|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 01, 2003|
|states ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS|
In a desperate bid for a hat-trick, Congress' poster raja in Madhya Pradesh steals a few of his opponent's cows and is being sold as a social sector visionary.
In the long night of salvation, the God who lifted the mountain, currently a painted sculpture frozen in rooftop kitsch, surveys the yearning souls in dirt and sweat. With hope in their eyes and pain in their bones, they have come all the way to deposit despair at the temple that bears the name of Mount Govardhan-which, once upon a time in mythology, was held on the fingertip by Krishna to protect his people from the rainy wrath of another God-and return with blisters on their feet and bliss in their hearts. Tonight, the Krishna of Brindavan has a special seeker, who has a wish to fulfil, and who needs protection from the wrath of a furious goddess in saffron. Digvijay Singh has travelled the long distance from Bhopal-up to Agra in a private jet; from there to Mathura by road-to walk his circular way to Hope Regained. Beware, Uma Bharati. You may have your Ram, he has his Krishna.
It is his spiritual long march. His barefoot journey in karmic ellipse. On a tarred stretch of 24 km he walks-the pilgrim's parikrama-with quiet determination, and he has been going through this annual ritual for almost a decade. Tonight his sacred padayatra is a multicolour collage on the move-the 56-year-old chief minister in white dhoti-kurta is led by his private guide in Brindavan, Swami Bali Maharaj, formerly a murder accused and now an ascetic in the service of Krishna and the raja from Raghogarh ("Oh, this king has his Valmiki," that's how Digvijay describes the convict-turned-sadhu)-and walking with the very important devotee are security men and other sundry salvation junkies, followed by a motorcade that is struggling to be as slow as the pilgrims. And on either side of the path are the lengthening tableaux of the wretched with begging bowl, too old to walk and hence condemned to be refugees in torn blankets on a cold night. A perfect setting for Diggy Raja, the long strider in Congress politics.
Still, Digvijay, now slightly limping in his post-Govardhan confidence, blessed and gleaming out of marigold, has a long way to go to become the invincible raja of the Congress. In the parikrama beyond Govardhan, he cannot afford to limp. So, after that five-hour show in photogenic mortification, he gets into the backseat comfort of his Honda City and, before lapsing into an erratic snooze, tells you: "Bali Maharaj has predicted 140 seats." Not bad, worth the blisters, it adds a few more seats to his expectations. And at this moment in life, Digvijay needs all the blessings, all the reassuring prophecies. Two terms in Bhopal as Congress' poster raja and now a sanyasin on the rampage is all set to ensure that the king won't have a third coming. "Want to have a bet? Come on, let's have a bet." The raja is as cool as ever, defeat for him exists only in pre-poll surveys. "You know, every don't-know voter is a Congress voter and he doesn't count in your surveys." That may explain why Bali Maharaj is a better psephologist-he reads the unknown for the client.
What is known in Bhopal and elsewhere is: Digvijay is not just another Congress chief minister. In a party where the Leader is less than the sum total of the party's regional strengths (in power in 14 states), he is larger than the normal chief ministerial size. Diggy Raja, as the soaring mass affection in roadside meetings suggests, has become the trophy satrap in the Congress world, and his ascent is seen as an uneasy growth by certain party leaders. He is not unaware of the dangers of a Diggy cult. "Oh, such feelings are there in some sections," he admits as he finishes a signing spree on files and letters in the private jet that is now taking him back to Bhopal. Are you worried? "As long as she doesn't get scared I'm fine." At the moment he is fine, for She badly needs a regional leader who, as a suave survivor and idea thief, is the major supplier of oxygen to the Congress in the North. Diggy Raja who is fighting for a hat-trick, after all, has made his arena free of malcontents, almost. Slowly, but steadily, he either demolished or co-opted his rivals and made himself the long marcher who accepts no resistance. Arjun Singh is no longer even a Karunakaran in safari suit, the eternal tormentor; nor is he an effective wise counsellor with wily intentions. And Madhavrao Scindia is not a spectre that is haunting Shamla Hills.
There is only one faction that matters in Madhya Pradesh, and that is Digvijay Singh. This faction conquers and co-opts, leaving in its trail feeble pockets of not resistance but frustration. In a state with a sizeable tribal population, tribal representation or leadership is tokenism rather than real power. There was a time when Deputy Chief Minister Jamuna Devi, a charismatic tribal leader, was self-confessedly "burning in Digvijay Singh's tandoor". Today, the old woman is burning bright in contentment at Digvijay's feet, all complaints conveniently hidden. The threat within is negligible.
The threat without is not. The sanyasin is spreading across Digvijay's kingdom, as a sub-rural road show in saffron rage. She provokes and promises, and tears the Raja myth to pieces. The raja cannot afford to look rattled, and he won't even admit that the threat is real and immediate. Actually, he has seen it coming. And the idea thief started stealing Bharati's cows. He stole her slogans and made them soft and sold them cheap. Competitive Hinduism as practised by him was not particularly original in the art of "neutralising your enemy by selectively stealing his ideas". Smart politicians elsewhere had done it before, with more sophistication, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Digvijay's Hindutva Lite was gift-wrapped desperation. "It was a teaser," he tells you, his it's-not-your-monopoly rejoinder to BJP. And then he has his own take on Hinduism. "There is no Hindu religion." He goes on into some dharmic interpretation of what is Hinduism. Pass that, and more banalities follow. "How can you keep religion out of politics?" Impossible. "But religion should not influence politics, as it happens in the BJP." Perhaps religion is the last refuge of the desperate Congressman. "It keeps you on the right path," and he is not punning on right. Maybe as it has kept him on the righteous path during the photogenic parikrama.
It's not in the soul sector that Digvijay likes to play out his final script though. It's in the social sector, where an efficient pr machinery has already reconstructed him as the real vikas purush, the development man. Decentralisation of power. Education. Health. Population control. "Yes, my investment was mostly in the social sector." He was too busy controlling the population and educating the poor that he forgot to construct some decent roads: "I have an unfinished task." And he has printed graphic vision in booklets with titles like Madhya Pradesh Needs Both-the Chakra and the Chip.
The Digvijay brand is marketed in villages as well as seminars, and his marketing managers are smart officers from the civil services. Hardcore loyalists, they are his myth-makers. "That's the only feudal trait I can't get rid of. I value loyalty," he says half-jokingly. The Digvijay who is a moderniser with his feet firmly on the rural ground is a creation of his chosen bureaucrats, a super smart team. The problem is this brand has become over familiar, rather static, as the kinetic force of the sanyasin, whom he has known since she was five, sways the mass mind beyond the chief minister's bungalow on Shamla Hills, overlooking the lake.
At the end of the day, still, he is the sportsman. He was a good player in the younger days. Nowadays once in a while he plays squash. The game may have changed. The instinct hasn't. "My outlook in life is that of a sportsman. I'm playing the game ... playing hard."
Harder this time.
-with Neeraj Mishra