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The era of Gate Ganesha

Crime is part of our lives and culture. So don’t expect Parliament to be a monastery. Samar P Halarnkar elaborates.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 21:04 IST
Samar P Halarnkar

It was a typical Bangalore spring day, sun-drenched but cool, when four men burst through the door of a seedy hotel and with overgrown scythes and sickles — locally called choppers — hacked their victim to death. So ended the saga of 35-year-old Ganesha, whose life, at first glance, appeared to be a reflection of the Indian dream: zero to hero.

This is an Indian story. A semi-literate coolie rises to be the panchayat president of Kuvinadu East village in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukottai district, a dry, impoverished corner of India that was — despite its poverty — declared totally literate in 2008. To the Bangalore police, Ganesha had another identity. He was called Gate Ganesha, because he began his hardscrabble life near an area called Kalasipalya Gate, where he eventually became president of the Coolie Collective.

Gate Ganesha was a ‘rowdy’ or ‘rowdy-sheeter’, a colourful euphemism in prosperous Bangalore for a habitual extortionist. Five days after ‘Gate’ was slain, another rowdy, 45-year-old ‘Poone’ or Narasimha Murthy, was pulled out of his Scorpio SUV and similarly done to death while he chatted with an associate called ‘Garden’ Seena, doubtless a man with some influence in the Garden city (Oh yes, the same week also saw a death sentence for ‘Cyanide’ Mallika, a 60-year-old mother — whose daughter has just qualified as a fashion designer — with a penchant for conning and poisoning female temple devotees).
Rowdies are a breed that precede the infotech boom and are undiminished by it. Only the names and modes of extortion change. In the 1980s, there was ‘Murgi’ or ‘Koli’ (Kannada for chicken) Fiyaz, who lived off protection money from chicken markets. There was ‘Oil’ Kumar, to whom petrol stations coughed up a percentage of their dues.

Whatever the generation, the rowdies of India’s Silicon Valley have three things in common: flashy names, a desire for a better life and political affiliations to make that happen. Gate Ganesha belonged to the AIADMK, the party of Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader) J. Jayalalithaa. ‘Poone’ was a close acquaintance of a former Congress MLA and was known in police circles as a ‘vote catcher’, someone who influenced neighbourhoods to vote for a particular party, through not-so-gentle persuasion, bribery or booze.

The rowdy subculture affects vast swathes of the other Bangalore, the 6 million or so who don’t make their living from the flat world. Right now, there are 1,814 rowdies listed in police records. They have evolved with the times; many run businesses used by globalised Bangalore, which is unaware of the rowdy’s hand in, say, land deals or taxi
services.

If ambition- and aspiration-driven Bangalore cannot shrug off the lore and era of the rowdy, it is hard to imagine how emerging India might discard criminality as it prepares to elect its 15th Lok Sabha. In the 14th Lok Sabha, about 84 of 543 MPs had serious criminal records, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms. With vote shares of major parties decreasing and the field becoming increasingly more crowded, it will be possible for candidates to squeeze out a victory with as little as 20 to 30 per cent of the popular vote.

In the north, particularly in Bihar and UP, criminal politicians directly drive, give voice to or fulfil aspiration where the state has either collapsed or functions in fits and starts. For jailed criminals like UP’s Mukhtar Ansari and Bihar’s Mohammed Shahabuddin, personal ambition and populism neatly coalesce in a discoloured rainbow of democratic reality.

Ansari, an MLA from Mau, freely dispenses favours and money to the poor from his jail cell. Similarily in Siwan, MP Shahabuddin (42) may be a murder convict but his Engineering and Technology Institute is the only government-recognised engineering college in a vast swathe of dirt-poor badland, his criminality irrelevant to thousands.

India’s explosion of aspiration will power criminality further. Aspiration, of course, is not all dark. It has also allowed men who fought criminals to represent the people. In the same Bangalore, the Congress candidate from the prestigious Bangalore Central constituency is Hmar Tlawmte Sangliana, a Mizo, devout Presbyterian Christian and former police commissioner immortalised in three Kannada movies, S.P. Sangliana I, Sangliana II and Sangliana III.

“Here, thousands of miles away in a land far from the home of my father, the support of the people here, who love me, and above all the unending support from my father above — these are the two indispensable forces that drive me forward,” said Sangliana last week, as he started his campaign to return to Parliament (he was a BJP MP in the last Lok Sabha, voting against his party on the nuclear deal).

Bangalore will see other electoral firsts: a techie and an IIM professor as candidates. Above all, this election is about possibility. The criminalisation of our politics is a deep, complex issue that stretches into our lives and minds. Let’s not allow it to overwhelm our hopes for a new India.