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Ballia lives out Chandrashekhar’s curse

Former prime minister Chandrashekhar’s constituency is as bad as it gets in terms of development and yet, it will return to power the man responsible for its misery, reports Vijay Simha.

Every conflict has many levels. In the case of some conflicts, people live as if they are fighting a cold war. There is a retreat into silence. Each party feels it is a self-righteous victim, sacrificed to a deity in the performance of an electoral rite.
What follows is a tendency to abandon themselves and tear away at the relationship originally created out of love and hope. When conflicts arise, as they must, resolution depends on people taking the risk to go back to the one they voted for, calm enough to listen and speak their mind.

But, at the moment, no one is resolving anything in Ballia. On one end is Chandrashekhar, the man who became prime minister as the result of palace intrigues that sabotaged Devi Lal’s chances in 1991. On the other is a vast populace that sinks slowly into a cauldron of indifference and sullen denial. It’s been 27 years since Chandrashekhar first won from Ballia, a constituency near the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border in the heart of an area termed “sick” by development experts. In these three decades, the man has risen from a Young Turk in Indira Gandhi’s Congress to the pre-eminent status of a premier, even if it’s an ex. Unhappily, the people who repeatedly voted for him have trudged 50 years back.

Ballia is a sad spectacle. Pigs grunt in desperate search for food in the filth and muck of the town’s roads. People slump in cycle rickshaws and small ramshackle wooden rumps serving as food and vegetable stalls. Stray dogs and stray thoughts roam the streets. Cows rummage in the foul-smelling mounds of plastic that abound everywhere. It’s a routine afternoon in town.
Nothing has changed this depressing situation for years. Nothing will. For, it’s the story of zeal and imagination overwhelmed by cynicism. Of false pride that lulls people into believing that symbols are enough, however rotten they may be. Of a system that mocks the underprivileged. Of self-pity turning into anger and resentment. Of a montage of emotions that can turn corrosive over time.

As one who rebelled against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian style, Chandrashekhar was the darling of Ballia. They trusted him. They first rooted for him in 1977. Chandrashekhar was chosen president of the then Janata Party, the vanguard of all that was right in those tumultuous times.

He won again in 1980. Indira was assassinated four years later and that election, in 1984, was the only time Chandrashekhar lost. He won in 1989. And in 1991. And again. And again. And again. In between he even donned the mantle of a guide and philosopher in Parliament by the stature he had built because of these victories. But as Chandrashekhar rose, Ballia slipped into indignity. Like a shunned lover, the town lapsed into decay. It didn’t care how it looked, smelled and presented itself to the world.
There’s a tale the locals tell to explain this great betrayal. It might be apocryphal but then it may not. Apparently, Chandrashekhar arrived in Ballia some time after he became prime minister. He brought along Mulayam Singh Yadav who was up chief minister at that time too. The duo was on a triumphal tour and made many stops in up en route to Ballia.

Along the way, Mulayam got carried away and announced that the Yadavs would get half the benefits of any government largesse from then on. The other half would be split among the rest of the castes (rupaiya mein pachas paisa yadav ka). Word reached Ballia. By the time Chandrashekhar and Mulayam arrived here, the people were livid. In a public meeting that still resonates in Ballia, Mulayam was pelted with slippers. The meeting was a disaster and ended half-way through.

Two days later, Chandrashekhar taunted his people by asking them how a guest ought to be treated. “By a glass of water or with slippers,” Chandrashekhar thundered. When heads hung in shame, Chandrashekhar is believed to have said, “You have insulted me. As long as I am alive, I will not allow Ballia to develop. You don’t deserve it.” Chandrashekhar’s curse is evidently why Ballia is as it is. “Now, it’s a question of waiting till he dies. We have been patient all this while. It may take only a few more years,” says Vinod Rajwar, who runs a pco.

It’s astonishing how the theme runs through Ballia. Hardly anyone has anything positive to say about Chandrashekhar. “He has done nothing for us. But he will win as long as he lives,” says Rattan Kumar, who owns a shop selling oil and ghee. Kamlesh Kumar Chaturvedi is a senior personnel officer with the Power Grid Corporation. He is a Ballia migrant, a multitude of people who were born in Ballia but who will not return to live there. “There’s no choice. If we have a strong candidate against Chandrashekhar, we will vote for him,” Chaturvedi says. He adds that quite a few of the nearly 13 lakh voters in Ballia feel the same way.

Indeed, it’s been a long time since any political party honestly fought the Ballia election. This year the Congress and the Samajwadi Party refused to pit anyone against Chandrashekhar and are campaigning for the Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya) strongman. So is the Left while people like Sharad Pawar and Ram Vilas Paswan too have announced support to Chandrashekhar. The bjp has propped up PN Tiwari, a contractor who lost his deposit in an Assembly election.

In effect, all major political players have got together to strangle democracy, whose basis is the concept of choice. The bsp is the lone party that is making a serious effort to usher in a credible democracy in Ballia. If Mayawati was in power, say the locals, Chandrashekhar would have lost this time. The bsp nominee Kapil Dev Chaudhary appears to have run Chandrashekhar close but with Mulayam in control, victory for Chandrashekhar is a foregone conclusion.

While all the major parties connive to ensure that Ballia stays with Chandrashekhar, his family has a free hand in running the affairs here. Some time ago, Ravishankar Singh, the local mlc and grandnephew of Chandrashekhar, manhandled the area dsp. Local media reported that Ravishankar, also called Pappu, grabbed the dsp by the collar and told him to lay off his men. The dsp lives in terror. Fear is an effective motivator in Ballia. Thirty percent of the 13 lakh voters are Thakurs, another 30 percent are Yadavs, and 15 percent Brahmins, 6 percent Muslims and the rest obcs. They didn’t protest when the mlc was on the rampage.

So, has all of Ballia been rendered impotent? “What can we do. Ballia’s identity is because of Chandrashekhar. Nobody knows us any other way. If we don’t vote for him, we will be laughed at. People will say we didn’t respect our own man. He is the pride and honour of Ballia. When we see his face on television, we know that Ballia’s fame has travelled far and wide. So we vote for him,” says Purushottam Lal, who trades in sarees.

Honour? Pride? What honour can there possibly be when the town stinks? What pride can one take in a place that can’t handle routine medical complications? Impossible as it seems, such misplaced sense of pride abounds. And yet, even this doesn’t seem enough to explain how and why Chandrashekhar keeps winning in the face of all-round dilapidation.

UP Singh, a government servant on election duty, has an interesting explanation. “Everyone knows he has to win. There may or may not be booth-capturing. If there is trouble, it will be in the polling officer’s report. Once the election is over, the evms are handed over to people deputed by the dm. The evms are sealed by wax, like they do in post offices. The dm are susceptible to pressure and the evm seals can be broken in their custody. The votes are checked. If, for example, Chandrashekhar is losing, the needed numbers of votes are pressed. And the evm re-sealed using wax. End of story. This is why you will find a losing streak suddenly reversed when counting takes place,” says Singh. He adds he would do the same if his life were on the line. An election isn’t worth dying for.

A combination of the above factors has made Ballia a non-democracy. There’s no election here. Only a charade. The town has given up its right to choose. Things can only change if and when Chandrashekhar decides to call it a day. It’s a state of being that wise men warn about — the moral corruption wrought by power. The resultant arrogance can be seen in the palatial bungalow Chandrashekhar has built for himself in Ballia in an area called, predictably enough, Chandrashekhar Nagar.

The contrast between the stately house and the squalid town is too blatant. It ought to have consequences. Locals believe it’s only a matter of time. Every conflict has many levels. Many times in conflict what we want most is to feel that our grievances have been understood. When that doesn’t happen, the urge to win can get frantic. Ballia is losing. Someone will have to lend an ear. Or pay for not heeding while there was still time.

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