Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lucknow Santa Claus is not well

By Dilip Awasthi
Lucknow’s own Santa Claus is not well. The winning smile has turned into quizzical wide-eyed gaze. The eloquent, witty orator who could hold huge crowds across the country spellbound now makes futile attempts to mumble something but then raises his hands helplessly and quietly slumps back into his wheel chair. This Christmas, Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be 86.

All those politicians and friends, who are still in touch, recall their recent meetings with him to remember him fondly. Says Lalji Tandon, who succeeded him as the local BJP MP, “ He takes his time to recognize you but cannot talk coherently.” Tandon, his campaign manager in all elections, met him just a fortnight ago. He stared at Tandon for a while and then just laughed. “Doctors don’t allow many meetings unless senior leaders turn up”, says Shiv Kumar, his private secretary for 40 years, who still runs the ex-PM’s residential office. “There are 20-30 visitors each day,”says Shiv Kumar.

Lucknow has been dear to him always. Here he won five consecutive elections from 1991 to 2004. Just a couple of public meetings on each occasion fetched him huge victory margins. In 2004 he won with a margin of 37% votes against Samajwadi Party’s Madhu Gupta. His electoral opponents have been heavy-weights like Dr Karan Singh, Raj Babbar and Muzzaffar Ali. In 1996 he won from Gandhinagar (Gujarat) also but retained Lucknow as his seat.

As an MP from the state capital and as the Prime Minister, Vajpayee indeed proved to be Lucknow’s Santa Claus. Developmental works worth over Rs 25,000 crore guaranteed a new sheen to Lucknow. Most foundation plaques would display his name most projects including four to six-laned highways development, metro or memo rail concepts and projects, a web of power substations, several beautification schemes bear his stamp. For almost two decade (1991-2009) Atalji, as he was fondly referred to, has been integral part of Lucknow’s life.

Rajesh Pande, a former BJP MLA and Atalj’s election manager in Lucknow, fondly remembers his famous repartee during 1996 Lok Sabha election campaign. When somebody presented him a garland during his election campaign, “Arey bhai haar nahin, mai jeet lene aayaa hoon…” Vajpayee could devastate his critics with his oratory skills. During 1998 elections Jan Sangh leader Balraj Madhok called Vajpayee a “dual-faced politicians”, a “slippery person”and a “liar” in a campaign meeting in the city. Journalists rushed to Atalji for his reaction. There emerged the well-known mischevious smile, a pause and then, “….wo mere bahut senior hein….” And everybody in the room broke into laughter.

Atalji last visited Lucknow in October 2006, this time on a wheel chair. His health was failing but he still campaigned for BJP mayoral candidate Dinesh Sharma, His visit did turn the election in Sharma’s favour. Recalls Mayor Sharma, who met him a month ago, “I will always be indebted to him that despite his physical condition, he campaigned for me.” Present Lucknow MP Lalji Tandon contested and won the 2009 elections on Atalji’s signed appeal to Lucknowites.

These days, Atalji’s days, tells Shiv Kumar, are restricted to his Delhi house. Doctors are in attendance of the former PM throughout. He goes through a physiotherapy session in the morning and a general check-up in the evening. He watches TV for a while in the evening a meets senior leaders if there is an appointment. Shiv Kumar says L.K. Advani, Nitin Gatkari, Rajnath Singh keep visiting Atalji. But for infection he suffered in February 2009 for he was put on the ventilator in the ICU of AIIMS, there has been no serious cause of concern. He has lost weight. His responses are dulled and senses are failing. It all is age-related, says Tandon. But the legendary statesman, who could praise Nehru or Indira Gandhi and upset the RSS-BJP cadres, can still smile….

Congress working on Rahul formula for ‘viable’ candidates

By Dilip Awasthi
Rahul Gandhi’s grand plan for Uttar Pradesh is unfolding now. The Congress general secretary’s handpicked AICC volunteers have launched a massive hunt to short-list ‘winnable’ candidates for 2012 U.P. assembly elections. All these volunteers are drawn from different states so that only ‘merit’ prevails. They will report directly to Rahul.

The 10 volunteers have been allotted around 40 assembly constituencies each so that all the 403 seats are covered. They are traveling through their respective areas and interacting at the grass-root level. Their brief is to suggest a panel of three to five candidates for each seat in the order of `viability’. They have to go into the logistics of past elections and make final recommendations in the prescribed AICC format. The deadline is March 31, 2011.

The AICC instructions issued to these observers by general secretary Digvijaya Singh, also incharge of U.P., categorically state: “You have to submit your report directly to Shri Rahul Gandhi in a closed cover marked as `Confidential’….. The report is not to be shared with any other in the AICC or PCC.” Explains Singh, “The idea is to let Rahulji have an unadulterated feel of the ground.”

The observers have been drawn from different states. Three are from MP, two each from Mumbai and Delhi and one each from Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat. The instructions say: “Instead of meeting the workers in the circuit house, you should try to meet/contact commen people and take their opinion about the most viable candidates.” The observers are supposed to attend village chaupals (informal meetings) organized by the prospective candidates and make their assessment based on the spot feedback.

Most of these observers have already finished the first round. Some are into their third leg and already have had interim interaction with Rahul Gandhi. Muzzaffar Hussain, a Congress MLC from Mumbai has held more than 80 chaupals in eight eastern U.P. districts between November 15 and December 16. The district Congress President, the MP, MLAs of the area are invariably present in these chaupals. Says PL Punia Congress MP from Bara Banki, who has been attending these chaupals, “ You cannot fib in these chaupals. If you are popular it shows.”

The exercise has been happening simultaneously in other parts. Says Congress Legislature Party chief Pramod Tewari, “ The idea is to finish this homework and have final lists ready by May, 2011.” But obviously these AICC observers are having a tough time navigating through vested interests, pulls and pushes of the local leaders. Congress tickets have been traditionally decided through lobbying or pressure tactics. Says PCC chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi, “ This exercise will give us a fair and unbiased base to work on. The intention is to get the best possible candidates.”

The last point of the AICC instructions is even more unnerving for the local leaders. The circular states: “If there is a powerful and popular person, who is not as yet with the Congress Party, you should try to win him over….”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Samajwadi Party Amar Rahe…..

By Dilip Awasthi
The dazzling showcase of Samajwadi Party’s official website is awaiting a major revamp. At least three portraits of the nine high-profile leaders displayed on the welcome page have to be marked for deletion. The changes in store may help emergence of an unadulterated socialist face, which the party once claimed to represent.

For a change let’s not talk of Amar Singh and his plans. Let’s just stick to discussing the Samajwadi Party’s gains and losses in his adventurous company. Amar Singh’s contributions to the SP were visibly registered on August 29, 2003, the day Mulayam Singh took oath for his third term. Vastly in disagreement with the party’s pro-poor ideology, he added the tinsel town glitter and he brought a group of industrialists in close contact of the former chief minister. His third major contribution was that he was the articulate face of the party in Delhi hobnobbing with rival parties, striking political and other deals and handling media with his typical bluster.

All the three contributions boomeranged. The stars including the Bachchan family created a gulf between the “dhartiputra Mulayam” and his supporters at large, who could see him from a distance only. Amar Singh’s move to blindly back Jayaprada in Rampur elections infuriated party’s most known Muslim face Azam Khan, who quit just after the Lok Sabha elections. His decision to bring in Kalyan Singh in the SP cost “Maulana” Mulayam Singh, popular Muslim support and leaders like Azam, Saleem Sherwani, Shafiqur Rehman Berq, Shahid Siddiqui and Afzal Ansari. Even Mulayam’s trusted lieutenants like Beni Prasad Verma, Raj Babber, Naresh Agarwal and at least a dozen more left SP protesting against Amar Singh’s domineering ways.

Amar Singh’s political wheeling-dealing also cost SP and Mulayam dearly. The party reached a dead end as far as its rapport with Congress Party is concerned. Sonia would surely like to have Amar Singh in her foe-list. It was because of him that Sonia could not come to power even after bringing down the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in April 1999. After dashing Congress hopes of garnering “secular” support, Amar took a dig at Sonia, “ Main Banungi Raani, Tum bharo paani, aisey kaisey chalegaa?”

Then again in 2009 Amar Singh was instrumental in scuttling an almost certain Congress -SP alliance. “The Congress was seeking to contest just 22 seats to which he (Amar) did not agree”, says Naresh Agarwal, now BSP general secretary, who along with Saleem Sherwani quit SP after its decision not to have an alliance with the Congress. The Congress won 21 seats in 2009 Lok Sabha elections just two less than SP’s 23.

Amar Singh’s industrialists’ club, which included Anil Ambani, Adi and Parmeshwar Godrej, Kumar Manglam Birla, L.K Khaitan, Subrato Roy Sahara formed the UP Development Council with Singh as its chairman. It held some star-studded meetings with Amitabh Bachchan as the brand ambassador. The council promised to bring in investments of Rs 4000 crore and developing 15000 acres of industrial area but nothing happened on the ground. To add to Mulayam’s woes was the telephone-tap in February 2006, which had him and Amar Singh discussing settling sugar prices to suit the sugar lobby, ways and means to “manage” judiciary and other embarrassing issues.

The losses are far greater than the numbers reflect. Conceding 35 of the total 36 Vidhan Parishad elections held on January 7 or a massive shortfall of 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 are serious warnings. Oblivious as he has been until Amar Singh’s fourth resignation on January 6, there were enough and more red signals on the way for party chief Mulayam Singh.

The party lost 46 Vidhan Sabha seats in 2007,which resulted in a big way in bring BSP to power. There have been desertions galore. Party’s support base is shaken to the hilt. Mulayam’s daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav’s defeat in Firozabad byelection in November 2009 at the hands of Congress’s Raj Babber by 85,000 votes proves this beyond doubt. Mulayam Singh chose to ignore all.

But when he ignored his cousin Ram Gopal Yadav’s diatribe against Amar Singh as an aftermath of Firozabad defeat, Amar Singh was offended and reminded of his “failing health”. According to Ram Gopal, grass root party workers are euphoric after Amar’s resignation. There are several party leaders who share his views and believe that Mulayam Singh has the capacity to bounce back to his past glory. At best he would need an eloquent party spokesman in Delhi and return of some of the stalwarts who deserted the party because of Amar Singh. Azam Khan does not rule this out. “In politics doors are never closed for ever”, he says philosophically. But Mulayam should get over and out with Amar Singh or reinvent the party’s chant to: “Samajwadi Party Amar Rahe….”