FORMER dacoits won't run out of jobs. Not as long as there are elections in the country. And Mulayam Singh seems to have mastered the art of using these sharpshooters to target the voters for the ballot boxes. His latest favourite: Malkhan Singh, one of Chambal Valley's most dreaded names till 1982. Malkhan now campaigns for Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates in MP and bordering districts of UP. "Mulayam Singhji jaise neta ka is samay desh ko bahut zaroorat hai (the nation needs leaders like Mulayam Singh)," says the former dacoit who once carried a reward ofs 70,000 on his head.
Malkhan Singh has been changing political colours quite frequently since his reign of terror came to an end with his surrender before the then chief minister Arjun Singh on June 17, '82. First, he stood by Arjun Singh, and later campaigned for the BJP in the Bhind Lok Sabha constituency in 1991 before he jumped to Mulayam's SP. The party fielded him in a 1996 assembly bye-election from Bhind.
Malkhan's new political mentor has already turned another former dacoit Phoolan Devi—convicted in at least two cases in Madhya Pradesh—into a political celebrity. Interestingly, Malkhan and Phoolan are strongly antagonistic. Their gangs had clashed even while the two were in jail in Gwalior. But the ex-dacoits have now reconciled with each others' presence in the party.
At six feet plus, with long moustache, a deep tilak on his forehead and fierce eyes, Malkhan has been drawing crowds during his recent whirlwind tour to canvass for the SP candidates. At Khajuraho, his presence overshadowed the party's state unit chief Gauri Yadav who is the candidate against sitting BJP MP Uma Bharti. Accompanied by slogan-shouting workers and drum beats, Malkhan went door to door for votes, with crowds following for a closer look. While campaigning for Udaybhan Singh, the Bhind candidate, he lashed out at the system which produces the dacoits in Chambal ravines, putting the blame squarely on the zamindars and police. "I still rebel against the atrocities heaped on the poor, but with peaceful resistance this time," he tells the crowds.
He refuses to call himself a criminal. "It is a matter of public debate as to who is the criminal. Those who become the victims of circumstances or those who occupy high offices and victimise the people," he says.
The other SP campaign star is Ashok Veer Vikram Singh, a notorious criminal with a long history of crime—and an almost equally long list of acquittals in the absence of witnesses. Only one murder case—in Nainital, UP—is pending against Vikram Singh who is now the party candidate from Damoh constituency.
The BJP candidate from Dhar constituency, Chhatar Singh Darbar, was not so lucky. His nomination papers were rejected when Congress leaders brought his conviction in a murder case to the notice of the returning officer. Now, his wife Hemlata is a contestant in his place.
The Congress themselves have fielded Alok Chansoria—infamous for having thrown acid on a business rival and his three-year-old son—at Jabalpur. The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had dissolved the Jabalpur Youth Congress body, in which Chansoria was an office-bearer, after he was shown the scarred face of the child. Given the disfigured scene of present-day Indian politics, it isn't surprising that Chansoria and Malkhan are back in the reckoning.