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“Uff, aa gayi heroine. Raasta do, bhai,” grumbles an elderly gentleman trying to manoeuvre his cycle against the tide of the Meerut populace—marked by groups of young men—that has turned up to catch a glimpse and a cellphone shot of former filmstar Nagma. When she does appear, four hours late, in starched saffron sari and—in contrast with the statement blouses of yore—a conservative, well-tailored, three-quarter-sleeved blouse, her fans swoop down on her. Stepping gingerly out of a sedan, accompanied by hulky bouncers, she gets into a waiting Audi Q7, to begin her roadshow.
This is Nagma’s ‘muh-dikhayi’ of sorts in Meerut, a seat the Congress finally decided to give her after years of her pestering the top brass to give her a ticket from her home base in Mumbai. After more than a decade in the party, if Meerut is what they are giving her, she won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
“It doesn’t matter if she isn’t from Meerut,” says 25-year-old Shabiyanjum Tyagi, who took a day off from her teaching job at a local school to flag off the roadshow as a member of the women’s wing of the party. “I love her movies, especially Bewaffa se Waffa, in which she starred with Juhi Chawla. I’m hoping she takes up women’s safety issues.” Veteran local Congress hand Chand Kapoor, also president on the party’s women’s wing, chimes in: “When a woman takes to the streets to fight an election, we have to support her.”
But Nagma isn’t exactly taking it to the streets just yet. She is comfortably ensconced in the gleaming white SUV, waving from the sunroof, stopping at a few places but not stepping out, nor speaking to anybody. In her interviews, she has spoken of her ‘secular’ image, being born to a Muslim mother, Hindu father, on Christmas Day. The crowd here, though, sees her primarily as “a Muslim film heroine from down south”. Yet, there’s enough curiosity around her to provide her an initial momentum.
Does she feel any connect with the city she is seeing for the first time? “Of course,” she tells us after the roadshow. “People believe celebrities are more honest than political leaders. I have that advantage. People may see me as a Muslim candidate, but I know what I bring to the table: the true Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.” What of the early dismissal of her candidature by opposition parties, like sitting BJP MP Rajendra Aggarwal calling ‘outsider’ Nagma “a non-issue”? “There’s nothing like outsider or insider in politics today. If Narendra Modi can contest from Benares, I can contest from Meerut,” says Nagma, temporarily camping in the city, but promising to move here if she wins.
She’ll need to work harder, though. “Celebrity or not, she’s on a weak wicket,” says local shopowner Gopal Krishna Gupta. Of the four main party candidates in Meerut—Shahid Manzoor of SP, Rajendra Aggarwal of BJP, Haji Shahid Ikhlaq of BSP and Hema Mehra of AAP—two are Muslim. And with the recent riots in Muzaffarnagar, elections will be fought on communal lines more than ever. “And don’t forget, Nagma is seen as Muslim by most of us,” says Gupta. “So even if she has a somewhat clean slate image, why should we vote for her knowing she will lose, as the Muslim votes will be heavily divided among the three Muslim candidates?” She’s also yet to find her feet within the local party unit. “Few Congress heavyweights are seen campaigning with her. She is yet to unite us all under one agenda and form a core group,” says a senior party member. “She still needs to befriend the right people,” feels local party worker Harikishen Verma, “such as popular Congress leader Dayanand Gupta, who was the other probable candidate and has a huge clout here.”
And if Nagma’s playing the women’s card here as she says she is, it doesn’t quite show in her list of to-dos if she becomes MP: “I want to improve the connectivity to Delhi, make Meerut an IT hub, get law and order in place and address the major loan waiver issues the farmers are facing.” Working with an all-male group, women party leaders are conspicuous by their absence. “Even in the film industry, you see fewer women than men around you. But yes, I will be talking to women members of the party and see to their involvement,” she claims.
Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati had once said that she chopped off her long tresses so that they wouldn’t come in the way of her whirlwind political excursions. As you watch Nagma flicking back her bleached straightened hair every few seconds as she signs autographs and smiles for the cameras, every bit the filmstar, you might think she’ll have a different style of politics. With Meerut going to polls in the early phase, despite the city’s brush with celebrity, it’s easy to see why voters may still be on the fence about whether Nagma’s starry enigma will fly in the hurly-burly of UP politics.