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Shekhar Suman on the campaign trail

May 5, 2009 16:09 IST

Image: Shekhar Suman at a roadside meeting in Patna. The star has been attending many such small meetings in the largely urban constituency of Patna Sahib.
The Congress candidate in Patna is re-establishing his association with the city and its voters, discover Archana Masih and photographer Seema Pant.

In Kadam Kuan, a Patna neighbourhood, television star Shekhar Suman is still known as his father's son.

"Dr Phani Bhushan Prasad's house is by the temple up ahead. You'll find Shekhar Suman there," says the man in the small shop at the corner. Suman's parents live in Bihar's capital where his father is a well-known surgeon who practiced at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

In a state where it is often said that 'people do not give their vote and wed their daughters outside their caste,' Dr Prasad refused to give a surname to his four children to ensure that their identity was not based on caste.

And it is values like these, coupled with his television star appeal and his roots in the city, that his son hopes will appeal to the voters of Patna Saheb.

Suman is pitted against a man he calls his "bade bhaiyya (elder brother)", who also happens to be Bihar's only real film star till date, Shatrughan Sinha from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

"I have grown up on these streets. I have cycled here in my half pants, going to different cinema halls to watch films. My heart lives in this city," Suman tells a group of men assembled by the roadside near Dak Bungalow chowk, one of Patna's main thoroughfares on a busy evening.

'I am the river...'

Image: A cut-out of Shekhar Suman is propped in a flower bed of his ancestral home in Patna.
"I am absolutely exhausted. I don't know whether I am coming or going," he says, using a typical Mumbai phrase, bending down from the stage and speaking loudly so that we can hear him in the surrounding din.

Under the strands of marigold flowers -- a constant with every candidate in any part of the country -- Suman is drenched with sweat. His sleek fit linen shirt soaked after a hard day of campaigning at several such small meetings in the largely urban constituency.

The Patna Lok Sabha constituency was split into Patna Sahib and Patliputra after delimitation. The candidate from the Patliputra seat is India's colourful Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is also contesting the election from Chhapra and has been saying pralay (armageddon) will befall Bihar if he (Lalu) were to lose!

Suman has been trying hard to woo voters, playing cricket matches, singing songs to establish bon homie, using all kinds of gimmicks that a political novice can.

Countering Shatrughan Sinha's criticism that he has been been plucked and dropped into the fray with no understanding of the party he represents or of politics, Suman has quite a filmi retort: "Main to dariya hoon, jaha bhi jaata hoon raasta bana leta hoon (I'm like a river that carves a path wherever it flows)."

Banking on Gandhi, Nehru, Patel

Image: Suman, who grew up in Patna, sang for the crowd, asking them to raise their hands and say 'Jai Ho'
At the state Congress headquarters in Sadaquat Ashram -- which borders the historic site where many meetings and agitations of the freedom movement were organised -- Shekhar Suman joined the Congress party last month.

While a board next door adorns the Congress office entrance, this historic site founded by Mazrul Haque, who started a school during the Quit India Movement, bears no notice to justify its importance.

Here is where Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated the Bihar Vidyapeeth and Dr Rajendra Prasad, India's first President, spent the last days of his life. But this landmark location, which now has a museum in Dr Prasad's memory, seems a footnote in history.

"I joined the Congress because I like and respect the party. It is the party of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel -- the party that got us our freedom," says Suman. His bade bhaiyya Shatrughan Sinha -- never short of a quip -- told a television channel that the Congress novice was so ill informed that he had been saying the party had been in power for 125 years!

"I didn't know the Congress came to power even before we got Independence," Sinha told earlier that afternoon with a smirk.

Suman -- who also has a reputation for sharp repartee -- is taking it all in his stride and on the chin. Both rivals don't refer to each other by name, preferring to call each other 'bade bhaiyya' and 'chotta bhai.'

"I want to tell bade bhaiyya that when he had the chance he did not do anything," Suman tells his audience, "now that his younger brother is getting a chance, let him at least do something."

'Politics has been ruined'

Image: As the mercury soars, traffic thins under the Gulmohar trees in the city's ministerial enclave
"Main itna diwana nahin hoon jaisa lagta hoon (I am not as happy-go-lucky as I look). I came into politics because my entire life's worth has been honesty and I want your help to bring change," Shekhar Suman says, holding the mike with both hands, his voice piercing the evening traffic.

"People think politics is a dirty word. 'You are in politics?' they ask in disbelief -- almost asking you with the same disbelief as -- 'Are you a 'smuggler?' They have an impression as bad as that," he tells the crowd, "Politics has been ruined by people and it needs educated and honest people."

In keeping with the ethos of small-town India, Sinha and Suman's families are not unknown to each other and only a short distance separates the stars's ancestral homes in Patna. Often their campaign convoys cross each other as they cover the constituency in the summer heat.

"If I have your faith, I will traverse on this path which is like the agneepath," he says, repeating Amitabh Bachchan's dialogue from the film, Agneepath, about the tortuous path to victory.

'Jai Ho! Destiny is in your hands'

Image: Shekhar Suman has been telling voters that he grew up on Patna's streets and his heart lies here
Outside his ancestral home, women sing a melodious wedding song in Bhojpuri while inside a man tries to prop up Shekhar Suman's wooden cutout in Dr Phani Bhushan Prasad's flower bed.

It's 10.30 pm. The Congress candidate has just returned from the campaign and is to leave again for another engagement in an hour. A few men throng the verandah, they have accompanied Suman from Mumbai to assist him. His wife Alka and son Adhyayan have also been camping in the city to bolster his campaign.

A group of about 20 men come in, led by a pot-bellied kurta-clad man. "We are Congress workers and have come to meet him. I live down the road," the man tells one of Suman's assistants. "If you live down the road, how come you are only showing up now and haven't come here earlier?" clearly the Mumbai-wallah retorts brusquely.

The Congress-worker-next-door provides a practiced spiel of how he is a soldier of the party in response and is quickly served tea outside as he waits for Suman.

Far from their make-believe worlds, far away from Mumbai where both actors settled down many years ago, Suman and Sinha, both Kayasthas, the dominant caste in the constituency, are banking on their popularity to take them to the Lok Sabha.

"I will fulfill your dreams and I need your cooperation. What I say, I do," Suman tells crowds who come out in the Bihar heat to listen to him.

As a final crescendo to his campaign, he hopes that Sonia Gandhi or her son will address a rally that could add that last minute, much-needed, punch to his campaign. Local media reports indicate that the famed Gandhi Maidan in Patna has been booked in anticipation of that arrival, even though the Gandhi rally has not been confirmed so far.

In a state where the moribund Congress is only now seeing some glimmer of revival, after it refused to go along with Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, Shekhar Suman shows his palms and asks voters to raise theirs and vote for him.

"Raise your hands and say Jai Ho! Destiny is in your hands, stretch out your hand and vote for the hand," he says, one of two residents from Mumbai's entertainment districts of Juhu and Lokhandwala battling it out in the ancient city of Patna.