A thought came unbidden to my mind. I had got into something I had no clue about. Beyond a faint notion – a carry-over from history lessons in school – that Kannauj was ruled by the celebrated King Harshavardhan centuries ago, I knew little of its contemporary ethos. The facts Dadda did acquaint me with, namely that between 1967 and 1984 the constituency had elected a Congressman just once (1971-1977), offered scant comfort.
I had been assigned a constituency I did not have a connection with. The challenge was to go all out to create that connection with Kannauj and its people.
I was in for a penny, in for a pound. When Latika calmly told me, “Amma, once you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” I felt better. The first thing I did was call up my youngest sister, Rama, who was then in Saudi arabia where her husband was employed as an architect. I told her to drop everything and come home immediately, because she would have to manage my campaign in the absence of Vinod and Dadda.
Soon I was on my way to Kannauj to file my nomination papers. I boarded the overnight train to Kanpur, freshening up at a friend’s place the following morning before driving on to Kannauj. Truth be told, the break in the journey was an attempt to see a familiar figure before being swept away by a sea of unknown faces. With me was Mr Kapoor, a resident of Kannauj who had come to Delhi to accompany me to his city. Well-respected in his circle, he owned a perfume business and also happened to be a Congressman.
It was the last day for candidates to file their nominations. When I reached the office of the Returning Officer in the afternoon, a huge crowd of Congress supporters was waiting for us. I did not elude myself with the thought that they were there for me. They were curious to see the candidate who had come from Delhi, and a female at that, in fact, the first female candidate to contest from Kannauj.
Coincidentally, the sitting MP, Chhotey Singh Yadav of the Lok Dal arrived to file his nomination papers at the same time. his supporters numbered somewhat less than ours. That perked me up a bit. When I was told that Kannauj had a tradition of not returning a sitting MP to Parliament, I felt decidedly relieved and lighter.
After the formalities were over, I spoke a few words in Hindi saying that the Congress was a 100-year-old party that had fought for the country’s freedom and continued to voice the concerns of the people. after being introduced to members of locally prominent families, I returned to the Kapoor residence, somewhat disoriented. The day’s events had had a surreal quality about them.
I made the first speech of my political career standing on a bullock cart at a weekly village haat (market) that sold a range of wares, from vegetables, jaggery and local sweets, to toothpaste, unpolished wooden toys (such as firkis and carts) and undergarments.
I did not have to go looking for an audience, it was already there. I spoke in Hindi, introducing myself as the Congress candidate and urging people to vote for the symbol of the hand in the memory of our departed leader, Indira Gandhi.
One of the earliest rallies with which Rajiv Gandhi started off his election campaign was in Kannauj. a huge crowd watched in rapt attention from the moment his helicopter whirred into sight, hanging on to his words when he sought their votes invoking the memory and work of Indira Gandhi, his mother. The response was an outpouring of emotion from the crowd. They kept coming in waves even after he had left. I had never seen anything like it.
I suddenly remembered another occasion years ago in 1977 when the body language of people turning away from Mrs Indira Gandhi and me in Rae Bareli became a chronicle of an event foretold, that is, her personal defeat at the hands of Raj Narain and the loss of the Congress at the Centre.
As elections go, this was my most innocent campaign. We were raring to go, but were novices still. Latika and Shreya accompanied me on the election trail, while Rama valiantly donned the garb of an election manager, supported later by her husband, Ashok, as well. as per Dadda’s instructions, she was the campaign anchor. For days on end, much like students bent over an unending task of homework, all our workers painstakingly wrote out voter slips to give to the people across the constituency. This task is performed by the election Commission now.
Information about meetings was sent through a messenger who would ride his cycle through the night so as to reach us at the Kapoor residence by morning and share the plan for the coming day. No cell phones ensuring twenty-four hour connectivity, no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Twitter. By today’s standards, it sounds and looks positively primitive!
By six each morning, I would be out, returning by twelve-thirty or one at night. Since it was a big constituency with not even half-decent roads, all I could manage was three or four meetings a day, largely at haats (markets held in rural areas) and chaupals (village meeting places). Getting from one point to another was a herculean task.
To this day, Latika carries a scar on her forehead, a reminder of the night our car went into a large crater because of which she – and I – went flying through the windshield. Fortunately, there was a small clinic close by and the doctor there stitched Latika’s forehead, giving her a scar as a reminder of that campaign forever.
In cities, the atmosphere was more carnivalesque as we drove through the streets with men and women leaning out of their balconies, children running alongside our vehicles, and loudspeakers blaring out slogans at their ear-splitting best. I realised that even something as simple as standing in the jeep and waving to people required some doing!
The campaign posters were very simple, with a picture of Mrs Indira Gandhi in the centre. Wherever we went in Kannauj, we saw a gaping hole in poster after poster. People had simply cut out Indira Gandhi’s picture to put it up on their walls.
Our spirits were further buoyed by the arrival of Etawah-based businessman, Mr Bansal, who offered to make bindis with the Congress election symbol imprinted on them, and bangles too. The bindis were a huge success. Since they adorned the foreheads of women at all times, they provided twenty-four-hour publicity. Men and women could not but see them!
While I took the campaigning in stride, on some days I certainly felt as if, like Alice in Wonderland, I had fallen down a rabbit hole. Being new to the scene, I found myself being borne away by the insistence of well-wishers around. One MLA took me to the decrepit abode of a wild-eyed Muslim baba attired in black who kept beating his chimta (traditional percussion instrument) and exclaiming loudly every other minute.
As I stood there desperately wishing I were somewhere else, somebody whispered something in the baba’s ear. “Achcha, chunav ladat hai (OK, so she is contesting the elections),” he said.
Then he told the MLA’s factotum that since he [the baba] had given me his blessing, they should not bring anyone else to his door. Moreover, he refused to take any offerings. For someone like me who was unfamiliar with this aspect of the culture of a small town or village, this meeting was one of the most bizarre encounters I have ever had.
On two issues I stayed firm – I refused to cover my head with the pallu of my sari insisting that the people should accept me as I was, and I refused to move around with a posse of security guards in the dacoit-infested areas. This came in for much appreciation. My opponent, Chhotey Singh Yadav, would say, “She’s a novice, speaks English, goes ball-room dancing and is not going to make this place her home. Once in a while when she pays a visit, she will stay at Mr Kapoor’s or at the guest house. Now I am your man, a son of the soil.”
His implication was that for all these reasons, I was not fit to be the MP of Kannauj. It was to put such impressions to rest that I had made it my business to be on the road from six in the morning till midnight to afford a chance to the constituents to get to know me a little as well.
I must mention the emotional impact of Indira Gandhi’s death and the image of her son asking the voters to honour her memory as a leader who paid the ultimate price in the service of her country. Within weeks it became clear that there was a huge sympathy wave building up for the Congress. Party workers from different parts of the constituency told us that they had heard RSS workers, and even BJP sympathisers, say that they would vote for the Congress this once in the memory of Indira Gandhi, a leader who gave up her life for the country.
In fact, VHP leader, the late Ashok Singhal, whose family was known to us, sent word that there was no need for me to worry about the elections. And even though Vinod and Dadda remained at their respective posts of work, the grapevine had a way of ensuring that people knew whose wife or daughter-in-law one was.
On the day the results were declared – I won by a margin of over 50,000 votes – I was at the Farrukhabad district headquarters along with Rama and the girls. The Collector at that time was Nasim Zaidi (in July 2017 he completed his term as Chief Election Commissioner). There was the usual celebration with party workers breaking into jigs. I had the distinct feeling that my neck was getting elongated with every garland that was coming its way. Soon the lower half of my face vanished from sight and only my eyes remained visible!
The ride in an open jeep on the streets of Kannauj was an experience I have not forgotten to this day. The streets were lined with people. Women too had come out in full force to greet me; many of them showering rose petals from the rooftops. I was taken aback by this show of boisterousness and not entirely comfortable with it.
That night as I put my head on the pillow, exhausted beyond belief, there was just one thought in my mind. I was now a Member of Parliament.
Excerpted with permission from Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life, Sheila Dikshit, Bloomsbury.