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Mathura revels in Hema’s star power

Last updated on August 12, 2019

On the campaign trail in her constituency Mathura, Hema Malini delivers stereotypical dialogues and sticks to the script of promoting Modi as the only PM who can save India from Pakistan

Hema Malini’s two-storey home in Vrindavan is the only evidence she needs, it seems, to show that she is a ‘Vrindavasi’ and not an outsider, as the Opposition parties claim. The BJP MP from Mathura has again got a ticket to contest from this UP constituency.

Photo: Sashikala VP

Her home is distinctly white, with polished tiles like no one has walked on them, paintings on the wall, and statues of gods adorning tables. A lift is under construction by the side of a book rack with one book titled Winning sticking out.

On her third day of campaigning, ‘Hema ji’ as her work force refer to her, is already a little late to begin the task of meeting people in her constituency. As she emerges around 10 in the morning, all the cameras go up, filming the former Bollywood actor making her way down the stairs, looking every bit the movie star.

Sholay’s Basanti doesn’t look happy doing what she has to. When we finally get a chance for an interview after a couple of TV media outlets have snatched every bit of patience from her in their 20 minutes, she snaps at a print journalist who asks about her being an outsider: “Where do you think you are standing?” The reporter promptly replies, “Your home.” With an eye-roll, she retorts, “How am I an outsider?”

Whether the people of Mathura believe she is one of them or not, the fact remains that she is a crowd-puller because she is the “Dream Girl” as young boys crowded around her car sing. Men try to get a glimpse of her as she passes through their narrow roads, throwing flowers at her car; women stand back and watch, their heads covered by sarees.

Photo: Sashikala VP

By 5 in the evening, her Mercedes SUV taxi has a huge dent on the side showing just how much the public wants to get close to her, and how unruly the crowds can get.

Speaking their truth

Malini does not look amused for most part of the campaign. Her smiles are faint and laboured, her waving to the crowd indifferent, and as she sits on different temporary stages throughout the day, her resolve to put up a good show seems to be withering.

In this second run for Mathura, the campaign is predictably milking the fact that this is a sacred city for Hindus. At the beginning of every speech, Malini intones into her mic, “Radhe Radhe, Bolo Krishna Radhe ki jai” and the crowd enthusiastically repeats.

Other than this incantation, every time she goes on stage, she refers to a piece of paper evidently torn from a notebook, with jottings on what to say and whom to thank. At one village, she looks to her side as she spoke into the mic to ask the name of the village.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what she knows, or what she has done. As articulated by Chaudhary Laxmi Narayan Singh, BJP MLA from Chhata, where Malini is campaigning that day: “The people must vote for her if they want Narendra Modi to be Prime Minister again.”

While Malini touches on the work she has done — water supply, electricity and roads — she mostly emphasises Modi’s achievements, proclaiming that he is the only person capable of leading the country.

She reminds the public of free gas connections and the campaign for ‘Beti bachao beti padhao’ started by the PM.  She goes on to say that people who question the BJP on what development has been done should go to space and see —because “Hamare PM” (our PM) is the one who delivered the capability to fight the enemy in space.

Photo: Sashikala VP

Clearly, like many other BJP MPs, Malini is riding on the name of the Prime Minister. And here at least, chances are it will work. She also sticks to BJP’s ongoing rhetoric on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and how only Modi can give a “mooh-tod jawab” (jaw-breaking answer).

At one point, she brings up the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 after which, she says, despite several casualties, “Congress government ne kuchh nahin kiya” (did nothing). She goes on to the airstrikes in Balakot, Pakistan — in response to the attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir — where the Indian Air Force reportedly killed hundreds of terrorists. The Opposition, she says, questioned the government on the number of casualties, as if they (Congress) were wounded when Pakistan’s terrorists got hurt. “Unko chot kyun lagi? Kyunki aesa lagta hain ki woh Pakistan ke saath hain” (Why did they get hurt? Because it looks like they are with Pakistan), she says.

Photo: Sashikala VP

In the villages that Malini visits, the fact remains that many women say they didn’t get the gas connections —  or they don’t use it because buying a refill is far too expensive. The toilets which were to be built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is also something that not all have received.

Many claim that they are asked to pay a Rs 2,000 bribe to get the Rs 12,000 government grant to build a toilet. “Hum itna nahin de sakte toh hum abhi bhi bahar hee karte hain” (We can’t give that much money, so we still go out in the open).

Many old people say they are not receiving their pension on time. Kamla, who lives with her son and his family, says she receives Rs 1,800 every six months, making her a liability for the family. The young men chanting Modi’s name also say they have been jobless for some time. Even farmers who are not part of the rallies say they have not received any benefits from the government.

Photo: Sashikala VP

None of this seems to have weakened the voters’ resolve to support the ruling party. Most have the same excuse for Modi when asked about the unfulfilled promises and why they would still vote for a government under him: “Woh bechare kya kya karenge? Yeh jo neeche mein kaam karte hain unka dosh hain” (He is helpless, what can he do? It’s the fault of people in the lowest rung”, they all say.

Open drains

In the first village Malini visits, a couple of houses are being built brick by brick. There is a putrid stench in the air from heaps of garbage and open drains running through the village.

The area is dressed up for her, but still looks like it needs a lot of help. A man who does not wish to reveal his name says that people dump carcasses near his home which emanate a horrendous stench, but authorities do nothing about it. He also claims that they do not receive food ration for two months at a time.

For many villagers, the experience of having a film star in their midst is exciting, even if they have to be  content with a peek into her car window; or see half of her on the sun roof, one hand clutching her saree, the other waving to the people. Some get to see her on stage, speaking for not more than two minutes at any given rally. No opportunity is given to the public for airing grievances.

The Hindu card

Hema Malini, compared to Narayan Singh, is subtle in playing the Hindutva card. She invokes the gods in every speech and looks like a perfect Hindu bride when she is gifted dupattas to put on her head — a ritual she doesn’t quite enjoy by the looks of it — but does not talk about Hindus being in danger.

Narayan Singh, on every stage they step on, mentions the Congress’ supposed allegation that Hindus are terrorists. He asks, “Yeh bataiye, Hindu kabhi atankwadi ho sakta hain?” (Tell me, can Hindus ever be terrorists?) He answers his own query with a “No!”

Agar aapko Hindustan ko bachana hain. Agar aapko Hindu ko bachana hain toh phir Modi ji ko vote dey” (If you want to save Hindustan, if you want to save Hindus, then vote for Modi), goes his appeal.

The other point he emphasises is that whoever loves the county must vote for the BJP. Someone who cannot stand on stage and say “Zindabad” does not love the country; that “we” (Hindus) must not fight amongst each other, else it would divide the country. That “Hum sab bus Hindu hain aur Hindustani hain aur hamein sath rehna chahiye” (We are Hindus and Hindustani and we must stay together); and that people must vote so that the votes of Muslims are outnumbered.

In Mathura, according to Census 2011, Hindus constitute 90.72% of the population, Muslims 8.52% and Christians 0.12%. Whether the majority community believes that they are in some kind of danger, will be seen on May 23.

As for Malini, the hard work of soliciting votes takes her on a trail that is hot, sweaty and crowded. But the prize for two weeks of labour would be a seat in the Lok Sabha for another five years. How could an incumbent say no to such a prospect?