Strongmen will continue to hold sway till the system becomes truly responsive to people's needs

Akhilesh Singh's office in Rae Bareli is minimal — a table, some dusty chairs and a luminous Subhash Chandra Bose in his Congress avatar looming down from one wall. Ask Akhilesh about the portrait and out gushes his version of the freedom struggle -- in which Bose is the hero, Jinnah, Ambedkar, Lohia the supporting cast, and Gandhi and Nehru the villains. The Rae Bareli MLA sees himself in the grand tradition of the “real” Netaji (it's also Mulayam Singh Yadav's sobriquet) taking on the Nehru-Gandhis well into the 21st century.

For over two decades, Akhilesh has reigned supreme in an area which has sent Feroze Gandhi (1952, 1957), Indira Gandhi (1967, 1971 and 1980) and Sonia Gandhi (since 2004) to Parliament. In between, the seat has been held by relatives, Arun Nehru and Sheila Kaul, or family friends, Dinesh Singh and Satish Sharma, the only exceptions being 1977, when the Janata Party's Raj Narain defeated Indira Gandhi, and 1996 and 1998, when Akhilesh's elder brother, Ashok Singh, won it on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket.

Akhilesh and Ashok Singh were both once in the Congress as was their father, Dhunni Singh, with the political lives of the two families intertwined. But today, the Singhs who started out as “facilitators” are antagonists.

Despite a string of criminal cases, this time, too, Akhilesh looks a shoo-in for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, contesting on a Peace Party (PP) ticket. “The people here are my family,” he says. “In this district, I will not allow anyone to be oppressed or exploited.” It's not an idle boast, confirm locals, who say it is Akhilesh Singh, rather than any district official, who is at hand to help out, when they are in trouble or need.

“The Lok Sabha seat here may be the uncontested preserve of the Gandhi family,” local Congressmen say, “the man who plays a pivotal role in all the other elections here is Akhilesh Singh.”

Indeed, 64 years after Independence, the success of men like Akhilesh Singh, who operate outside the confines of the law and yet repeatedly win elections in UP point to the failure of the State to respond to the needs of the people. And he's not the only one: dotted across UP are others like Akhilesh, who triumph at the hustings repeatedly, some from even behind bars, simply because they are accessible to the poor, and can provide a rough and ready justice. Occasionally, they may join a political party, or support one, but they prefer to operate independently, with a private network of loyal workers.

In Jaunpur, for instance, a local journalist says, the master puppeteer for the nine Assembly seats is 36-year-old Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP Dhananjay Singh: his objective is to wipe the BSP out of the district. He may be behind bars but he has succeeded in getting the BJP to sponsor two of his protégés: they joined the party after receiving the nomination. In a third, Malhani, his wife, Jagriti Singh, is contesting as an Independent, “lest she lose the Muslim vote”. I check these stories with a senior BJP leader: he shrugs and says it was important to get “winning” candidates.

Until the early 1980s, strongmen like Akhilesh Singh and Dhannjay Singh only “helped” candidates of mainline political parties, mainly the Congress, at election time. Subsequently, the dons were no longer content to play behind the scenes roles. One of the first to signal the change was Gorakhpur's notorious Hari Shankar Tiwari who stood from Chillupur and won; his elder son Bhism Tiwari is the current BSP MP from Sant Kabir Nagar, and another son and nephew are also trying their luck in these elections.

Then there was Bhukal Maharaj, a Brahmin like Tiwari, in Kaushambi: though he never contested elections himself, both his sons, Kapil Muni Karwariya and Uday Bhan Karwariya are in politics. The first is a BSP MP, and the younger son is seeking re-election to the UP Assembly.

As U.P.'s social landscape changed, and the upper castes found themselves challenged by the OBCs, strongmen began to emerge from their ranks, too – Dadua, a Kurmi, was eventually gunned down, but his son, Veer Singh, is contesting from Karvi in Chitrakoot district; then there is the infamous DP Yadav who hit the headlines when Mulayam Singh Yadav's son Akhilesh opposed his entry into the SP this time.

As Muslims found themselves under attack, they too found their protectors — Mukthar Ansari from Ghazipur and Atiq Ahmed from Allahabad, to name two. If caste and religion are identity markers, the social backgrounds of these ‘dons' varies: for, instance, while Mukthar Ansari comes from a respected political family, counting a former president of the Indian National Congress and the current Vice President, Hamid Ansari, among his relatives, Atiq Ahmed is less Robin Hood and more just roughneck. Take Raghuraj Pratap Singh, known popularly as Raja Bhaiyya, who is from a landed family: father Uday Pratap Singh, is a Doon School alumnus, who decided to go “desi” with his son. Raja Bhaiyya is contesting this time as an Independent from Kunda, in Pratapgarh district, with the backing of the SP: at the marketplace, a vociferous group of young men, all rooting for him, predict his victory, again. When I reach his constituency office, it is spilling over with people late in the evening, steaming kulhars of tea making the rounds.

Will the fact that the Election Commission is keeping a stern eye on the polls be an obstacle, I ask tentatively? Not at all, he says smoothly, “Earlier, I spent so much money feeding my workers, now I can cite EC rules to keep the cost down.” He then proceeds to give a lecture on the issue that journalists are missing out in their reports, the agricultural crisis in the State, adding, “I am familiar with the subject as I was once food and civil supplies minister in U.P.”

Till the system becomes truly responsive to the people, till breaking the law becomes an exception rather than the rule, U.P.'s Robin Hoods will continue to hold sway, delivering their version of development to the aam aadmi.

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