VIEW FROM THE RINGSIDE
ONE of the nicest things about a general election for many Indian hacks is that sooner or later it ends up as a reunion with friends from the international media jet set. It only takes a small club, after all, to cover a large circus. "Hi, it's a voice from your past," crackles the answering machine twice a day, disgorging polyglot accents from Sydney to Stockholm. Pushing your deadline out of the way, you catch up with half-remembered ghosts from elections gone by. "Remember, how we nearly got shot following Sanjay when he lost Amethi in 1977," goes the friendly chit-chat, or "Too bad I missed Rajiv's blowup last time. I believe the New York Times woman got the story".
These are not tasteless or cynical conversations. Spare a dime for some of us who, for 20 years or more, have been running into one another in some A-grade hotspots: Punjab, Kashmir, Bhopal, riots, assassinations and bomb blasts. An Indian election was never a story in that league but it used to promise some B+ action: there was plenty of homicide and booth-capturing about.
The life has gone out of an Indian election now, complain my foreign colleagues; it's become as safe and boring as any old election in the West. There aren't many tasty stories left, they grumble—even Hindu nationalism and mosque-bashing have ducked. My friend from Le Monde rang to get Phoolan Devi's numbers in Mirzapur. "I'm off to look for guns and molls," he chuckled. "You used to be able to stick your mike out of the window and catch such wonderful sound effects," joked the girl from American radio. "Now you don't even catch heat stroke.
ONE way to discover the outside world's interest in the Indian election is to occasionally cross the fence and be interviewed. Australian TV turned up one morning for 'a quick take' on the elections. As beads of perspiration threatened to blind the poor cameraman, I asked the interviewer what sort of short take he had in mind. He coughed politely and said: "Why don't you remind viewers who P.V. Narasimha Rao is and why he is the most uncharismatic Prime Minister India has ever had."
FROM PILLAR TO POST
A distinguishing feature of this election was that there were two men running for the prime minister's job. It stood to good reason therefore that, after putting in your customary request to travel with the Prime Minister at the PMO, some of us left identical messages at Atal Behari Vajpayee's. But what a startling contrast in response. Within hours, a brisk voice from Vajpayee's residence, asking where and when you would like to accompany him on his 10-seater King Air. Seconds later, the BJP travel agent faxed his nationwide tour with up-to-date changes. (Vajpayee's plane, by the way, was rented from Trans-Bharat Airways and the BJP ad agency is called Rashtriya Advertising. Who says Hindutva's banner is under wraps?)
From the PMO, however, no go, despite numberless reminders. Being bounced like a shuttlecock between the PMO and PIO for days on end, as deadlines tick away, is the hack's ultimate nightmare—I ground my fingers off at STD booths in Mughalsarai and Kota and began to holler at friends in the upper echelons of power: "What does Your Boss think is going on? A state visit or a general election?"
Rumour in Delhi had it that after the thin crowds that greeted Rao in Kurukshetra, the PMO only took 'friendly journalists' on board. It can't be true; anyway I agree with sources close to the PMO that such allegations are baseless, they are canards spread by anti-secularist forces to discredit Rao. (P.S. By the time the PMO got me on his plane, it was too late for this deadline.)
Still, because Vajpayee is a superior statesman to Rao, a moderate compared to L.K. Advani, and also because he awaits his chance after the country has discarded the likes of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, I think he would make a better prime minister. Anyone who runs an efficient PMO might make a more efficient prime minister. A pity the Third Force didn't think of projecting Jyoti Basu as the candidate for the top job. A threesome might have shaken the voter out of his boredom.
WHAT MAKES THE SCINDIA TRIO TICK?
"JHALAWAR ki bin-di-ya, Ma-ha-rani Scin-dia," shrieked a ragtag crowd at daybreak in a remote railway station on the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border. It was Vasundhara Raje getting off the train, she who is said to have persuaded the BJP bosses (along with the Rajmata) to withdraw the party candidate against her brother Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior and also tried to iron out differences between mother and son.
The question often asked is why the scions of the Scindia dynasty are different. That they make inexhaustible and unbeatable politicians seem like a puzzling anachronism in modern democracy. Despite their political differences, what makes this triptych tick ?
Having covered the election of one or the other since 1977, there are a few things that distinguish them from other MPs. Unlike babalog politicians, their spoken Hindi is flawless and they slog tirelessly in their constituencies. Both things matter in the Hindi-speaking hinterland. They are formidably efficient, possess photographic memories and are refreshingly unpretentious. I rang Madhavrao's house to ask who was managing his campaign. "Himself," was the short answer. "Bring your sleeping bag," said Vasundhara abruptly, when I asked if there was a hotel out there. Introduce Madhavrao to a 100 village sarpanches, and he'll soon have their names by heart. Chasing every block development officer, Vasundhara Raje is on the go in backward Jhalawar. Brother and sister are as comfortable at an ambassador's table in Delhi as they are sleeping in a flea-infested dharamsala.
"TCH, tch, tch, another reporter," announced the office-bearer with tongue-clicking dismissal when I presented myself at the Samajwadi Party's office in Mirzapur. "German TV, Canada TV, BBC, even Zee TV has been here," he continued, noticing that all I had was a notebook, no TV crew and no air-conditioned Contessa. "Bechari Phoolan kya kare? Out of 15 hours of campaigning every day she spends five hours giving interviews." I caught up with her at the head of one of the longest cavalcades of the 1996 election. Of the 15 cars tailing her, 12 belonged to the media. The Election Commission can't do a thing—there is no restriction so far on the number of journalists per candidate. There was so much foreign press it looked as if Mirzapur-Bhadhoi was having a carpet sale.
I must confess to a special interest in the Phoolan story. I first covered her surrender in Bhind in 1983 and, two years ago, when the row over Bandit Queen broke I investigated the story for a documentary on BBC. She gave me a hard time, refusing an interview for months. She was then under the influence of
Arundhati Roy and Indira Jaising and perhaps had her reasons. Finally, the producer flew down from London, wanting to know what the hitch was. "Money," I said. His eyes widened, thinking Phoolan wanted thousands of pounds. In the end, it took a few hundred quid and some gifts, including a jazzy sari. Each time she was interviewed she upped her fee and made us pay her husband, relatives or hangers-on.
The diabolical part was that although she was publicly denouncing the film for being exploitative and untrue, she was clandestinely negotiating through her husband Umed Singh for a financial settlement with the film's producer Bobby Bedi. She was doing this unbeknownst to Arundhati Roy and Indira Jaising as they championed her case in court. Bedi played me recordings he made of his telephone conversations with Umed Singh. In one, talking about how the transaction would take place, Umed said, "Phoolan ka fikar na karo, usko to main bed mein samjha loonga!. (Don't worry about Phoolan agreeing, I'll persuade her in bed).
Surrounded by cameramen last week, and covered in glory as the potential MP from Mirzapur, Phoolan was abusing her rivals as money-grabbers. "Mayawati paise ki bhukhi hai," she blared into mikes. Of her opponent, the BJP's sitting MP Virendra Singh, she said: "Chor hai, lootera hai, sala sarkar ke 200 crore rupaye kha gaya." I caught up with her for a brief interview. Naturally, our conversation was about money. It went something like this:
How do you know Virendra Singh swallowed crores of development funds?
I know because Mirzapur's poor people say so. They are from my caste and tell me things they won't tell others. Don't forget Virendra Singh is a Thakur.
But you took money from everybody too, including Bobby Bedi.
He was making crores, so wasn't something due to me?
What's the difference?
The difference is that I distributed it among the poor. I didn't keep a paisa. I gave it all away. I'm penniless now.
WHERE DID RAJESH KHANNA'S MONEY GO?
ROBIN Hood-Phoolan says she steals from the rich to help the poor, but Rajesh Khanna, the Congress party's candidate from New Delhi, is in trouble because he didn't know what to do with his money. He also apparently can't tell the difference between the rich and the poor. His partymen were complaining that a substantial chunk of the Rs 1 crore funding MPs receive for development projects was returned unused to the government by Khanna.
Astounded that he could find no use for the money in a constituency with 1.5 lakh slum-dwellers, I asked the filmstar if there was any truth in the allegation. Khanna sent a minion scurrying for his pack of foreign cigarettes, lit one, and leaned back in his swivel chair. "You see," he said, "I spent what I could. But people in New Delhi are quite well-off. It's not a rural constituency. You can't just dump money on the streets."