The curious case of Annu Tandon

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Vidya Subrahmaniam

PARTY: Congress


STATE: Uttar Pradesh

MISSION STATEMENT: I am new to politics and I would rather wait to see the results

The name is Tandon, Annu Tandon, and she is quite the toast of Unnao, India’s largest Lok Sabha constituency after delimitation. Ms. Tandon, who is fighting the election from here as a Congress candidate, is an unlikely and unusual politician.

Yet from shopkeepers to rickshawalas to little slumkids, everyone is brimming with news about her. When the Congress was holding seat-sharing talks with the Samajwadi Party, Ms. Tandon’s name cropped up repeatedly. Party strategists willing to show flexibility on other seats were adamant that it would have to be her contesting the Unnao seat.

The SP was flabbergasted by the demand which seemed patently unreasonable. The Congress had finished fourth from Unnao in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Ms. Tandon was a novice who had not contested even a municipal election. Nor did she belong to a political family which could have redeemed her in the eyes of Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh.

Ms. Tandon had an important corporate connection, though. Her husband was a top executive of one half of the now divided Reliance group. But given that the SP leadership’s sympathies lay with the other half of the group, Ms. Tandon’s choice only increased the party’s agitation. Finally the SP and the Congress called off the talks, with the former blaming the fiasco on Ms. Tandon. That Ms. Tandon’s affidavit before the Election Commission showed wealth running into several crores of rupees inevitably added to the gossip.

The controversy has followed Ms. Tandon to Unnao, but, strangely, instead of denting her image, it has brought her sympathy and support. The reason for this is Ms. Tandon’s impeccable record as a philanthropist-social activist. Backed by a family-run trust, she has worked extensively in Unnao, offering both financial and emotional support to a people living in debilitating poverty. Her trust has adopted villages, and one of its projects, Yashoda Vatika, acts as a foster parent, helping children of illiterate mothers with their homework.

At Korari Mod, where Ms. Tandon’s convoy of station wagons is being awaited with some eagerness, people speak of being able to count on her — in times of distress as during a celebration. “Poor mothers with daughters to marry know Annuji will take care of the trousseau,” says Nanku Korari, a Pasi-Dalit who until 2007 was a Bahujan Samaj Party supporter. Others gathered there relate similar accounts, and say the choice in Unnao is between “vikas and jati (development and caste). Naturally they are on the side of vikas.

She makes a simple point at her meetings: as an MP she can do a whole lot more than she has done so far. As we talk, the subject of her amazing popularity comes up. I ask her about the development buzz. She is matter of fact: “I do small things for the people here but they are so poor they call it vikas.” Is she confident of victory? “Frankly I am new to politics and I would rather wait to see the results.”

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