Thursday, December 01, 2005

Not into the sunset (Dcember 2, 2005)

Neither India nor the BJP has heard the last of Uma Bharti

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sometime in 1993, I received a call from Uma Bharti to meet at her flat on Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Delhi. She wanted some help in getting out of yet another sticky situation, substantially of her own making. She had antagonised the top brass of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP by accusing former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa of plotting to kill her. It was a wild charge and deserving of some disciplinary action.

After a few pleasantries and a quick round-up of Madhya Pradesh politics, I bluntly asked Uma why she was hell-bent on tormenting Patwa. Surely she should realise that you couldn’t get anywhere in the state by alienating a powerful group in the BJP that included Patwa, Kushabhau Thakre and the Rajmata of Gwalior? “I can’t help it”, retorted Uma, “it’s in my genes.”

It was the strangest answer I ever heard from a politician. The question is: has Uma ever really been a politician?

She somehow got out of that little spot of bother in 1993. She has also extricated herself from many other acts of indiscretion because, at the end of the day, the sombre notables of the BJP don’t know whether to take her seriously or treat her as the resident eccentric. Accustomed to a political style centred on anushashan (discipline), they just don’t know how to cope with a sanyasin who is both a tomboy and a natural charmer. One moment she threatens and curses, and before the day is out she plays the sweet, vulnerable girl who had momentarily let her emotions get the better of her rational judgment.

Uma is forever getting the benefit of doubt. That’s because everyone in the BJP know they are also dealing with a highly gifted individual, an indefatigable campaigner and an accomplished communicator. Words come naturally to Uma. A professional preacher since the age of six, she can still cast a spell on just about any audience. She can master a complicated subject effortlessly and communicate it to a rural audience through parables from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Whether she’s proclaiming the glory of Lord Ram or denouncing the Congress, Uma knows how to strike the right note.

She is also a charmer and plays mind games. During the 2003 Madhya Pradesh campaign, she entered into a fantastic partnership with Arun Jaitley to demolish the Congress. She would perennially tease Jaitley, and then go on to harass him to the point of exasperation. With Venkiah Naidu she was forever aggressive and even intimidating. With the party stalwarts such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh, she would be remarkably coy and paint herself as a homely and slightly spoilt child. At the same time, she possesses a sort of village cunning that propels her into preying on people’s vulnerabilities and pandering to their pet hates.

With Uma, you have to be on your guard. Her behaviour can and does, at times, leave the party leadership fuming. Yet, there are few who bear permanent grudges – women, ironically, judge her more harshly than men. “Uma is mad”, is the common refrain and the precursor to acts of collective forgiveness. Everyone knows they were dealing with someone special and unique.

Uma’s impulsiveness has always been the problem. On reflection, she readily concedes that she has overshot the limits of endurance and rush to friends and charm them into lobbying for her rehabilitation. This, ironically, adds to her vulnerability. Her patrons lobby hard to restore her to favour but, in the process, they also identify her with her own little agendas. When Uma speaks, you can be sure she is speaking her mind; when she pens lengthy letters, which invariably find their way to the media, you can almost be sure she is being led by the nose. Three months ago, she lost the confidence of the RSS by denouncing some pracharaks by name in a letter. It was someone else’s agenda.

When Uma was thrust into Madhya Pradesh politics in early-2003, she went very grudgingly, wrongly believing the move to be part of an elaborate conspiracy to discredit her. Yet three months into touring the vast state she correctly gauged that the Congress could be defeated. She visited every constituency in the state and, backed by a formidable organisation of both the party and the RSS, won a landslide victory for the BJP.

Unfortunately, the rigours of governance proved too much for her. Restless and impulsive, she failed to delineate her priorities and frittered away her energies moving from one scheme to another. Worse, she surrounded herself with people who did her reputation and image no good. In a sense she was glad that the Hubli chargesheet extricated her from a job she was finding difficult to cope with. Agitation was her forte and she was glad to get to where the action was. At the same time, she wanted to be the real power behind the new chief minister. Neither Babulal Gaur nor the party, however, were willing to oblige.

It was around March this year that Uma got it into her head that she must reclaim the chief minister’s post. She set about carefully plotting her return. Never popular with the MLAs because of her whimsical and tempestuous ways, she set about wooing the top leadership of the party. She used every trick to get back into the good books of Vajpayee and Advani. Yet she made absolutely no headway with the so-called second generation. Nor, despite roping in a Mylapore brahmin close to the RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan, did she succeed in persuading the Sangh to give her another shy at the chief minister’s post.

Two years ago the opposition of the second generation and the RSS would not have weighed against support from Vajpayee and Advani. In November 2005, with the damaging Jinnah controversy behind it, the veterans no longer have the final say in the party. The power centre in the BJP has shifted and the second generation feels more comfortable with a safe pair of hands like Shivraj Singh Chauhan at the helm in Bhopal. Uma never had the support of a majority of MLAs; she was trying to hustle a diktat from the top. When that failed to materialise, she lost her composure, went totally berserk, levelled wild allegations against Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and Jaitley and forced the BJP to take the second disciplinary action against her in less than a year.

For the moment, Uma’s predicament is unenviable. She has literally shot herself in the foot and she invokes little sympathy within either the party or the wider movement. Her defiance, however, is unlikely to be unrelenting. Once the magnitude of her isolation sinks in, Uma is certain to use every trick in the book to inveigle her way back into the BJP. She is fiercely ambitious and talented and she is aware of the exceptional latitude allowed to her. She is certain to play on the party’s definite need for her at the national level, even if she realises that Madhya Pradesh is now completely out of bounds.

As she proceeds on a meaningless yatra, Uma looks like she is walking into the sunset. But don’t count on it. Uma Bharti has always demonstrated the ability to write her own rules, rather than be dictated by institutional discipline. She won’t be content just playing with her dogs or retreating into the caves of Badrinath. Neither India nor the BJP has heard the last of this prodigy from Tikamgarh.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, December 2, 2005)

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