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Democracy begins at home. The original Congress fetish of promoting kith and kin at any cost is now endemic to all political parties, as evidenced in this week's assembly elections. If in Madhya Pradesh an Atal Behari Vajpayee look-alike is leaving voters with a sense of deja vu, in Rajasthan there is a spectre of biwi-raj and in Delhi a tainted politician has secured a ticket for his brother.

MADHYA PRADESH

THE man in white kurta with an angarkha carefully thrown around his neck, fingers clasped together just above his belly, starts delivering his speech in impeccable Hindi. A hush descends on the crowd. The delivery is excruciatingly slow, yet with the right intonation, pauses and emphasis. His eyes are mostly focused on the ceiling, the facial muscles tense as he searches for the apt phrase, and the right hand occassionally goes up for emphasis.

 
 
VIJAYARAJE SCINDIA HAS SECURED BJP TICKETS FOR HER BROTHER AND DAUGHTER.
 
 
His rhetoric encompasses patriotism, Congress misrule and the BJP's achievements in the past eight months....

Voters in Lashkar (west), Gwalior, have their own home-grown substitute for Atal Behari Vajpayee in BJP candidate Anup Mishra, who has gone through great pains to imitate his famous maternal uncle lest anyone miss the point. In an election remarkable for the number of relatives of senior leaders in the fray, Mishra's cousin and Vajpayee's niece Karuna Shukla is also testing the waters from Baloda Bajar.

In fact, the Gwalior region has a surfeit of this species, with the BJP fielding Rajmata Scindia's brother Dhyanendra Singh from Murar. Nearby Shivpuri has Yashodhara Raje, her youngest daughter, determined to break into representative politics. Her attempt to enter the Lok Sabha from her mother's Guna-Shivpuri seat in March was foiled over a foreign citizenship quibble.

My own blood's thicker than my workers'—this seems to have been the BJP motto, as it has fielded 16 close blood relations of established leaders. The Congress has gone one better with 21. Indeed, during distribution of tickets, any leader with a son or daughter, niece, nephew or even a father but was unable to push their tickets through tumbled down a few notches in stature. While stalwarts Arjun Singh and Motilal Vora were able to push through their sons—Ajay and Arun—former chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla could not swing it for his son Amitesh, 45, who has since stopped talking to his father.

 
 
VOTERS WORRY THAT IF ELECTED, RAMA PILOT WILL BE ACCESSIBLE ONLY BY TELEPHONE.
 
 

The procession of relatives was preceded by some protracted bargaining between leaders. Sunderlal Patwa wanted a ticket for his brother Sampat but had to strike a deal with the Uma Bharati faction. Uma succeeded in getting a ticket for brother Swami Prasad Lodhi from Malehara in Chattarpur district after Patwa swung it for his nephew Mangal from his home seat Manasa. Swami Prasad, who has been charged with armed dacoity in the past, had earlier also approached the Congress for a ticket.

For a party which has relentlessly attacked the Congress for its servility to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, this familial lobbying is something of an embarassment. BJP president Kushabhau Thakre attempted to explain it thus: "All relatives who have been given tickets are devoted party workers and officebearers. We have objected to people like Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia just parachuting from the top."

The candidates have their own explanations. "Why should we not contest elections? People who raise such questions do not even have an inkling of the Scindia dynasty's contribution to the area. Representation in assembly gives me a chance to continue it," says Yashodhara. To others like Dhyanendra Singh, it is a case of giving the most winnable candidate a chance. But he readily admits: "Yes, being Rajmata's brother is a plus as there is no one in this area who does not seek her blessings."

The Scindias have also another allegation to counter. They have not only hogged party tickets but have assiduously protected their turf. With family members holding important posts in both parties, allegations about deliberately fielding weak opponents have become commonplace.This time too Yashodhara has Hariballabh Shukla from the Congress who does not even belong to Shivpuri. Dhyanendra was accused of campaigning for Madhavrao Scindia during the Lok Sabha polls after it appeared that Bajrang Dal president Jaybhan Singh Pavaiyya would sweep to victory. In the event, Pavaiyya trailed in Murar and Dabra assembly segments and lost by a narrow margin. Narottam Mishra, who is believed to have helped Scindia in the Dabra segment, has been rewarded with a BJP ticket this time.

The irony is that most of these high-pro-file candidates have lost elections in the past. Anup from Gird in '93, Ajay from Bhojpur in the same year and Dhyanendra from Murar in '80 and '93. Shyam Bais, brother of Union minister for steel and mines Ramesh Bais, lost the '93 elections and has again got the ticket against last time's winner Congress' Satyanarain Sharma. The question is: will it be second, or third time lucky for them?

RAJASTHAN

Bhanwar Jitender Singh, 28-year-old princeling of Alwar, wants a royal gift from his loyal praja: a seat in the Rajasthan assembly. "He has everything but lacks what you alone can give him," an ardent supporter exhorts voters. The look is distinctly Rajiv-esque; kurta-pyjama with Reeboks, white Gypsy self-driven with zip and the same pink-cheeked affability. He's even imported Rajiv Gandhi's election agent of 1984 and 1991 from Amethi to help him with his maiden effort at the hustings.

The second son of former MP Mahendra Kumari (princess of Bundi and Yuvrani of Alwar), he's a newcomer to politics and to the Congress. He and his mother both joined the Congress on October 26 this year at a function attended by the state unit's top brass, including the general secretary in charge of Rajasthan, Madhavrao Scindia, and MP Nawal Kishore Sharma.

Mahendra Kumari was elected on a BJP ticket in 1991, but contested as an independent when she was denied the official nomination in 1998. She lost to the hoary Congressman Ghasi Ram Yadav by a slim margin of 2,500 votes. "Yuvrani-sa", says Jit-ender Singh, joined the Congress after rediscovering her secular moorings. Besides, she was unhappy with chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat for not taking action against her husband's murderers. The fact that the Yuvraj was killed during the Emergency, when the Congress was in power, is no reflection on the party in his view.

He's a familiar face around Alwar, having campaigned door-to-door and village-to-village for his mother. The BJP nominee and sitting MLA, Meena Aggarwal, is a soft target. "Yuvranisa", elegantly swathed in chiffon, is lending a helping hand when not campaigning for the party in Bundi. "I hadn't thought about joining politics. I didn't ask for a ticket," says Jitender Singh, but Scindia talked him into it. Blue blood will always tell.

Meanwhile, a long way from her natural habitat, the drawing rooms of Delhi, Rama Pilot has hit the dusty campaign trails of rural Rajasthan with a vengeance. For voters in Hindoli, her USP is the fact that she's the wife of Dausa MP and former Union minister of state for Home Rajesh Pilot.

The Congress nominee has been in the electoral fray in Rajasthan twice before. She won from Hindoli in 1990 but, "for reasons I don't know", was shifted to Bansur in Alwar district in 1993. She lost to an independent, Rohtash Kumar Sharma, who later joined Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's cabinet. Determined to make up for that thumping loss, she traverses the Hindoli assembly segment from dawn to dusk. The constituency is inundated with her posters and banners, making BJP nominee Pokhar Lal Saini prematurely appear like an also-ran.

"I've been in politics since 1975. I was the Youth Congress general secretary in UP until Indiraji shifted me to Delhi in 1979 as an executive member of the AICC," says Pilot, anxious to dispel the notion that she's riding on her husband's bandwagon. But there's no denying that in Gujjar-dominated Hindoli, his image as a leader of the OBC community is her biggest asset.

Taking for granted a wave in favour of the Congress, she makes few promises, wastes little time attacking the BJP and focuses on warning voters against RSS conspiracies to keep them away from the polling booths. Her speeches are short and to the point, her style brisk and no-nonsense, her attire sober and practical.

Although she has a clear edge, her rival, rebel Congress candidate Prabhu Lal Sharma, who has the advantage of being a local strongman, might pose a problem by denting her votebank. His campaign has already registered some success. "She lives in Delhi and will be rarely seem after the elections. We can talk face-to-face with Prabhu Lal, but we will have to speak to her on telephone," observed a voter. But they may recall that Rajesh Pilot was minister for communications at one point!

Then, of course, there is the chief ministerial son-in-law, Narpat Singh Rajvi, who is facing an uphill battle in the Chittorgarh assembly segment. A former state government employee, he lobbied in vain for a Rajya Sabha ticket in 1992, but was compensated with an assembly nomination in 1993. But since then, he has largely been marginalised in BJP affairs. Will 1998 change all that?

DELHI

In Delhi, surprisingly, the family tree has not sustained that many candidates. One of the exceptions is the former Congress MP from Outer Delhi and the main hope for the party in the area, Sajjan Kumar, who has wrangled a ticket for his brother Ramesh Kumar from the Sahibabad-Daulatpur constituency. DPCC sources say Sajjan, an accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, had his way despite protests from a number of party leaders who felt that fielding his brother could further alienate the Sikh community. Then there is the party candidate from Sult-anpur Majra, Sushila Devi, who is the wife of the sitting Congress MLA Jai Kishen, another accused of involvement in the '84 riots. A case of if not me, then my kin.

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