Munnabhai ke Papaji se miliye. Sunil Dutt is not new to the voters of North west Mumbai. Starting out as a raw and inexperienced film star on the campaign trail in 1984, today he is a seasoned politician. He has been on padyatras during his election campaign before. But this time it is different.
For one it is the youth who are responding to him more than the oldies with whom Dutt might have been more expected to strike a chord. And though they may not be voters as yet (Dutt might have to wait until the next election to garner their votes), they are all thronging his campaign trail to meet ``Munnabhai ke Papaji''.
``I have never ever asked Sanju (son Sanjay Dutt) to campaign for me,'' says Dutt Sr. The son has kept studiously away from his father's political trail. Yet it is the son's popularity that is now coming in handy to the father whose rival Sanjay Nirupam of the Shiv Sena boasts of having the maximum number of film stars campaigning for him and not Dutt.
But that does not matter to this four time MP (1984, 89, 91, 99) from Mumbai. He did not contest in 1996 and 1998 on the grounds that he wanted his son, then in jail, to be rid of all charges in the TADA case against him. When the Supreme Court granted bail to Sanjay Dutt, his father hit the campaign trail again. Most people thought he would lose the 1999 elections because of Sanjay's reputation. But Dutt swept the seat and in addition got the Congress five assembly seats from his constituency. The difference between the Sena and the Congress was just five seats in Assembly. That gave the Congress a government in Maharashtra. So now it is sweet irony that Munnabhai should be more popular on the streets of Mumbai than any film star on the Sena-BJP trail.
But given the Sena's divisive policies Dutt's campaign this time round has undergone a subtle shift of emphasis. Earlier, he used to rely mostly on padyatras and door to door visits to recount the work he had done for the people. That still happens. But now you may find Sunil Dutt more often at the railway stations familiarizing people with what he stands for. And the theme of his campaign is : kyunki Hum hain Hindustani.
Dutt is distributing handbills to people at railway stations, bus stops and other campaign trails. ``Because I am an Indian. And a true Indian will always love all Indians. And vote for an Indian,'' he says. ``Not a Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Assamese. Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Kashmiri.'' Of course, it is a subtle way or reminding the voters what the Sena stands for ? Mumbai only for Mumbaikars.
Appropriately, his campaign goes like this: ``I love Hindus. Why? I love Christians. Why? I love Muslims. Why? I love Sikhs. Why? I love Jains. Why? I love Parsis. Why? I Love Buddhists. Why?'' All religions covered, he goes on to list the regions. ``I love Maharashtrians. Why? I love Punjabis. Why? I love uttar Bhartiyas. Why? I love people from Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh. Why? I love people from North eastern states. Why?'' All states and regions are covered. The message being Mumbai belongs to one and all. And why pray does Dutt love all these people? Well, Kyunki Hum hain Hindustani!
At 74, Dutt has the energy of someone at least 30 years younger and there is no sign of fatigue on his face as he keeps punishing schedules each day. For some of the time, he has a rath. But nothing like the airconditioned Swaraj Mazda of L K Advani or the imposing ones of Manohar Joshi and Ram Naik. This is the humble three-wheeled authorickshaw ? Janata ki sawari, as he calls it -- with its top off and Dutt climbs aboard from time to time cruising through the lanes and bylanes of his constituency, even the narrow gallis of one of Mumbai;s last gaothans (village settlements)? The fishing village of Versova. There are mostly Kolis here, the traditional inhabitants of Mumbai and generally voters of the Shiv Sena. But his Hum Hain Hindustani campaign strikes a chord with them nevertheless and rare is the face that is grumpy, hostile or unsmiling. They respond to him with aartis and both hands raised in ``blessings''.
Their way of expressing support that other more city-savvy voters have offered him ? like yuppy men with thumbs up signs, teeny boppers and young adolescent women who blow kisses to him, shouting across the street, ``Love you''. Dutt blows kisses back to them, though there is a slight embarrassment in his demeanour in adopting such a 21st century way of greeting his voters. But there are also those who offer a staid namaste. He folds his hands and bows before them. When he looks up they are holding up their palms ? the panja sign in support of the Congress.
Will they increase his margins this time, he wonders. But he is happy he stands for India and they vote for him as an Indian, not Sunil Dutt, even if they look upon him as Munnabhai ke papaji.