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Biting the ballot

It used to be a festival for the masses more than the classes, but all sorts are getting into election ‘Mahakumbh’ 2009. Here’s what three poll debutants — a former cricketer, a filmmaker and a banker — have to say.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2009 23:12 IST
Hindustan Times

Batting on a fresh pitch

Mohammad Azharuddin may have added a thin layer of flab to his tall frame, but he still looks remarkably fit and lithe for a 47-year-old. The collars of his grey shirt are up — just as they used to be when he would enthrall cricket fans with his magical wristy strokes — while he is engrossed in talking to his poll managers.

A casual glance to his right and his eyes spot a familiar face from the past, a past that may have reminded him of his cricketing greatness, as well as his brush with infamy and even shame.

He immediately gets up, as if in deference. A disarming smile and a warm hug from the man who was the subject of many of my vicious write-ups when the match-fixing scandal had not even broken around a decade back, soothes my edgy and tense nerves.

It is a gesture of a man who remembers the world he has come from, but is keen to look ahead and forge a new destiny for himself. It is a day after thousands lined up on the bustling, overcrowded streets of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, to greet an “outsider” as if he was their “own”.

The local newspapers here have his pictures splashed on their pages, showing the man from Hyderabad being accorded a reception not seen in recent memory in this city.

In and around this place, people are talking of how the cricketing legend of the past — who has scored over 6,000 in Tests, more than 9,000 in one dayers and won the most Test matches for India, after Sourav Ganguly — has provided a new lease of life to a moribund Congress party, that is fielding him for the Lok Sabha elections.

The sight of thousands mobbing him have emboldened some to predict a revival of the Congress not just in Moradabad, but also in the adjoining parliamentary constituencies that have a large Muslim population.

Going by the buzz in the bylanes of a Muslim-dominated locality, the issue is not who will win over here, but by how much really. One lakh — that is the most conservative estimate for Azharuddin. And his party — the Congress last won from here in 1984 — is now being seen as a strong contender, even by die-hard BJP supporters.

In just a day’s work, Azharuddin has galvanised not just a community, but also a political party which is hoping to bridge the religious divide with his popularity. Even skeptical political pundits have started to believe in the power of cricket, and the iconic status of its stars.

Azharuddin, whose oratorical skills were limited to monosyllables when he was leading India to many famous wins is now a man born again.

For him, the sheer sight of the masses greeting his cavalcade was a cathartic experience. “It was an emotional moment, especially after all that I have gone through since 2000,” he says, in an obvious reference to his being shunned by the cricket establishment, after the CBI indicted him in a match-fixing case and he was banned for life from playing the game.

He professes innocence now, as he did then, and feels that the sheer warmth of this reception has brought back the belief that it was worth playing cricket for the country. He feels vindicated and hopes that the “lakhs that turned out yesterday would vote for him”.

Is he prepared for a campaign against him that would dig into his ‘murky’ past? Azharuddin says he is aware, and to illustrate his strength, he gives me the analogy of the rose and the thorn. “Life is full of thorns, but don’t forget they also protect the rose.”

I am reminded of one of his favourite jokes he had narrated to me in 1997 in response to a question on whether he will regain his captaincy? Sachin Tendulkar had replaced him and there were rumours floating that Azharuddin would be asked to lead India once more.

The joke goes thus: “Crabs from various countries are exported in sealed tins. It is only in India that they are exported with the lid of the tin open. Do you know why? Simple. These crabs are Indian. The moment a crab gets to the top, the one below him will pull him down.”

His narration then was laced with a smile and a chuckle. A year later, he had become the Indian captain again. Today, there is every possibility that Azharuddin will be resurrected again, and as he puts it, “in the public court”.

(By Pradeep Magazine)

Doing Rajneeti, real time

Scene: A spacious bungalow on Janpath in Lutyens’ Delhi. Outside, images of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan. Inside, in Paswan’s beautiful drawing room, clad in a white khadi shirt and cream-coloured linen trousers and looking like half a politician, filmmaker Prakash Jha. “Paswan has a beautiful mind,” says Jha, who will be contesting the Lok Sabha polls on an LJP ticket from West Champaran, formerly known as Bettiah, in Bihar.

In Prakash Jha’s productions, the beautiful side of a politician’s character has, so far, been hard to spot. In Jha’s films, kidnappers, murderers, pretenders — politicians all — have had author-backed roles unleashing mayhem. Actors such as Nana Patekar have gone on record saying his character of Tabrez Alam in Apaharan was based on “a real-life politician”.

Sadhu Yadav we won’t even mention. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s brother-in-law, in a well-advertised protest against Gangaajal, had said that the lead criminal was his mirror image.

The recent locking of horns between the two is Round Two of that old battle. Sadhu Yadav, now fielded by the Congress, will be pitted against Jha on his home turf; the director grew up on his family’s farm in West Champaran.

In between phone calls and change of setting — at first the drawing room and then the lawns — Jha takes questions on the subject, with customary sangfroid. His tone is mellow, the words measured. “It’s a coincidence that Sadhu is a real-life person and a character in my film. It’s a coincidence that I am fighting from Bettiah. It’s a coincidence that Sadhu now wants it when Bettiah wasn’t his seat…” But why does Jha want West Champaran? Why does he want to join the ‘system’ when he has attacked it for so long?

“I have been working in Bihar for six years, joining politics is an extension of my art,” says Jha, who’s contesting elections for the first time on a party ticket.

“I felt I must have a legitimate position to have access to resources so that I can bring people closer to development.”

With Prakash Jha, there is certainly the hope that his presence and participation in Bihar’s politics will not be cynical or decorative. “Name one director,” he says, “who has fought and won elections. With me, it’s not the face. It is the work.”

A closer look at that raises a few questions: why are most of his screen villains from socially marginalised communities? Why is there a tendency to justify mob justice? Why are cops so white washed and shown to be right in their exercise of brute power? His answer to these questions are interesting simply because he may soon be in a position with the “legitimacy” — that he seeks — and the ‘power’.

“Why did people support a thing like the infamous Bhagalpur blindings and even its excesses (Gangajaal recalls this incident)? Why did this entire town in Bihar rise up in the cops’ favour? ” counters Jha. Does Jha’s anti-systemic stand then serve the establishment by giving it a long rope? “There are criminals everywhere and not just in politics. Think of Satyam…,” he replies, getting up to leave.

(By Paramita Ghosh)

Banking on a savvy mantra

When her colleagues at Harvard suggested she get into politics after listening to her graduation speech about people she believed were world heroes, Meera Sanyal was taken aback. “I actually thought I had done something to offend them,” she says.

That is how far the 47-year-old was from active politics until November 26, 2008. “I was never politically active but always wanted to do something more,” says Sanyal, who heads the India operations of the ABN Amro Bank (now RBS) and is boss to 9,500 people in 40 locations across 24 cities in India. “Then 26/11 happened. And that was the turning point.”

Like thousands of Mumbaiites who watched helplessly as ten armed gunmen held the city to ransom for 68 hours, Sanyal too felt the need for an entire systemic overhaul. While most citizens poured into the streets with placards demanding a change in the system, others like Sanyal decided it was necessary to participate in the system to change it.

“I felt we just sit around criticising the system. That is not enough,” says the management graduate who knows eight languages and enjoys chess and sailing.

So, Sanyal jumped into the political fray, fully aware that politics in India is a “different kettle of fish”. Since the day she announced her candidature as an Independent, this banker of 25 years has been swamped with every television channel and newspaper wanting to interview her.

On leave from work until the polls, she starts her day early, organising documents for her nomination papers. Back-to-back interviews and panel discussions take up the rest of her day.

Daughter of Admiral G Hiranandani, Sanyal went to Fort Convent and then to the elite Cathedral and John Connon School in south Mumbai. She graduated in Commerce from Sydnenham College and went on to do her management from IIM Kolkata and INSEAD, France. The mother of two prefers not to talk about her family and personal life.

Her campaign is being run like a corporate project, with requests for interviews and photo shoots being routed through a team handling her campaign and publicity. Her husband, Ashish Sanyal, a retail consultant, doubles up as her campaign manager.

Sanyal networks with her support base on Facebook and through her blogs. Her ‘punch-a-mantra’: more investment for infrastructure in Mumbai, improved public transport, better security, directly elected and empowered mayor and systemic reforms through the Nagara Raj Bill. “Good candidates from political parties represent the parties which are undemocratic. So despite good intentions they cannot deliver,” says Surendra Srivastava, founder of the Maharashtra chapter of Lok Satta Party, which is supporting Sanyal’s candidature.

“We have been pushing for good political culture and are looking for the brightest in society to come into politics. And we think Meera Sanyal fits the bill.”

Sanyal’s priority is to get Mumbai back on track. “Mumbai pays Rs 95,000 crore as taxes but gets less than three per cent of that back,” says Sanyal who looks every bit the corporate honcho, dressed in elegant saris and pearls. “Every parameter of the city has deteriorated. The city is growing but not the infrastructure,” she rues.

Sanyal believes that resisting the influx of migrants is like resisting growth itself. Explaining that the US is a great place because it welcomed immigration, Sanyal says the city needs to deal with the influx intelligently. “Only the brightest and the best have survived here because it’s such a hard place,” she says. “They add to the city’s dynamism, but that doesn’t mean we should let them stay in slums. We have to expand the boundaries of the city.”

A resident of the tony south Mumbai area, Sanyal is confident she will be able to reach out to the elite and middle class voters alike. “My company was the first to set up a BPO in Lower Parel. Most of our staffers come from areas like Parel and Chinchpokli,” she says. “They travel by crowded trains and wade through knee-deep water in the rains. I understand their problems.”

Sanyal has two sitting MPs, Milind Deora of the Congress and Mohan Rawle of the Shiv Sena, for opponents. But her message to them is clear: “I am not standing against you. I am standing for Mumbai.”

(By Sweta Ramanujan Dixit)