As she steps into the car and heads for her next meeting, Uma Bharti looks tired and asks for something to eat.
Her aide offers her grapes as the BJP leader – a prominent campaign face – explains the dynamics in her home region, Bundelkhand, which goes to polls on February 23.
“It is not very significant in terms of seats. It has only 19 constituencies, but it is significant because of drought.” Last time, she says BJP had won only three seats; this time, she claims there is a ‘wave’.
“Media itself is predicting 12 seats.”
Bharti is an important cabinet minister, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, the MP from Jhansi, and the most well-known leader of Bundelkhand.
But what really makes her stand out this election is that she combines the elements on which the BJP strategy rests. Among BJP’s true mass leaders of the early 90s, she is both a Hindutva face, and also from an OBC community, the Lodhs. And she is trying to consciously top it up with ‘vikas’ (progress).
Today, 25 years after Babri in which she played a leading role, the BJP is relying on precisely the same cards to win the UP election – religious polarisation, support of backward castes, with an added flavour of ‘vikas’.
Ram Janmabhoomi ‘settled’
Bharti was catapulted to national prominence in the 90s due to several political movements, most significantly the Babri masjid-Ram temple issue.
“Our party was involved in certain movements which were necessary for our country. Right now, there is a lull in those movements. They are in fact settled in nice manner,” she says.
With BJP raising the Ram temple issue before every election, what does this mean?
“Ayodhya was a core issue, an issue of faith for us. But once the bench of three judges declared it belonged to Ram Lalla, it gave us enough satisfaction for this life,” Bharti said, adding that the real ‘point of battle’ was whether it was Ram Janmabhoomi or not, which was decided. “Now, the only question is who is the owner of the land. And this can be settled by the court or outside court.”
Bharti said she was happy about what she did in the past, has now “moved ahead”, and wants to focus on backward segments. The world had changed, and there has to be a focus on economics.
Video by Manish Chandra Pandey
‘Discrimination against Hindu girls’
But if this is the case, why does the party still rake up issues that can be construed as polarising communities on religious lines? Only this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lambasted the Akhilesh Yadav-led Uttar Pradesh government by drawing a parallel between Hindu and Muslim festivals and accused the administration of practising discrimination on the basis of religion.
Defending Modi, Bharti said, “So what if he said it? What is wrong with it? Akhilesh is giving free education only for Muslim girls. Why? There are Hindus also who are poor. Why should we not talk about the poverty of Hindi girls? Why should we discriminate against Hindus just because they are a majority?”
But when asked for tangible proof of this discrimination, as many schemes -- such as the distribution of laptops -- were implemented for all, Bharti first demurred, saying she would not like to comment, then later added, “Appeasement is very subtle.”
‘Favourite topic is PM’
Bharti’s speeches are littered with references to the Prime Minister. She tells Hindustan Times that her “favourite topic is the Prime Minister”.
“I am watching him very deeply, very intensely, and what he is doing.”
Bharti suggests that the PM seems to have prepared for a “radical change” in the economic sector, and demonetisation was a part of that.
“What Marx, Lenin, and Mao brought in through a revolution soaked in blood, Modi has brought without blood, through joy and celebration.”
But when she suggests a comparison with old Left revolutions, is she saying that India too is headed towards radical redistribution of wealth?
“No. Redistribution of wealth can sometimes be cruel. I am only talking about what Deen Dayal Upadhyay said – no one should go hungry.”
As we drive through one of India’s poorest and most drought-prone regions, irrespective of elections, Bundelkhand waits to see whether this promise will materialise.