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Reverse Swing

An election defeat brings a temporary loss of habitat, but life still beckons

Reverse Swing
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Reverse Swing

"Milky, Dusty, Cloudy, Brownie, arre, Brownie, jaldi aao..." Alive as always to the pictorial needs of the occasion, Ram Vilas Paswan summons his brood of yapping Pekinese and poses prettily with them on the lawns of his now-in-jeopardy bungalow on 12, Janpath (next door to you-know-who), quite like the British Queen with her corgis. In a cramped flat overflowing with newspapers in the Communist ghetto Vitthalbhai Patel House, Hannan Mollah, another eight-term Lok Sabha MP who lost, matter-of-factly describes a day spent surrendering diplomatic passports and acquiring attributes of civilian life like a CGHS health card.

Exorcise bag: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi packs a farewell punch

Mani Shankar Aiyar starts off looking bruised but quickly regains form, with funny stories, jibes for everyone from Suhel Seth to the DMK, and ironic references to his own misfortune: "Do you realise that as we speak, the swearing-in is going on?" And as Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi supervises his move to a tall, narrow, unstately home in Greater Kailash (once an office that got sealed), he offers a curiously dignified loser's version of what was possibly the country's most undignified election—in Rampur.

Engaging with the vanquished of Election 2009 is to be reminded of a truth that is self-evident but rarely stated: politicians make great losers. Not for them the self-indulgence of tears, tantrums and darkened rooms; nor the tiresome bouts of self-flagellation that mark frailer mortals confronting failure. The politico who slams the door on ghouls like us asking questions like "So how long can you stay in this house?" is either so over-the-hill that even he has finally come to believe that his game is up; or a political cub spitting out the bitter taste of defeat instead of gulping it down like strong medicine.

Most of the tribe will let you in and simulate post-defeat leisure on a garden swing with the aplomb with which they once preened for the camera from behind their ministerial desks. ("Not on a treadmill," says Paswan, rejecting the photographer's suggestion. "That's been done many times.") Being seasoned troopers, they know a politician's worst enemy is oblivion. "The very minute you hit the bottom of the valley, your rise to the summit begins," says Aiyar gamely. Though, in a wry moment he quotes, of all people, Enoch Powell: "All political lives end in failure, except those cut off in mid-flight."

Fall from Eden: Paswan and wife Reena on their Janpath house lawns

On the campaign trail, optimism is every candidate's default mode. "You can't get through the ordeal of an election unless you convince yourself you're winning," says Aiyar frankly. "I never thought I would lose, "admits Mollah, "just that the margin would be lower." After defeat, the neta must swiftly find elegant ways to explain what he couldn't or wouldn't see, staring him in the face. "Dal mil gaye, dil nahi mile," says Paswan, suggesting the votes of his electoral ally, Rashtriya Janata Dal, were not transferred to him. Mollah, who lost in Uluberia, West Bengal, despite a good personal reputation, because of the CPI(M)'s monumental blunders, takes refuge in euphemisms: "There were communication gaps." But politicians can be endearingly honest in defeat. As a Muslim seeking votes with the bjp's lotus in his hand, Naqvi became, he more or less admits, a nowhere man in Rampur. Muslims rejected him because he was from Varun Gandhi's party, and rss workers defected to Jayaprada, the leading Hindu in the fray.

They are not, of course, above slipping in a barb or two. "Do log uthata hai, do baithata hai (two people help him to sit down and get up)," says Paswan with a pitying shrug, of Ram Sunder Das, the 88-year-old who defeated him, interrupting his dream run in Hajipur. "If I had got just 18,000 votes more, I too would have won a Chidambaram-like victory, and please quote my exact words," says Aiyar. "It was a C-grade filmi drama," says Naqvi, "scripted by Amar Singh".

But bitch though they might, political losers don't moan. Not even those who have usually 'won', like Paswan, with his knack of sinuously inserting himself into successive cabinets, whether UPA or NDA. In an office plastered with pictures of him in cricket whites, open-necked shirts, Muslim caps and checked scarves, the indefatigable networker, still busy trying to secure favours for seekers, says bracingly: "I don't want condolences. But 80 per cent of my workers come here crying, so finally I have to tell them, 'Rona band karo, ab kaam karo'."

Hannan Mollah and wife Maimoona at VP House

We have time now, politicians tell you, in the aftermath of defeat; time for our families, our hobbies and passions. "Tension nahi raha," says Paswan, just back from a long family drive in his gleaming black SUV to his "Mrs ki mammi ke ghar". The day before, he cooked meat, reviving skills he says he learnt during his hostel days in Khagaria. So is that what it's all about, now? Don't believe that for a moment. As you leave his bungalow, you can hear the buzz about impending byelections. There's one coming up, someone says hopefully, in Ferozabad, UP, on a seat vacated by Mulayam Singh's son....

"This is just one-tenth of my personal library," says Aiyar, waving at his big bookshelves, and conjuring up images of trips to Columbia University, journeys in South Asia, panchayati raj seminars, column-writing, even perhaps "lounging in an armchair in the IIC, hoping someone will recognise me...." And then gives the game away by saying "just because I was defeated by two per cent of the vote, doesn't mean I am out of politics."

No, he's not out of politics, but he is out of the house, for sure—the one with a small 'h'. And that seems to hurt almost as much as being barred from the one with the big H. Perhaps not for austere politicians like Mollah who have avoided bungalow life; but definitely for the likes of Paswan, who quickly changes the subject when we ask him, yes, that question: "So how long can you stay in this house?" His home for 20 years, its shelves display a dazzling collection of world kitsch, from plaster Jesuses to courting Victorian couples and bucolic, desi maidens. Charred remains of artefacts lie forlornly on his back lawn, victims of a fire that broke out in his drawing room towards the end of the election. A bad omen, perhaps, suggests his son, aspiring Bollywood star Chiragh. "We will leave if we have to," he says, flicking back his long straight hair as he praises "Dad" for handling defeat so well, "but it is, you know, the only home I can remember."

The atmosphere is quite as sombre as Naqvi, his Rajya Sabha stint over, and no Lok Sabha victory to call his own, leaves his bungalow in Lodi Estate, the gazebo he built in the garden an empty shell, rubbish burning on the lawns. (It is, such are the ironies of politics, next door to Amar Singh's.) And the mood is positively elegiac, complete with the fragrance of wilting lilies, as Aiyar gives us a guided tour of his elegant Akbar Road bungalow, decorated by his antique-collecting wife, Suneet. The Aiyars will eventually move to their own home in the not-quite-as-salubrious Sainik Farms, paying market rent in Lutyensland until it's ready. "Seventy thousand rupees a month," expostulates Aiyar, to which his daughter Sana smartly replies: "That's not too much, Papa, you're stuck in the '70s." Silenced for once, Aiyar sits back and listens to the rest of us lecture him on Delhi rentals.

Perhaps that's what's so endearing about political losers. For a few fleeting moments in time, before victory and power perchance claim them again, they become a bit like the rest of us.

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