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October 21, 2020

How to become a heartland political hero

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‘The formula, at least in the heartland, is to build a local vote bank. It can be based on caste, mafia power, and, ideally, a combination of both. Then you either become winnable personally, or hold the key to others’ victory or defeat.

‘Then, all parties would vie for you,’ says Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Former Congress leader Sanjay Sinh arrives for a press conference at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on July 30, 2019. Photograph: ANI Photo

Two-and-a-half champion serial defectors have been in our political headlines lately.

The first, and the most familiar, is Kuldeep Singh Sengar of Unnao rape-murder infamy.

The second is former Amethi ‘Raja’, ex-MP and ex-minister Sanjay Sinh, who has jumped the Congress party’s sinking ship.

And the third is Sakshi Maharaj, the BJP’s recently elected Unnao MP.

We count him as half because he hasn’t done anything particularly political or criminal lately. He only earned what we might call a mention in despatches, or collateral infamy, for having called on Sengar in jail to thank him for supporting him in the Lok Sabha election in his domain.


All three are serial defectors. There are about six (at last count) fully or partly unresolved murder cases they are, or have been, linked to. And, at least three rapes which remain unresolved, just like the murders.

Further, all three remain in persistent demand. They own the votes of their caste and pocket boroughs, they know their ways around the law, and they have that one attribute all political parties weigh above everything else: Competence, honesty and of course morality. It is the blessing of winnability.

It just so happens that all three have ended up in the BJP. Until Sengar was finally expelled.

We are so fixated on his life as an alleged criminal and a don, or ‘Bahubali’, as they are called in the Hindi heartland, that we risk overlooking his equally varied and colourful public life. In 2002, the local ‘daddu’ became an honourable MLA for the first time, winning Unnao on the BSP ticket.

Next, he defected to the Samajwadi Party, and won from the neighbouring Bangermau and Bhagwant Nagar constituencies in 2007 and 2012, respectively.

This is when it had become fashionable, and widely accepted that the SP was patronising criminal mafias, especially those of the Yadavs and Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh. In 2017, sensing the wind, he moved to the BJP and became an MLA.

It was the same year, in fact just about three months after his election as BJP MLA, that the unfortunate teenager came to her MLA seeking help for a job and complained that he “raped her” instead, and, after doing so, “wiped my tears and offered to help me find a job”.

Sanjay Sinh has changed so many parties that I can’t even feel confident giving you a definitive chronology for fear of being fact-checked. He was linked to a famous murder, although discharged.

It was the “supari” killing in Lucknow of then national badminton champion Syed Modi (July 28, 1988). He was a prime suspect, but was let off for want of evidence as both Uttar Pradesh police and the CBI failed to find much against him. So, innocent until proven guilty, we all must accept.

Just that it was another of those heartland murders where the hired guns were convicted but nobody found out who hired them. Bhagwati Singh, one of the two hired guns, was convicted. The other, Amar Bahadur, was murdered during the trial. Sounds familiar?

After the murder, Sanjay Sinh married Syed Modi’s wife, then Ameeta Modi (nee Kulkarni). Around the time the CBI was handling this murder case, much in the headlines then, V P Singh — Sanjay Sinh’s distant uncle through his first wife Garima’s family — had rebelled against the Congress and became prime minister. Time for Sanjay Sinh to move from the Congress to the “uncle” too.

A decade later, he joined the BJP, won Amethi on its ticket, defeating Capt Satish Sharma in 1998, but that Parliament was short-lived as the Vajpayee government lost by one vote in the Lok Sabha.

In the 1999 election he contested against Sonia Gandhi, his friend and mentor Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, in Amethi on the BJP ticket. This is when Sonia had chosen a second constituency in the south, Bellary, just to be safe. I spent a bit of time in Amethi then, followed Sinh’s campaign, and his slogan was so catchy that it still rings in my ears: Sanjay Sinh ke dar ki maari, Sonia bhaag gayi Bellary (Sonia is so terrified of Sanjay Sinh that she fled to Bellary). Of course, Sonia won both.

As the “hawa” shifted, he returned to the Congress in 2003. In 2009, he was elected on the Congress ticket from Sultanpur, next to Rae Bareli and Amethi. As his term ended, anticipating a rout in Uttar Pradesh, he managed a Rajya Sabha nomination from Assam from the Congress. That term ends now, the Gandhi family is finished now, so he has found new “uncles” in the BJP yet again.

Now, the half. Better or worse, you decide. Sakshi Maharaj, born Sachchidanand Hari Sakshi, has been a shining star of his backward Lodh community (Kalyan Singh, former BJP chief minister, is from the same caste, and Sakshi Maharaj’s patron). In 1991 and 1996, he won the Lok Sabha election on the BJP ticket. As an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, he seemed to have ideological purity.

His ideological commitment, however, couldn’t survive the BJP’s denial of the ticket to him. He joined the SP, where Mulayam Singh Yadav welcomed him gleefully. Sakshi Maharaj said the BJP’s policies were now anti-poor. But you know why he was denied the ticket despite his winnability? He had been accused of murdering Brahm Dutt Dwivedi, a close associate of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 2000, Mulayam sent him to the Rajya Sabha. In the course of time, the murder case “faded”. Not to miss out, he got involved in some more “action” soon enough, accused, along with his two nephews, of the gang-rape of a college principal. The holy man spent about a month in Tihar jail, but was discharged for want of evidence, as he was in the Dwivedi murder. Disappearance of evidence for murder and rape, a familiar UP story, you see. Just that you have to ensure you are on the winning side. Always.

By 2002, he knew the Samajwadi Party wasn’t getting anywhere, so he left it, accusing Mulayam of a host of awful things, ranging from casteism, to dictatorship, to, and you might like it, capitalism. He now informally joined then BJP rebel Kalyan Singh’s local Rashtriya Kranti Party, essentially a Lodh party.

The Sakshi saga continues. In 2009, the government charged him with setting up a fictitious NGO and collecting Rs 25 lakh illegally. Sujata Verma, his follower and a former principal of the college he owned (Maharani Avanti Bai College), was named an accomplice. In 2012, he rejoined the BJP. Soon enough, she was shot dead while returning from his ashram. Sakshi and his associates were accused of murder.

He promptly went underground, and then surrendered and was freed on bail. His efforts to get the FIR quashed in the Allahabad high court in 2013 failed. The next year, he was sworn in as a Lok Sabha member of the BJP. His “honour” was restored. And with such an illustrious career, we are now complaining that he went to Sitapur jail to thank Sengar?

What’s common among these three diverse lives, and what does it tell us about Indian politics? First, that winnability is now the only morality that parties seek. Criminality, multiple rapes, and murders do not matter. After all, why would you take the stress of politics if you didn’t need some such distractions to resolve.

The formula then, at least in the heartland, is to build a local vote bank. It can be based on caste, mafia power, and, ideally, a combination of both. Then you either become winnable personally, or hold the key to others’ victory or defeat.

Then, all parties would vie for you. You can happily choose the winning side, always, and take anything, murders, rape, robbery, rioting, cheating, embezzlement in your stride. Until a feisty teenager, struggling for breath through a ventilator, her father and most of her family murdered, ruin it all for you.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

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