to Mulayam Beni Prasad Verma, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal started off as allies back in 1989, the former two starting out from Lohiaite socialist politics with Kurmi and Yadav vote banks to back them, while Singh had his fathers legacy of Jat leadership.

Together as part of the Janata Dal, the three saw the party come to power in UP in 1989. A controversy over who would be chief minister (always an issue in socialist governments) erupted between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh. Yadav and Verma found themselves on one side of the divide, and it was Verma along with Madhukar Dighe who fought to make Mulayam chief minister in 1989.

It is ironic, therefore, that in 2012, Verma would prefer to ally with Mayawati, and fight elections on the same side as Ajit Singh and spew venom against Mulayam Singh.

The fallout between Verma and Yadav occurred in the Amar Singh era of the Samajwadi Party. The late 1990s and the 2000s saw the rise of Amar Singh in the party, who managed to convince Mulayam Singh that his old lieutenants in the party had outlived their efficacy.

Vermas hold on the votes of the Kurmi, a powerful OBC category in the state, was also weakening at that time. It seemed he had already peaked in politics when he was made communications minister in the Deve Gowda government in 1996-97, but his Kurmi base (partially appropriated by Sone Lal Patel of the Apna Dal and Jang Bahadur Patel of the BSP) appeared to be slipping. In this scenario, Amar Singh found no difficulty in side-lining him in the party and so matters drifted till Verma left the party in a huff. His maverick ways, rustic outlook and preference for cheap cigarettes were out of step with a Bollywood-friendly Samajwadi Party. The immediate trigger was denial of an Assembly ticket in 2007 to his son Rakesh Verma from Barabanki, Vermas home turf.

After a period spent in political wilderness, which saw him all but wiped out electorally, the Congress discovered Verma in its quest for a caste base in UP, notwithstanding the fact that OBCs have never been fond of the Congress.

And Verma delivered too. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, a significant section of the Kurmi vote shifted to the Congress, making it number one in UP. The same is expected of Verma now, which is why there is a conspicuous silence over his controversial utterances.

Old socialists are badbolas (chatter boxes); they will speak till they end up harming themselves. Beni babu is no different, said one senior central minister. People still remember Beni babus darbars, where he would sit with folded legs on a chair, take a deep, lung-filling pull of a Capstan cigarette (he later shifted to Wills Navy cut) and refer to every major leader by first name before shredding their political reputations apart.

The same minister however said that if Verma fails to deliver, the Congress party is likely to be as ruthless with him as he is with his verbal set-downs. Let Beni babus chashma (spectacles) come down from Rahul Gandhis face, said the minister. He has a respite of less than 24 hours now.

nistula.hebbar@expressindia.com