'I'll make Pune No.1'
Pune candidate Suresh Kalmadi sets out at the crack of dawn, crisply clad in white kurta, pyjama and jacket, to wade through the slush and muck of the main fruit and vegetable market of town, the Chhatrapati Shivaji market of Pune.
“Politics in Pune begins here,” he tells the Hindustan Times as he sets a brisk pace, holding the prototype of an electronic voting machine in hand. Pune has the largest number of candidates (22) in fray and two electronic voting machines will be deployed here on April 26. This is also an auspicious day for weddings and many voters have more than one to attend.
“You do not have to look hard for my name and symbol. I am on top at number one. I will make Pune the number one city in this country. So before you go to that wedding make a detour to the polling booth and punch the button at the top,'' he exhorts the wholesale traders at the end of a slippery walk over straw, melon peels, pulped tomatoes and crushed vegetables.
It all adds up to a great political soup, for the market has Marathas, Dalits, OBCs and Muslims in large numbers and Suresh Kalmadi is expecting all of them to vote for him. He makes no bones about the true blue Puneri vote of the upper castes and Brahmins which are tied down to the RSS and so will go to the rival BJP candidate. But anything is worth a try. So very soon he will be attempting to breach even this fortress.
“If (Pradeep) Rawat, walks these streets, no one will even recognize him.'' Rawat is the sitting BJP MP pitted against Kalmadi who is the bigger celebrity. And clearly more to offer to the Punekars with his control over the Pune Municipal Corporation - better roads, lowered property taxes (that has led to a building boom here) and India's largest software park.
He is also banking on the opposition unity this time, the Nationalist Congress Party and Sharad Pawar are ranged behind him as are the Republican party of India representing Dalits and the Janata Dal. But there is no harm in trying to break into enemy lines. So Kalmadi, with just a week to go for polling on April 26, instructs his workers that “the time for rallies is over”.
“I now want you to go door to door and go into the Shiv Sena and BJP wards. “He himself plunges into slums in an open tempo and halfway through film star Zeenat Aman hops aboard. The crowds go ecstatic.
Through it all, Kalmadi underscores to the people that he is a man of his word. “I do not promise the moon, but I keep whatever promises I make. You have seen this in the past. Vote for me, help me win not just by ten or twenty thousand votes but by a margin of a lakh or two and I will give you Pune as the number one city in this country.”
However, there are some, in the market, who want only homes. They say - “If you can assure us that, we are yours forever.”
This is still not the moon, so Kalmadi nods in assent. It is almost four in the afternoon and he must break for lunch and a 15 minute nap before the next leg of campaign. The sun is high and the heat is getting to everybody on the campaign trail. But Kalmadi is still crisp and peppy. He has an election to win, after all.