Posts Tagged ‘Narendra Modi

It is a tough time to be a Dalit voice in the BJP. Sonia Sarkar meets Udit Raj, the party’s Lok Sabha MP from North West Delhi, to measure the depths of his discomfort

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Udit Raj looks angry. He frowns as an aide tells him that there’s a call from a former Prime Minister’s nephew. “Arrey, chhoro yaar,” he shouts at him – just forget it. He looks more and more irritated as people flood the room. And his eyebrows merge into one harsh slash.

There is good reason for the Dalit member of Parliament (MP) to be incensed. There has been a spate of attacks on Dalits across the country – by members of militant Hindu groups affiliated to Udit Raj’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Una in Gujarat, four Dalit men were lashed by a mob of cow protectors, led by a Shiv Sena leader. Three members of a Dalit family in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district were attacked by the Bajrang Dal for alleged cattle theft and slaughter. Earlier this week, two Dalit men in Lucknow were thrashed by a group of so-called cow vigilantes for allegedly skinning a dead cow.

“I am ashamed of these cow vigilantes,” Udit Raj, Lok Sabha member from North West Delhi says. “I am ashamed to see Dalits being treated worse than animals by people who belong to their own religion.”

He is angry, no doubt, but circumspect, too. For, while the BJP leadership has been accused of looking the other way as its supporters run amok, Udit Raj – who joined the party just before the general elections two years ago – cannot speak up. In fact, in a newspaper article this week, he tried to give the BJP an exit route, by underlining that it wasn’t just his party that was at fault. “Violence and atrocities against Dalits cannot be linked to any party or government,” he wrote.

But clearly, Udit Raj is in a bind. Dalits are upset with the former bureaucrat they once thought would usher in change. At his residence in Lutyens’s Delhi, scores of Dalit men, from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar, have gathered to voice their worries. They want him to tell the top BJP leadership – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – that these attacks have to stop.

Udit Raj, 55, has not been able to do that. He has not met Modi or BJP president Amit Shah. Behind closed doors, he has been telling his aides that there is little he can do. ” Kya karein, koi sunne ke liye raazi hi nahin hai – what can I do, nobody is ready to listen to me.”

He has been waiting for an appointment with Modi and Shah for over a week now. “They decide according to their priority, I think,” he says.

Neither Udit Raj, nor the issue of Dalits, are apparently priorities for the BJP at the moment. It is, at best, two-faced on the issue. Modi often invokes the name and thoughts of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar in his speeches. He inaugurated an Ambedkar memorial in London and launched commemorative coins on him. But he did not condemn the recent attacks on Dalits or pull up the then BJP vice-president in Uttar Pradesh, Dayashankar Singh, for his sexist denigration of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. And though Singh was later expelled from the party, there was no reaction from Modi when Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Hyderabad, described the Una beating of Dalits as a “good thing” in a video uploaded on his Facebook page.

“But why do you want the Prime Minister to speak on this issue? The Union home minister (Rajnath Singh), has ensured the arrest of the culprits of the Una attack,” Udit Raj counters defensively, “And I, myself, have asked for Raja Singh’s expulsion.”

But it is evident his voice doesn’t go too far in the party. Raja Singh is still an MLA, and very much in the BJP. Not surprisingly, many of Udit Raj’s supporters have been asking him what he’s still doing in the BJP.

Why did he join the BJP, a party that has for long been dominated by upper castes, widely perceived as “Manuvadi”? He waves a hand in the air, indicating that he doesn’t want to talk about it. He finally replies, choosing his words with care. “I joined the party because I thought I would bring a change in the condition of Dalits,” he says. “I thought the party was ready to give space to Dalits.”

Udit Raj admits that “caste does play a role” in the upper caste-dominated party. “It has always been so. Dalit leader (and former party president) Bangaru Laxman was thrown out of the party for being caught on camera while accepting a bribe in a fake defence deal expose by Tehelka because he was a Dalit. But the other accused in the case, George Fernandes, was re-inducted as the defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance government even before the inquiry was over. Justice was not done to Laxman by the party because he was a Dalit,” he says.

Yet, he joined the party, after his own outfit, the Indian Justice Party, which he floated in 2003, failed to make a mark. He stresses that he is not an “ace” politician – he is certainly not in the league of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, who has emerged as the undisputed political face of Dalits. But Udit Raj and Mayawati cannot be on the same platform – the grapevine has it that he was keen to strike an alliance with her; she wasn’t. Though Udit Raj criticises Dayashankar Singh’s derogatory remarks on Mayawati, he also believes that her supporters were wrong to hurl abuse at Singh’s daughter. “That’s not right at all,” he maintains.

He doesn’t want to talk about Mayawati’s chances in the Uttar Pradesh elections – though there is speculation that she may gain, electorally, from the BJP parivar‘s attacks on Dalits. But he does believe that the BJP, which got 24 per cent of the national Dalit vote share in 2014, will suffer in UP because of the attacks on Dalits. He merely stops with saying: “These incidents will have some bearing on the elections.”

He should know – for Udit Raj understands the Dalit mind in Uttar Pradesh. This was where he grew up – in Sirsa village in Allahabad. And this was where he started to raise his voice against oppression – in fact, at home itself. He was in his teens when he stood up against his father for physically abusing his mother. In the Lala Ram Lal Agarwal Inter College and later at the Allahabad University, this lanky dark-skinned angry young man fought for the rights of the oppressed.

Udit Raj, who had been named Ram Raj by his parents, converted to Buddhism in 2001 to escape the “tyranny” of upper castes and rechristened himself. “It was a rebirth for me, so I changed my name to Udit Raj. Udit means awakened.”

His wife, Seema Bahl, is from an upper caste. They met at the National Academy of Direct Taxes, where the two budding revenue service officers had gone for training. “In one of our initial meetings, I told her that I was a Dalit. To this, she asked, what does that mean? I was so impressed that I decided I had to marry her.”

In the Indian Revenue Service – which he quit when he launched the Indian Justice Party – he made a name for himself as the voice of Dalits in government. It was his “uncompromising effort”, he says, that forced the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to pass the 81st, 82nd and 85th constitutional amendments, leading to the revival of reservations in promotion for SC/ST categories, which had been held “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court.

That was then. Observers of Dalit politics believe he no longer has the rage that was his calling card once. “Some parliamentarians tell me that I was far more fearless when I was not in the BJP,” he says. “But I tell them, I still hold my militant image.”

If he does, he has kept it hidden from his party leaders so far. His voice was not heard when Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide after being subjected to discrimination in Hyderabad University in January this year. He did not object to some of his party leaders calling his alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), anti-national, or when JNU student leaders were arrested by the police. He, however, did attend a Mahishasura Shaadat Divas, to worship the demon who battled Durga, in JNU in 2013 – a celebration that had been condemned by the student wing of the BJP and some party leaders.

His aides say that in private, Udit Raj often expresses helplessness at not being able to push his party to help the community. Does that mean he may leave the BJP? Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has urged him to do so – but Udit Raj is not going anywhere, not yet anyway.

“I should be in the party and hope to get my due one day,” he says. For the present, he would be happy merely to get that appointment he has sought with Modi.


1980: Ram Raj joins JNU. Born a khatik — a Scheduled Caste — the quick-tempered young man quickly earns a reputation championing Dalit rights
1988: Cracks the civil services, is selected for the Indian Revenue Service. Senior to Arvind Kejriwal by a couple of years, Raj is known as Gabbar Singh in the IT department
1997: Appointed national president of the newly formed All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations
2001: Citing indignity suffered by Dalits under Hinduism, publicly embraces Buddhism and becomes Udit Raj; had earlier cast away his family name, Sonkar
2003: Resigns his government job and floats a political party — the Indian Justice Party. Looks, rather desperately, to make a political opening but fails
2014: Shuns Modi-bashing and joins the BJP. Gets the party’s Lok Sabha ticket from North West Delhi and beats former Union minister Krishna Tirath of the Congress to enter Parliament

You don’t often see Kiran Bedi pleading. But she is doing that right now, while urging the reporter of a Hindi news channel to ask her more questions. The reporter had stood up in a huff, terminating his interview with Delhi’s wannabe chief minister, when her aides had asked him to cut it short. “Please don’t go,” Bedi pleads. “Ask more questions.”

There’s a background to this. A few days before that, she had walked out of a television interview. Anchor Arnab Goswami was, as is his wont, hectoring her a bit when Bedi walked off, saying that she was late for another interview. The video clip went viral, leading to a deluge of jokes and critical remarks about Bedi.

Clearly, the no-nonsense former super cop is learning to be a politician. The walk-out was a mistake. Two weeks before Assembly elections in Delhi – where she is the chief ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bedi can’t afford to be seen as a political parvenu unable to handle the media.

So the first woman in the Indian Police Service (IPS), wearing a dark blue blazer over a pair of blue trousers, with a saffron scarf draped around her neck, is doing what she can to get people on her side. And that’s not a tall order, she believes.

“I have the trust of the people. That will help me to work as the chief minister,” Bedi, 65, says.

Last week, the BJP – which has no dearth of leaders in its state unit – sprung a surprise on the people, to say nothing of its Delhi party, when it said that Bedi had joined the BJP and was its candidate for the chief minister’s post. The move has led to furious debates in and outside the city. Is she chief minister material, as the phrase goes? Does a tough cop necessarily mean an able chief minister?

Many of her former colleagues believe that the very traits that made her a go-getting police officer may come in her way if she is chief minister. As a cop, she was dictatorial and broke protocol. In a chief minister, such traits will be frowned upon.

“She is an instructor, not a listener,” a former colleague rues. “Her word has to be the last word.”

Bedi denies that. “When I work, I listen to everyone. I urge people to speak,” she stresses.

Of course, Bedi is known to have a mind of her own. Old colleagues say she has been like this from the very beginning, even when she was a newbie at Mount Abu’s National Police Academy in 1972.

“Even at 21, she was outspoken and confident,” retired IPS officer Gautam Kaul says. “And she was never awkward as the only woman in the academy.”

A batchmate recalls that she would take a regular stroll with other probationers near Nakki Lake, a lone and slight woman in a group of strapping men. An Asian lawn tennis champion, she played tennis with equal elan with the then director of the academy. “We secretly envied her,” he says.

She was quick to impress her seniors with her “can-do” attitude when she was posted to Delhi after her training. “The first impression she gives is always positive,” a former cop says.

But those are the strengths – which should be an asset to any chief minister. The problems that her colleagues saw soon thereafter are traits that may trip her up.

As a cop, she would do things on her own, sometimes bypassing seniors, says a former Delhi police official. “She had this tendency to fix all problems alone, which is never possible in the government.”

She wasn’t a team player, but to be an effective chief minister she cannot work in isolation. “She has to take everyone else on board. She cannot wield her baton here,” a senior BJP leader says.

On the other hand, a trait that bureaucrats oppose may be just what the voter wants. Her colleagues were not happy with her “over-enthusiastic” approach. A senior recalls that while undergoing training as a station house officer in 1973, she decided to stay back overnight at the police station to get work done. “She went back only after a senior asked her not to ‘overdo’ things,” the retired Delhi police officer recalls.

But Delhi residents may not be unhappy at all if a chief minister decides to spend a night in the secretariat, clearing files.

Some old associates say that she is self-centered. Her detractors say that she imposes her opinion on others. But Bedi doesn’t believe this is true. “I cannot impose myself on others unless people trust me,” she says.

But if she carries so much baggage, why would the BJP have chosen her as the CM candidate? Sources say that the party had sought a delay in the elections because it was in search of a “brave” face to counter Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The party brass felt that it needed someone with mass appeal, which their Delhi leaders lacked. Senior BJP leader and Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is said to have approached Bedi, after getting the go-ahead from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

It worked out well – the BJP was looking for a face; Bedi was looking for a body. Sidelined by the AAP, she needed a platform.

The BJP high command believes it is on the right track – she is seen as honest, energetic and determined. She gets work done. People still remember her as Crane Bedi because she got cars parked illegally towed away. Delhi wallahas even believe that she had Indira Gandhi’s car towed away, though it later transpired that Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was out of town, and the car’s driver was “challaned” by a police constable for illegal parking.

In the late 1970s, she hit the headlines when she rescued 10 women and seven children from a burning house in Sadar Bazar. In 1978, with a stick in hand, she took on Akali agitators at India Gate. Her personal album has a series of pictures of Bedi – in heeled boots – warding off the men carrying sturdy sticks.

Bedi has already shown a talent that some successful politicians possess – the ability to change camps at will. When she was one of the leading lights of the Anna Hazare movement – seeking to weed out corruption from India – she lampooned politicians at a public rally. There was a time, too, not so long ago, when she was critical of Modi, frequently questioning him about the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Her tilt towards the BJP first became apparent to the AAP in 2014, when the latter was campaigning against Union minister and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari on corruption issues. “She was fine when such protests were carried out against Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. But she opposed the AAP when it targeted Gadkari,” an AAP member says.

Bedi now sees herself an out-and-out BJP person. “It’s a value-based solid organisation. I have seen it from inside,” she says.

She may have also seen the dissidents inside – for that’s going to be one of the biggest problems she’ll face in the party. Many have already started grumbling about her lack of political experience. “She should have been made an MLA first to help her understand how the administration runs. She has always been on the other side of the fence. She has no knowledge of politics and governance,” a BJP leader says.

Her critics point out that she is also not known to complete assignments. When she was posted to Goa, she left before finishing her tenure. She was removed from a post in Chandigarh after she got into a tussle with a senior bureaucrat. She left her job in Mizoram after widespread protests about her daughter getting a seat in a medical college in Delhi under the “Mizoram quota” – meant essentially for people of the state.

Yet, for every characteristic that is seen as a con, there are many in her favour. She is disciplined and looks after the interest of her subordinates, who used to fondly call her “Madam, Sir”.

She is also seen as a doer, a quality that people would like in their chief minister. “She doesn’t sit on anything. For example, if a pipe leaks, she will get a plumber to fix it right away. She won’t go through the sarkari way of filling up a requisition form, etc,” a former colleague says.

This, though, is not a job for quick fixes. Will she cope, or cop out? Time will tell, no doubt. But before that, the voter will.

‘I give, don’t take’

Q. What are the qualities you have that will make you a good chief minister?
A. I am trustworthy. As a cop, I have learnt only to give, never to take.
Q. How did you get the BJP ticket?
A. Nobody will ever get to know this.
Q. Why do you always abandon your posts?
A. Read my book. It has all the answers. It costs Rs 500, but I am gifting it to you.
Q. Why have you changed your views about the BJP and Modi?
A. I haven’t changed my views. I have understood that it’s a solid, value-based organisation. You haven’t got a chance to understand it, which I’ve got.
Q. You are a good mimicry artiste. You also used to imitate dancer Prabhudheva’s moves in the song Muqabla muqabla…
A. I used to do that. I mimicked tennis players too.

Pros and Cons


Quick to act
Clean image

Critics call her dictatorial
No experience
Not a team player

Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav represents the new face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The six-footer from Andhra Pradesh tellsSonia Sarkar that the RSS is changing

There’s not an inch of space in room No. 26 in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi. Those queued up there include a distressed villager from Uttar Pradesh, a voluntary sector worker from Bangladesh and an elderly Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member from Bhopal. And they are waiting for a meeting with the man in the adjoining room — Ram Madhav.

The BJP general secretary is busy surfing the Internet on his iPad. It’s been a busy fortnight — Chinese President Xi Jinping has come and gone, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has come apart in Maharashtra, where elections are to be held next month, and the BJP performed poorly in bypolls held in the states.

Have the people of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP did phenomenally well in the general election, turned their backs on the party, which lost (along with an ally) seven of the 11 seats it held in the Assembly?

Madhav, 49, doesn’t think so. The results, he holds, were impacted by the fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party did not take part in the polls, turning the contests into virtually straight fights between the Samajwadi Party and BJP. “But to expect to win every election is not correct either, because each election has its own arithmetic and dynamics,” he adds.

Election results, however, must lead to analyses, he points out. “Every election result is a time for stocktaking. It gives us an opportunity to find out what is happening on the ground, so that we can prepare ourselves for the next election,” Madhav says.

The poll in Bengal has given the BJP reason to rejoice. The party now has a seat in the Bengal Assembly, won by Shamik Bhattacharjee, who defeated Trinamul candidate Dipendu Biswas in Basirhat by 1,568 votes. Of course, Bhattacharjee had led from the same Assembly segment in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by 30,000 votes. The margin has come down drastically, but Madhav is not greatly troubled by that — he is happy that the party is making its presence felt in a “tough” state like Bengal.

“We have certainly emerged as a force in Bengal. In the next Assembly election, BJP will be seen as an alternative to the ruling party,” he says.

But the party’s dismal performance in the bypolls in many of the states — including Bihar and Rajasthan — has triggered a blame game in the BJP. Senior party leader and former deputy chief minister of Bihar Sushil Modi had put the failure in UP on Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, who had accused Muslims of carrying out a “Love Jihad” campaign, in which Muslim men targeted Hindu girls for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

“This (Love Jihad) is a concern of local political leaders, including Yogi Adityanath. They have noticed this happening and have talked about it. So what’s wrong,” he asks.

Madhav shrugs off criticism of Modi’s second-in-command, Amit Shah. Some in the party have criticised Shah’s individualistic style of functioning and blamed it for the UP debacle.

“Shah is a capable leader. He has proved his political mettle and maturity in Gujarat. Probably, if we win two state elections — Maharashtra and Haryana — the whole assessment will change,” Madhav says.

It’s difficult to rile Madhav, who wears a smile on his face most of the time. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the six-footer represents the new face of the RSS.

Technologically savvy, Madhav is active on social networking forums. A recent tweet, however, put him in trouble when, after the death of historian Bipan Chandra, he praised the academic’s contribution to history. Angry reactions followed, condemning Madhav for lauding a staunch critic of the RSS.

But Madhav is not troubled by the trolls. “We are a democracy. Everyone — even the last man on the street — is entitled to his views. I don’t disrespect anybody personally merely because he or she was critical of the RSS. I would rather defend the RSS with all my might,” he says.

And that’s not surprising, for Madhav’s links with the RSS are old. His father, Surya Narayan, was a member of the RSS, the state general secretary of the Jan Sangh and later a member of the BJP. His mother Janaki Devi, too, was active in the party.

Madhav, who joined the RSS when he was four, studied engineering and then political science from Mysore University — which is when he decided to became a full-time RSS pracharak.

“I had a great training in the RSS. Whatever I am today, it is because of the RSS,” he says.

He argues that the RSS is changing with time — and the belief that it’s stuck in a time warp is misleading.

“It adapts to changing times,” he says. “It has introduced so many new activities for the young such as exclusive shakhas where there are specific activities for IT professionals. I went to a shakha recently where youngsters were playing rugby.”

Many university students are joining the RSS, he contends, adding that “thousands of men” express their desire to join the RSS on its website. “So if there is membership through the website, you can imagine that young people are joining us,” he says.

He himself is one of the younger leaders of the RSS, which is generally seen as a body of greying men. Spokesperson for the RSS since 2003, Madhav, articulate and suave, was leased to the BJP in July this year, soon after the BJP rode to power at the Centre (and is now with the Prime Minister’s delegation to the United States).

With a foot in each camp, Madhav knows the equation between the parent body and the party. He dismisses stories about rifts between the RSS and BJP — and rumours that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no time for the RSS.

“The RSS and BJP share a very good equation. And it’s not correct that Modiji ignores the RSS. He is an experienced and visionary leader and he would have his own views. That doesn’t mean he is ignoring the RSS,” he says, with a broad smile.

But why is the RSS quiet? Shouldn’t it have stepped in when Modi’s team sidelined senior leaders such as L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi?

“I really don’t understand why people call it sidelining. They are such seniors and such fatherly figures for the party that nobody can sideline them. As far as responsibilities are concerned, they themselves have handed over responsibilities to younger teams,” he says.

There are many who believe that the “younger teams” took away their responsibilities, I point out. “It’s your interpretation,” he replies.

He reminds me that he has only a few more minutes to spare. So we move on to the subject of writing — an old passion of his. His recent book, Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War, prompts me to ask him about Xi’s visit, and if it has improved ties between India and China.

“From the Indian side, we have always made sincere efforts to improve ties with China. Both Modi and Xi Jinping talk to each other without any baggage of history,” he says. “But what really plagues our relationship is that there is a huge deficit of trust between the two countries. I am sure the new leadership will bridge the deficit,” he adds.

Madhav says he is an avid reader. He is reading a book on Pakistan — but says he can’t remember the name. That nudges me towards Pakistan, and I ask him about the government’s decision to call off talks between foreign secretaries because the Pakistan high commissioner had met Kashmiri separatist leaders.

“The government’s stand on not appreciating the Pak envoy’s invitation to separatist leaders is a firm message to our neighbour that things have changed in India and they can’t take us for granted. We were used to a docile diplomacy. We think it is natural for separatist leaders to meet Pakistani officials here. We have allowed all this to happen for far too long. Good that things have now changed,” he stresses.

The BJP hopes to see change in Kashmir, too — where it has launched its Mission 44, a campaign with the help of which it seeks to form a government (with 44 seats in the Assembly) in Kashmir in the next election. Some people in Kashmir have accused the BJP of rolling out relief measures during the recent floods in the state mainly to woo voters.

Madhav doesn’t smile any more. “This is a wrong and irresponsible statement. This is a natural calamity and everyone should jump into flood relief measures. There is no political agenda in it,” he says.

I can tell that the few extra minutes are over. He gets up to leave for another meeting. The crowd in the adjoining room will have to wait some more.


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)


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)