Phoolan's death sparks vote war in UP
Mirzapur-Bhadohi, July 27: A boatman on the Ganga throws a garland of marigolds and a dozen hands lean across the short wall of Chaube Ghat to catch it. The grateful boatman, hands folded, pleads that the garland be placed on the body - it is all he can do. Phoolan Devi is fighting the Bandit Queen as her body burns.
In death, she has metamorphosed into Mulayam Singh's magic mascot to win the election in Uttar Pradesh. But for those who believe she is one of their own, such simple gestures cannot take away the politician from Shekhpur Gurha's fearless daughter. The boatman who threw that garland is a Mallah, Phoolan's caste-kin.
"She had to go, we always knew it," says Ram Babu, Shekhpur Gurha's village pradhan, jostling his way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of Phoolan's body. "It is difficult for someone like her to live to a ripe, old age."
He pushes his way to where Phoolan's mother Moolah is sitting with the family. Today, she cannot talk. "Do not bother her," says Ram Babu. "Will you understand that she is not a dacait, and that is why there are so many people here?"
Back in 1983, when Phoolan surrendered, her mother told biographer Mala Sen: "She has had a hard life. Poverty and desperation lead to many things. Who can judge her except Durga Mata? Don't blame her for what she has done or is supposed to have done - it is not her fault, it was her fate. The One Above knows…"
Across Mirzapur and Bhadohi - the constituency that Amar Singh describes as Phoolan's karmbhoomi - there is little doubt that the Samajwadi Party is playing politics over her dead body. "Drama-baazi" (theatrics) is the commonest refrain even among those who have actually come out on the streets, like in Aurai where women with children in arms want to meet Phoolan's mother and console her. Mulayam is launching his election campaign here, but he cannot be sure that the mourning will translate into electoral victory.
Mirzapur is not in the Chambal. Shekhpur Gurha, too, is a couple of hundred kilometres west of here. Yet, in the heat of the last election campaign, Phoolan was reported to have said in a public meeting in a Thakur-dominated village: "I will turn Mirzapur into Chambal." There is more to that statement than braggadocio.
Caste-divides in eastern Uttar Pradesh are so many and so sharp that Phoolan's godfather Mulayam is trying to run through them as if it were she herself negotiating the ravines. He is not alone. Chief minister Rajnath Singh, himself from Mirzapur, has taken the lead, announcing a policy that could effectively drive a wedge through the OBC votebank. Rajnath's key is a reservation policy for MBCs - Most Backward Classes.
On the verge of the elections, Uttar Pradesh is a mosaic of castes in conflict. The BJP is banking on the upper caste - Thakur and Brahmin - votes that are roughly 25 per cent of the electorate. The Samajwadi Party believes it has a traditional vote of about 26 per cent - primarily Yadav and Muslim. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) claims the rest - the "backwards".
Rajnath is trying to split the backward caste votes and win over a section to the BJP. Mulayam is trying to keep his own votebank intact while using Phoolan's death to break into the BSP's. In effect, the BJP, the Samajwadi and the BSP are fighting over the same votes - the newly christened "MBCs".
It will be no surprise if the image of Phoolan, late lover of the late Vikram Mallah - yes, the Mallahs are MBCs - is used to win sympathy votes. Who better than her husband, Umedh Singh, to contest in her name? The question cannot be posed though, for the theatrics are not yet over.
Shekhpur Gurha's daughter is dead. The choice between Phoolan Devi and Bandit Queen is still wide open.