17 September 1999
The Times of India
Lord Rama helps and hinders in Allahabad
By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service
ALLAHABAD: Politicians may never wash their dirty linen in public but unfortunately for them, they have little control over what their dhobis might do.
Last month, when the municipal authority came to demolish some illegal extensions in the Fatehpur Bichua quarter of this city, one of the houses targeted belonged to Hiralal, a shy, white-haired man with spindly legs who happens to be the dhobi of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Union HRD minister and three-time BJP MP from Allahabad.
Since the minister lived nearby, he tried to save the situation. However, the local police inspector refused to listen to him. ``This is a local matter, sir. You have no jurisdiction'', the officer is reported to have said as the demolition crew went about its business.
Ordinarily, such an incident would have gone unnoticed. But since this is election time, Dr Joshi's `failure' to protect his washerman has not done his reputation any good. Lord Rama, it is being said, threw Sita out of the house on the complaint of his dhobi but Murli Manoharji ``could not even save the house of his dhobi!''
In the city, Dr Joshi is an unpopular man even with BJP supporters. Whether warranted or not, he has acquired a reputation for being arrogant and aloof. People complain that he is always surrounded by commandos. ``If he were to stand as an independent'', said Atmaram Dubey, a clerk, ``he would lose his deposit. If he wins this time, it is only because of the personal appeal of Atalji.'' Similar views were expressed by a broad cross-section of people at all of Allahabad's
pulse points: the university, the courts, the AG's office.
Hiralal smiled when I asked him what he thought of the Ramayana comparison. ``That is what people say. Ham kya jane?'' What kind of person is Dr Joshi, I asked. ``He is a very nice man. I have known him since the time we charged 10 paise to do all the ironing. He is a real scholar (vidhwan).''
Of all the terms used to describe him, it is `scholar' which Dr Joshi, formerly a physics professor at Allahabad University, most revels in.
Dr Raghu Sinha, a professor of psychology at the university, has known the BJP leader for many years. ``Joshi tries very hard to be a cut above the rest'', he said. ``he likes to think of himself as a `scientific' Hindu''. Sinha remembers a lecture where Dr Joshi claimed that all scripts originated from the zero symbol. ``He was brandishing charts. It was all very ridiculous''.
Others like former Allahabad University Executive Council member Vijay Kumar Sinha are extremely critical of Dr Joshi for not taking classes for some 17 years before retirement in 1994.
Dr Joshi has cultivated a sense of detachment and intellectualism but there is still a menacing tinge to his demeanour. At a public meeting in Katra mohalla on Tuesday, he stressed that all the religions which originated in India revered Ram, listing the faiths for added emphasis. ``Ram is the symbol of the unit and integrity of India,'' he said. Clearly, in this construction of national identity those who do not worship Ram have no place.
As we sat waiting for Dr Joshi to arrive, a group of singers were singing Ram bhajans with gusto. A mosque nearby sounded the azaan. ``Where is this coming from?,'' asked Dr Narendra Kumar Singh Gaur, minister for higher education in UP, irritatedly. The bhajan singers started singing louder and beating their drums more frenetically. There was much merriment all around. I asked Dr. Gaur whether he thought Muslims would ever support the BJP. He laughed. ``They will. But not for a long time''.
The meeting had been organised not by the BJP but by a local Ramlila committee. Nevertheless, the audience was exhorted to ensure Dr Joshi's victory. Dr Joshi never once asked for votes; instead, he said he would always be `available'. The temple issue may have been temporarily
shelved but Ram is still very much the BJP's central political metaphor. The organisers called Dr Joshi the `Bajrang Bali of India'. He protested and said the title belonged to Mr Vajpayee ``but if you make him Ramchandraji, then I can be Hanuman''.
The BJP activists -- many of whom are upset that the Ayodhya issue has been put on hold for
the next five years -- roared with approval but the irony of the situation was probably lost on them: The Ram Mandir has extinguished itself as a political cause at the very point at which Atalji has metamorphosed into Ram. The mythic kingdom of Ayodhya has to make way for the more important throne of Delhi.