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Archive for April 2014

Polling in Mathura is over, and its Lok Sabha candidate Hema Malini is now busy campaigning for Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley in Amritsar. But she tells Sonia Sarkar she has plans for the western UP city

The cheeks — still seemingly soft after all years — should be patented. After all, they have been likened to the silkiest of roads, and by a man who would know all about potholes. When Lalu Prasad talked of making Bihar’s infamous roads as smooth as actress Hema Malini’s cheeks, he coined a metaphor that entered the lexicon of political hyperbole.

Years later, the actress smiles when the topic of Mathura’s roads turns up, and I recall Lalu’s famous words. “I, myself, have to do that now for Mathura,” she laughs.

Hema is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from the west Uttar Pradesh city of Mathura, pitted against its sitting MP Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Mathura has voted, and Hema has left the city that she wishes to adopt — and fervently hopes will adopt her. She will now be seen in Amritsar, campaigning for her party leader Arun Jaitley.

But she’ll be back, she promises. And the roads will be dealt with. “The roads are really horrible. My back is paining because I have been travelling on these bumpy roads,” she says. “Is it not possible to make roads for the entire constituency in five years? One can take funds from the central government for this.”

The actress, who was a member of Rajya Sabha till 2012, is fighting for a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. And rumour has it that she’s not happy.

She moves around in a white Audi with an orange umbrella and a lotus in her hand. The men, women and children of Daulatpur village in Mathura run for a glimpse or even a touch of their screen idol. But she doesn’t smile much, and hardly ever stops to address the people.

The buzz is that she was unwilling to fight the election from the city. Someone whispers that there was a time when she wanted to withdraw her nomination and return to Mumbai. Is that true, I ask her. “No, not at all,” she replies.

Three years ago, she elaborates, the BJP had asked her if she would be interested in fighting the 2014 elections, and she’d turned down the offer. “But this time, when they approached me again, I said yes because [BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra] Modiji is here,” the 65-year-old actress says.

Modi campaigned for her in Mathura, and reassured her when she voiced her “nervousness” about the election result. “Modiji came to give me an assurance. Whenever I told him, ‘I don’t think I can do it,’ he said: ‘Don’t worry, we are all there with you’.”

The party, local BJP leaders maintain, decided to field the trained Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer from Mathura because she has often performed the role of Krishna admirers Radha and Meera, and Mathura is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god.

“I have been visiting Mathura for the past 20 years for my cultural shows. People of Brajbhoomi are not new to me,” Hema Malini stresses.

I ask her about the resentment on the ground. Hadn’t local BJP leaders demanded that the ticket be given to someone who had worked in the area?

Hema admits that there was discontent, but holds that’s a story of the past. “In the beginning, they were unhappy that they didn’t get the ticket. But now that I am contesting, they are supporting me,” she says, gently moving her slender neck from the left to the right to relax the neck muscles.

“If I were a ‘kharoos’ (ill-tempered) person, they would have got irritated. But I am very calm. I told them, if I win, we all have to work together.”

The workers don’t describe her as ‘kharoos’, but hold that she is inaccessible. Indeed, workers from remote villages have gathered at the lobby of the hotel where she has been put up hoping to meet her. She greets them smilingly when they put a garland around her neck and take photographs. But when they approach her with their demands – for water, electricity and the construction of cow shelters in their villages — she directs them to her poll manager.

Unlike many other actor turned politicians, she is not keen to pose with her fans for photographs. When a middle-aged couple wants to click a photograph with her, she unsmilingly obliges them. But when the photograph doesn’t turn out to be perfect and they request her for another click, she walks out, saying, “no more.” She enters her room and bangs the door shut.

The actress knows the importance of keeping fit and looking good. She is impeccably dressed — in a saffron sari with a red border — and perfectly made up. The eyes are kohl-rimmed, and tinged with a light red eye shadow. Two gold chains hang around her neck, one holding a Krishna pendant. Rhombus-shaped diamond tops sparkle from her ears.

Even in this busy election schedule, she maintains her routine. She wakes up at 5.30am and does yoga for nearly an hour. A vegetarian, she has a low-fat diet consisting of fruits and salads for breakfast, and chapatti, sabzi and dal for lunch and dinner. “But I prefer curd rice in this heat,” she says.

Born into a Tamil-speaking Iyengar family, Hema Malini was brought up in Chennai. She started her film career at the age of 19 by playing the role of a dancer in a Telugu film, Pandava Vanavasam. She made her debut in Bollywood with the 1968 film Sapnon ka Saudagar. After the 1970 hit film Johny Mera Naam, there was no looking back for her as she acted in blockbusters such as Seeta Aur Geeta, Lal Patthar, Sholay, Satte Pe Satta and Naseeb. In 1979, she married the already-married Dharmendra, her co-star in more than 35 films.

Politics beckoned in the late Nineties. She had formed links with the BJP when she campaigned in 1996 for her co-actor Vinod Khanna, who contested on a BJP ticket from Gurdaspur. He introduced her to senior BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. “I know all of them very well,” she says.

Right now, though, she is close to Modi. Even during the busy poll schedule, she says he often calls her up. “The other day, when he called to ask how my campaigning was going, I told him, I am working very hard. But my skin colour has completely changed while roaming in this scorching sun. To this, he said, So you have become a typical south Indian now,” she says.

Isn’t that a bit stereotypical, I demur.

“Oh, he was joking,” she quickly adds.

With her south Indian roots, Hindi is not her strength — despite the numerous Hindi films she has acted in. She starts her speeches with a few stock Hindi lines such as “Main Bhagwan Krishan ki bhakt hoon (I am a Krishna devotee)” but in a few minutes switches to English. The crowd, happy to just look at her, is not really troubled by that.

Her rallies are quite spectacular. Last week, her daughters, actress Esha Deol and director Ahana, campaigned for her with their husbands. She is also accompanied by her elder brother and two sisters-in-law.

But Hema admits that she doesn’t like “unnecessarily hobnobbing” with people. “I maintain a distance from everyone except my family,” she says.

She doesn’t like to entertain the media for long either. When I ask to be allowed to travel with her for a longer interview, her aide tells me that it will “upset” her.

Personal questions bother her too. She is particularly annoyed when I ask about a complaint made to the Election Commission by an Aam Aadmi Party supporter who claimed that she’d converted to Islam when she married Dharmendra but did not mention this in her affidavit.

“What nonsense! Why should I convert,” she snaps. “Moreover, why should I give any clarification to anyone? I am married to Dharmendraji, I have two children and they are married. That is enough,” she adds. She sends a message through her aide later, urging me not to write about her marriage and religion.

Speaking of Dharmendra, where is he? The BJP wanted the actor, a Jat from Punjab, to campaign for his wife because they believed his caste would sway the 3.5 lakh Jat voters in the constituency.

“He is not well,” she replies. “He has problems with his legs.”

Hema, however, stresses that she doesn’t want to bring in caste angles in the poll. “For me, everyone is a Brajbasi,” she asserts.

Her fans will be waiting to hear her speak, but her record so far is not encouraging. According to PRS Legislative Research, a think tank based in Delhi, Hema Malini had the lowest attendance of 36 per cent among all Karnataka MPs in Rajya Sabha from June 2009 to April 2012. But she participated in six debates.

“I never advertise my work. That doesn’t mean that I have done nothing in the Rajya Sabha,” she says.

Will Sholay’s chatterbox Basanti speak up in the Lok Sabha? Mum’s the word.

 (This is the longish version of the story that appeared in The Telegraph on April 27, 2014)

 

Hansal Mehta, who’s just won the National Award for the best director for his film Shahid, has finally got recognition after 15 years in filmmaking. Now busy in the post-production work of his next film City Lights, Mehta directed Shahid because he was intrigued by the story of Shahid Azmi. Azmi was a lawyer who was gunned down in his chamber in a Mumbai suburb in 2010, two years after he took up the case of 26/11 co-accused Fahim Ansari. Mehta, who worked as a software engineer in Australia before getting into cinema, feels vindicated that his hard work has paid off. The director of Jayate (1999), Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and Woodstock Villa (2008) tells SONIA SARKAR that he was inspired by Azmi’s life. Excerpts:

Q:How does it feel to get a National Award?

A:I believe everything happens at the right time. I am glad that I got the award for Shahid. I may not have been this happy if I had won it for some other film. This award certainly inspires me to direct more fearless films. I have decided that I will do only things that come straight from the heart. It has to be something that reflects my concerns.

Q:Why did you want to make a film based on the life of Shahid Azmi?

A: I came across the story of Shahid through newspapers and was intrigued by it. When I started reading about him, I realised that his was not an ordinary life. Shahid chose to take on the system; he was a true whistleblower. My film is on his life — the spirit of his life. The film is an accurate representation of his life but not a factual representation. About 95 per cent of the film is based on his life; five per cent is fictional. But the part relating to Shahid’s life is absolutely accurate. You have to be responsible and sincere to keep the man’s memory intact.

Q:Why did you cast Rajkummar Rao as Shahid?

A:Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap recommended Rajkummar to me. When I saw his work, I told myself: he is the man who can play Shahid. Even in all his past films, he was never just an actor; he was always the character — and that differentiates him from others. I have always worked with new actors. I have always taken challenges, so I was not afraid to cast him. He is one of the finest actors of this generation. I am doubly happy that he too got a National Award for his role.

Q:Often, when one makes a film on a real life character, there are apprehensions of distortions…

A:I started researching about Shahid Azmi soon after he died. I met his mother, brother and colleagues. When I told them I wanted to make a film on him, they never said no. But they said: tell the story as honestly as possible.

Q:Did Azmi’s family help in developing the character?

A:Once Shahid’s mother came for the shoot. She looked at Rajkummar and kept looking at him. She finally said, there is a pen missing from his pocket. Then she put a pen there. She also showed us how Azmi would hold a pen while writing.

Q:Azmi’s story is controversial. Did you face any hurdles while making the film? (The police called Azmi a militant, and he spent five years in jail. Once he was released, he studied law and later fought on behalf of Muslim boys accused of violence. There was some speculation that he had been killed by the police.)

A:The only problem that I faced was in getting finances. Anyone who showed an interest in financing the project would ask: who will play the lead character? Since I had no access to any of the big stars, I didn’t know what to say. I talked to Manoj Bajpayee but the film had to capture the life of Shahid as a 19-year-old boy too. It was not fair to expect Manoj to play that role. Then I met Sunil Bohra (one of the five producers of the film), who told me that he would love to produce it. He called up Anurag Kashyap who too agreed to co-produce the film.

Q:Your association with Kashyap is not new. He was the scriptwriter of your first film Jayate…

A:Jayate was Anurag’s first film too as he began his career as a scriptwriter. Both of us were newbies when we started. He was as enthusiastic then as he is today. We did not work together for long but we were blogging mates.

Q:Because Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was on migrants who came to work as labourers in Mumbai, Raj Thackeray’s men ransacked your office and blackened your face. You were also made to apologise to MLAs and other party workers. Can you tell us what happened?

A:I don’t want to talk about it.

Q:Shahid is also a controversial subject. Doesn’t it worry you that somebody or the other will take offence?

A:This time I decided that I would not hold back from telling the truth. I will not hold back from fighting for what is right. I will not hold back from making my voice heard. The consequences are something that I will deal with courageously. I will apologise only if I have done something wrong.

Q:After Woodstock Villa in 2008, you stopped making films for four years till you started shooting Shahid. Why was there such a long gap?

A:After Woodstock Villa, I was disillusioned with myself. Perhaps I was not doing enough as a filmmaker. I thought I’d failed on both fronts — professional and personal. I left Mumbai for two years. I spent a lot of time with family — my daughters and wife. There was an urge to do something, to make a film. Then I came across this piece of news about a young lawyer being killed. It was Shahid. I knew, then, that this was the film I had to make.

 

The advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol — has turned the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select as their electoral symbols, says Sonia Sarkar

If you want a pair of slippers and scissors, you are too late. And forget about laying your hands on a cot or a ceiling fan. These images — all electoral symbols — have already been taken.

Symbols are the flavour of the season. Two independent candidates from Ranchi, Ranjit Mahato and Lal Jatindra Dev, fought over the cot symbol earlier this month. Two others, Arshad Ayub and Abdul Hassan, wanted the fan. Finally an Election Commission of India (EC) officer drew lots to settle the matter. The cot went to Mahato and the ceiling fan to Arshad. Jatindra had to be satisfied with an autorickshaw, and Hassan with scissors.

These icons are an essential part of the elections that are being held across India in phases. The symbols of the bigger parties — an open palm, a lotus, hammer and sickle, bicycle and elephant — are known to the voters. But the advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol, and message — has put the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select.

Symbols have been a part of the process from 1951-52, when the first elections were held. The government wanted to help unlettered people identify the party or candidate of their choice.

“These have played very important role in India’s electoral politics for voters who have not had any formal education but are politically conscious,” Dhirubhai Sheth, senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), stresses.

India’s literacy rate may have gone up from 18 per cent in 1951 to 74 per cent in 2011, but symbols are still important. With the number of parties growing massively (up from 53 in 1951 to over 1,600 in 2014), the pictures continue to help voters — and candidates. Not surprisingly, the number of free symbols of the EC has gone up from 25 to 87 in six decades. Apart from these listed symbols, candidates can ask for special figures which the EC has to endorse.

  • Logo list: (From top) Dr Daljit Singh, AAP candidate for Amritsar, and symbols of the Trinamul Congress, Congress, BJP and Jai Samaikyandhra Party; (below) the symbol Indira Gandhi chose when she broke away from the Congress in 1967

“With a large number of candidates fighting the polls, it is difficult for voters to remember their names. So symbols help them recognise their candidate,” points out N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi.

Some political parties have been innovative while designing their symbols. In 1997, when Mamata Banerjee left the Congress, she wanted to send a strong message to her parent party that the grassroots level workers were with her. So she called her party Trinamul Congress (which means grassroots).

The newly-born party needed a symbol. One winter night, in her Kalighat home, Banerjee — an occasional artist — drew a logo depicting two grass flowers. “The symbol came naturally to her because it shows what we are — a party for those at the grassroots,” spokesperson Derek ‘ Brien says.

The AAP was lucky enough to find a tailor-made symbol. “The moment we saw the ‘broom’, we grabbed it,” says Yogendra Yadav, AAP political affairs committee member. “It shows our party is for the working class and wants to cleanse corruption. But when we chose it, some advertising agencies said it was ‘downmarket’ and urged us to change it. But we stuck to it.”

This year, three new symbols — a pair of slippers, green chilli, and nib with seven rays — have been added to the EC’s list. The slippers have gone to former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy’s new Jai Samaikyandhra Party. “People wear a chappal for protection and therefore the party chose it — as its motto is to protect the people of Andhra,” a party official says.

The party says the symbol also alludes to the Ramayana. When Rama was exiled, his brother Bharata kept his elder brother’s wooden sandals at the foot of the throne as a symbol of his rule. “Footwear symbolises great service,” the official adds.

The green chilli is in the midst of a tug of war — wanted by both the UP-based Al-Hind party and actress Rakhi Sawant, who is fighting elections from Mumbai.

The EC bars the use of religious symbols and national emblems. It doesn’t allow animals because of protests from animal rights groups. Animal symbols were earlier allowed — the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Asom Gana Parishad both have an elephant as their symbol, while the All India Forward Bloc has a lion.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet.

“Since elections are all about serving the people’s needs, we usually think of articles of daily use,” a senior EC official says. “It is not our job to add meaning to it. Let the political parties make the necessary interpretations.”

Some free symbols do strike a chord with political parties. The Congress got its current symbol — an open palm — from the EC list in 1978. The party earlier had a pair of yoked bullocks as its symbol. After Indira Gandhi broke away from the Congress in 1967, she chose a calf and a cow as the symbol of her faction. The open palm became the symbol after she formed Congress (I). “We chose it because it is easy to recognise,” Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi says.

The political grapevine has it that the symbol was decided by Congress leader Buta Singh, who sought Gandhi’s approval over the phone. She kept hearing haathi (elephant), instead of haath (hand). She said no to it even as Buta tried to explain that it was not the elephant, but the open palm symbol he was advising her to pick, writes The Telegraph journalist Rasheed Kidwai in 24 Akbar Road.

Gandhi handed over the phone to Congress leader P.V. Narasimha Rao, who understood what Singh was saying. “He shouted, ‘Buta Singhji, panja kahiye, panja.’ Indira was relieved and took the receiver and said, ‘Haan, haan, panja theek rahega (Yes, yes, the open palm symbol will be appropriate).”

The Bharatiya Janata Party recently took away the orange colour of its symbol, a lotus, and turned it black and white to make the icon more visible. “The lotus represents nationalism because it is also the national flower,” party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says. “Also, as per Hindu mythology, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Brahma, the creator of the universe, sit on a lotus. The lotus evokes strong Hindu sentiments.”

Political parties like their symbols to be distinctive. Recently, the AAP urged the EC to remove the symbol of a torch with rays arguing that it was similar to its broom. The EC modified it and it’s now a torch with no rays. It also removed a hat from its list of symbols for Andhra Pradesh at the request of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which held that the hat could be mistaken for its own symbol, a car. And it removed the road-roller for Haryana to avoid confusion with Haryana Janhit Congress’s tractor.

A symbol, clearly, is not just a picture. A victory or defeat could depend on it.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet


 

The Indian icons

There’s more to the BJP’s Jhansi election candidate Uma Bharti than meets the eye. She’s an avid reader, a fan of Che Guevera and collects dolls, Sonia Sarkar discovers, while accompanying her on the campaign trail

The interview starts with a request for silence. We are in a BMW X3, cruising down the roads of Bundelkhand, and Uma Bharti is chanting mantras. Once in a while, she gestures to her driver with a mimed instruction. Some 20 minutes later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Jhansi opens her eyes — she is now ready to talk.

“There is so much of support for the BJP everywhere,” Bharti says, while popping pomegranate seeds into her mouth. “But the problem is that we have been sliding down in every Assembly election, so a large number of our previous supporters have become neutral. This is a sign for worry.”

My day with Bharti has started with a visit to a local Kali temple in Jhansi — said to have been frequented by Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Bharti has a bad back, and two security guards help her climb the stairs to the temple — one holding her hand and the other lifting her foot. “I always start my day with Ma’s blessings,” Bharti, 54, explains, and then addressing the goddess, she says: “Ma, dekho yeh Kalkattey se aayi hai (Ma, look, she’s come from Calcutta).”

Once the ritual is over, she gets into her car, an aide carrying her two handbags — one brown and the other blue and grey. We take the highway to Mauranipur, and Bharti opens up, talking about the problems she faces in Jhansi, which goes to the polls on April 30.

Winning Jhansi, which is in the Bundelkhand region straddling Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (UP) but falls in UP, is certainly not going to be a cakewalk for her. “Jhansi is the weakest seat for the BJP in UP because we have not been able to win this parliamentary seat after 1998.”

Her rivals in the constituency — Congress MP Pradeep Jain Aditya and the Samajwadi Party’s Chaudhary Chandrapal Singh Yadav — call her an outsider because she’s never fought from UP. A sitting MLA from Madhya Pradesh’s Charkhari constituency, Bharti has represented the parliamentary seat of Khajuraho four times and Bhopal once.

But she is certainly no stranger to Bundelkhand. “I was born in Tikamgarh and I have been an MP in Khajuraho — both fall in Bundelkhand. People of this region know me well,” she says..

Jhansi, however, was not her first choice. BJP insiders say that she was keen to fight from Bhopal, the seat which party leader L.K. Advani also wished to be fielded from. By the time the party had asked her to fight against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bareli, she had already decided on contesting from Jhansi. The local grapevine has it that she would have liked to fight from both seats, but the party turned down the offer.

Will the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi campaign for her? “Actually I am not very keen because his time should be used for campaigning in other places. Also, he addressed the Vijay Sankhanad Rally in Jhansi in October. He is such a strategist that he took me along for that.”

Bharti’s ties with Modi are known to be tenuous. In 2007, she called him “Vinash Purush” (destroyer). And recently, she had remarked that Vajpayee had been a better orator than Modi.

She now blames the media for “flaring” it up. “I was complimenting Modi for the support that he gets even while not being a good orator. The media turned the compliment into criticism,” she complains.

Bharti points out that she has known Modi for decades. She first met him in the early 1970s when he was active in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “During his RSS days, Modi was a keen listener of my religious discourses. I call him Mota Bhai (Gujarati for elder brother). I always found him to be a strong-headed person,” she says.

As the car speeds up, she asks the chauffeur to switch off the AC. “I have to keep getting in and out of the car, it is dangerous to turn on the AC after bearing the scorching heat outside,” she says as the temperature shots up to 40 degrees.

As the car moves towards Magarpur village, slogans rent the air. “Narendra Modi Kashi se, Uma Bharti Jhansi se.” This is the time for her to play the Modi card. “If you vote for the BJP, we will make Bundelkhand like Gujarat,” she says.

Elsewhere, she stops to speak on local issues such as unemployment, migration and lack of irrigation facilities in the drought-hit region. She espouses a separate Bundelkhand state that would consist of districts from both UP and MP. “If we come to power, we will make Bundelkhand a separate state in three years,” Bharti announces.

We are back inside the car now. She quickly finishes a bowl of sprouts and pieces of snake cucumber (kakri) and moves on to other subjects. Bharti stresses that she is an avid reader — she loves “the smell of new books”. Her favourite reading is Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. “She understood women’s mind. I also go very deep into a woman’s mind. I am very feminine. You haven’t seen that side of me. But that’s not for you to see either,” she laughs.

She is also a fan of Che Guevera, the Marxist revolutionary. She started reading about him, and then his writings and his speeches. “I am a fighter myself, so I like revolutionaries like Che,” she says.

The phone rings. The caller is Baba Ramdev. The Yoga guru is said to be close to Bharti — it was he who pitched for her candidature against Gandhi from Rae Bareli. The baba wants to hold some meetings. She hangs up and says: “My fight is for roti aur rozgaar (food and jobs) as much as it is for gau, Ganga aur gareeb (cow, the Ganges and the poor). If we come to power, we will ban cow slaughter,” she adds before suddenly stopping the car to feed a stray cow.

Bharti comes from an “affluent” family of peasants, she says. Her father was a Left-leaning land owner, adds the sanyasin who took up vows of asceticism at the age of 32. The youngest of four brothers and two sisters, she studied till Class IV. Her ability to recite the Hindu scriptures as a small girl brought her fame. Soon she had come to the notice of Gwalior’s Vijaya Raje Scindia — a political leader and member of the erstwhile royal family.

With Scindia as her mentor, Bharti grew up in her palace. When she was a teenager, she started giving religious discourses around the world. “I collected dolls from every country I visited. I had a huge collection of dolls — Swiss dolls, Japanese dolls, Heidi dolls and so on,” she says.

After a failed attempt to get into Lok Sabha from Khajuraho in 1984, she won five elections in a row. As her stature kept growing, she became a minister at the Centre in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government. In 2003, under her leadership, the BJP won three-fourth of all seats in the MP Assembly. Bharti defeated Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and was elected chief minister. But she had to resign within a year because of an arrest warrant issued against her in connection with riots in Hubli in 1994.

Bharti’s temperamental nature has often put her in a fix. In 2004, she had a fall-out with Advani after she stormed out of a party meeting accusing some party leaders of briefing the media against her. “Some BJP leaders including [the late Pramod] Mahajan always fabricated things against me,” she says.

The dissidence continued — the inside buzz was that she wanted the party to reinstate her as chief minister, replacing Shivraj Singh Chauhan, but the party was in no mood to do so. She was served with several showcause notices and was eventually expelled by the BJP in 2005. Bharti ended up floating her own outfit — the Bharatiya Janshakti Party.

This was the “worst” phase of her political life, she says. “During those days the BJP gave me lot of trouble because they were in power but I wasn’t. I have forgiven them for that but can never forget it.”

By the time former BJP president Nitin Gadkari took her back into the party in 2011, Bharti had reined in her impetuous nature. “I have controlled my anger to a great extent,” she says. “But my weakness is that I am emotional. I try to be clever but I often land up being a buddhu (an idiot),” she adds.

In her second innings in the party, she has been placed in UP with the hope that her presence and image will revive the party in the state. “But they never made me part of any decision-making committee. I was asked only to campaign for the elections in the state,” she says.

Her role in UP during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in Ayodhya in the 1990s was a crucial one — and sharply condemned by her critics. She was among those present in Ayodhya when the Babri Masjid fell in 1992 and was indicted for inciting a mob to violence during the demolition by the Liberhan Commission that probed the incident. Twenty-two years later, she remains “unapologetic”.

She adds that the issue is as relevant as ever and justifies its mention in the 2014 party manifesto. “Ram is the face of the country. The issue will always remain relevant,” she says.

Bharti is confident that the BJP has picked the right issues this election. She is convinced that the BJP will win 300 seats and not need to ally with regional parties such as the Trinamul Congress or the Biju Janata Dal to be able to form a government. “For the first time, the regional parties have become insignificant,” she says.

The car stops at Uldan — a backward class-dominated village — where she lambasts local Samajwadi Party leaders for not doing enough for the villagers. “I will protect you the way a tigress protects her cubs,” Bharti says. The temper may be under control — for the time being, at least — but the message is clear: do not provoke the roar within.

(A version of this story is published in The Telegraph, April 13,2014)

 

It’s 11 in the morning, and it’s business as usual in Delhi’s commercial hub, Connaught Place. But the security guard standing outside the glass door of an office in a high-rise building is leisurely drinking tea. There are hardly any visitors coming in.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) office, once a hub of activity, bears a deserted look. Yet, even some months ago, corporate bigwigs from India and abroad would land up there to meet its then boss, Nandan Nilekani. Everybody wanted their Aadhaar cards, which had been launched at a cost of Rs 3,300 crore in 2009.

On March 24, the Supreme Court (SC) of India said in an interim order that people without Aadhaar cards should not be deprived of government benefits. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by former Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and retired major general S.G. Vombatkere, challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

On the same day, the SC stayed the order of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court asking the UIDAI to share fingerprint details of a rape accused with the CBI. “The UIDAI stated that this would open up the floodgates for all kinds of requests for resident data,” Nilekani wrote in his blog on March 24.

“When it (Aadhaar) was launched, the government said the scheme would help transfer the benefits of various government subsidy programmes directly to the people. After the SC interim order, it clearly means that you do not have to have an Aadhaar card to get the benefits,” says Colonel (retd) Mathew Thomas, who too had filed a petition in the SC questioning the Aadhaar, under which every citizen is given a specific identification number.

Shyam Divan, the counsel for Vombatkere, told the court that there was no statute to back the project and even if there was one, it would violate the fundamental rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution as the project enables surveillance of individuals and impinges upon the right to human dignity.

So far, UIDAI has been functioning under an executive order issued by the government in January 2009, as an attached office of the Planning Commission. Even before the National Identification Authority of India Bill (the proposed legislature for UIDAI) was passed, UIDAI was issuing Aadhaar cards.

A former planning commission official says that the standing Committee of Finance had stated in its report way back in 2011 that this is a clear circumvention of the Parliament. “Not just that, it also said that Aadhaar is a waste of resources since there are other existing form of IDs,” she says.

Aadhaar-enabled service delivery initiatives have been linked to various government schemes such as payment of wages, social security benefits including old age payments and distribution of LPG cylinders. Maharashtra and Delhi made Aadhaar compulsory for opening of bank accounts, rent agreements and marriage certificates.

Many have said that the scheme violates human rights because citizens have to submit their biometric details (such as fingerprints and an iris scan) to get their unique numbers. These details of the 59.4 crore people who have received their Aadhaar cards have already been recorded by the UIDAI.

The card has been courting controversy from the beginning. Four major PILs have been filed in the SC. Two question the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The third, filed by social activist Aruna Roy, makes a plea against making Aadhaar mandatory for benefits such as pensions and scholarships. The fourth holds that Aadhaar lacks statutory backing. The apex court is also hearing a batch of pleas against decisions of some states to make Aadhaar numbers compulsory for a range of activities including payment of salary, provident fund, marriage and property registration.

In September, the Supreme Court said Aadhaar was not mandatory for citizens to get benefits of government schemes. It also asked the government not to issue the card to illegal migrants. In November, it issued notices to 11 states on a PIL questioning the legal validity of the Aadhaar card as well as the authority to link it with certain services and benefits. On March 24, the court directed the government to withdraw all orders that made Aadhaar mandatory for any service.

“The UIDAI always said it was a voluntary scheme. It is the state government which made it mandatory, not us,” stresses Zoheb Hossain, the assisting lawyer of solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran.

The government, the UIDAI argues, launched Aadhaar to eradicate fraud, black-marketeering and pilferage in its beneficiary schemes. “Aadhaar is the only foolproof mechanism to check misuse of subsidies,” attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati and Parasaran, representing UIDAI, told the court in their submission.

UIDAI’s opponents, however, believe that the scheme is flawed. They have questioned the agencies put in charge of enrolling people, the involvement of dubious companies and the ever-increasing cost of the project.

Cases of fake enrollment have been rampant under Aadhaar. In 2012, police in Hyderabad unearthed that 800 fake enrollments were being made under the quota of physically-disabled. In 2013, newspaper reports revealed that in Bangalore, Aadhaar cards have been issued in the name of chair, dog and tree.

Experts say that there has always been an emphasis on the “number” of enrolments being done under the scheme because the enrollment agencies get Rs 350 per enrollment from the UIDAI. “So the focus  has always been on the getting more and more people enrolled. But how one is doing it was never a concern fro the government,” Mathews says.

A recent sting operation by an investigative portal said people who posed as refugees from Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan were permitted to sign up for the scheme.

“If a person had a fake ID all these years with his photo and address on it, his Aadhaar ID is also fake because it is based on a fake card,” says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP critical of the system. “Aadhaar doesn’t have a mechanism to distinguish between a citizen and a non-citizen. So taxpayer-funded subsidies and cash transfers can go to illegal immigrants,” Hossain says.

The other allegation has been that UIDAI had signed contract with dubious enrollement agencies. For example, UIDAI signed a contract with one private form, COMAT Technologies Private Limited , which had earlier failed to deliver after signing a contract with the Karnataka government.

“In 2010, according to a government audit report, COMAT Technologies Private Limited, did not comply with contract that it had signed with Karnataka government to undertake a door-to-door survey and to set up biometric devices, for which it was paid 542.3 million for this purpose. Even then, in the same year, COMAT Technologies was empanelled as an enrolling agency of the UIDAI,” Thomas says.

There were also questions being raised related to the contracts given to foreign companies for collecting biometrics. Critics allege that all the biometric data are lying with these foreign companies –  L1 Identity Solutions and Accenture.

“L1 Identity Solutions provides biometric services to department of defence of the US and Homeland security. The board of directors of the company are former CIA and FBI officials. Who gives the guarantee that this data will not be used against the interest of the country?”, Mathews asks.

But Nilekani calls these allegations nonsensical. “All biometrics are under the control of the Indian government, no foreign company has access to our data,” Nilekani, who feels very “proud” of the project, replied to the questions via email.

A senior advocate associated with the case stresses that through UIDAI, the government can keep tabs on people’s whereabouts. “If bank accounts are UID-enabled using biometrics, then wherever we withdraw money from is recorded. What right does the government have to know about my whereabouts? Is it a police state,” he asks.

According to the Supreme Court, UIDAI cannot impart data with anyone without the consent of the individual. “We have always stated that the data collected from residents would remain private, and not be shared with other agencies,” Nilekani writes in his blog.

Clearly, the controversy over the UID will continue to rage over the next few months. The matter is expected to come up for a final hearing either in April or in July, after the summer break.

“We want the court to strike down the UIDAI scheme,” a lawyer fighting UIDAI says. “The scheme can be saved if the court gives us certain guidelines on how to function,” Hossain holds.

 (A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph on April 2, 2014)