Editor’s note: In this series on contemporary history, consulting editor Ajay Singh takes us to places and talks about people who left yesterday’s indelible mark on today’s politics.
In 1967, judge Anand Narain Mulla was sitting in the India Coffee House in Hazratganj of Lucknow, surrounded by friends, when he spontaneously recited a couplet: “Voh Kaun hain jinhe tauba ki mil gayee fursat, hame gunah bhi karne ko jindagi kam hai (Who are those who get time to atone, I find my life inadequate even for sinning)”. Mulla, a learned jurist-cum-poet of Kashmiri Brahmin origin, evoked instant “wah wah” in response.
In the midst of that poetic conversation which usually defined the manner of conducting a friendly dialogue in Lucknow, a friend suggested, “Mulla Saab, why don’t you commit one more sin then and contest the election from Lucknow?” Mulla mulled over the suggestion deeply and said, “The idea is not bad.” Those were the times when an anti-Congress wave was sweeping across the country. The socialists, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), communist in West Bengal and CN Annadurai in Tamil Nadu had challenged the Congress hegemony.
The Congress fielded a noted industrialist and liquor baron VR Mohan as its candidate for the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency.
Though judge Mulla had no relation with politics and is today better remembered for his indictment of Uttar Pradesh Police and calling it “the biggest gang of criminals” during his days as a judge of the Allahabad High Court, he finally decided to contest under the pressure of his coffee-house friend circle. He filed papers as an Independent candidate in the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency, against the Congress’ Mohan.
Given Mulla’s love for Urdu poetry and his steadfastly secular credentials, he found himself against the BJS as well. Since the Assembly elections were also held simultaneously, the results were surprising in many ways, said Dr Ram Kapoor, an eye specialist who recounted these political tales with great relish.
In the Lok Sabha polls, Mulla won convincingly, followed by the Congress and the BJS in the vote tally. In the Assembly elections, the BJS won four out of five seats of this parliamentary constituency. People of Lucknow were so nuanced and discerning in 1967 that they chose different representatives to Lok Sabha and the state Assembly. The message was clear: Voters of Lucknow cannot be taken for granted.
The most distinguished Member of Parliament from Lucknow, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, got this message quite early in his career. He lost from Lucknow twice, in 1957 and 1962, before he could finally ingratiate himself with the electorate of Lucknow in 1991. But he was acutely conscious of his electorate’s discerning preferences. He used to say jokingly to his close friends, “Lucknow ke voter ka bharosa nahi” (Don’t take voters of Lucknow for granted). Vajpayee’s consistency in winning the Lucknow seat from 1991 till 2004 was a measure of his determination to keep his ears to the ground.
Ever since the Ayodhya movement, Lucknow has turned into a Hindutva bastion.
The electorate has been consistent in giving its mandate to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections irrespective of political trends sweeping around it. “This part of Awadh region (Lucknow) has cultivated a unique cultural etiquette and social moorings which desist any form of extremism,” said professor Mohammad Muzammil, a scholar of economics and great connoisseur of Urdu poetry. In his view, despite radical socio-economic changes, Lucknow has retained the essence of its cultural distinctness that is often expressed through Urdu poetry.
Lucknow acquired the status as the centre of political power — being the prime minister’s constituency during the Vajpayee era and also being the capital of the most populous state — but of late that status is substantially affected by varied political cultures. Yet, even a casual conversation with old residents in Chowk, Hazratganj or Kaiserbagh reveals the tenacity with which they refuse to part with the famed Lakhnavi Tehzeeb (sophistication, refinement or etiquette).
In this cultural context, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh emerges as perfectly in sync with the city’s social psyche.
He is contesting from Lucknow again after winning handsomely in 2014. He comes across as a suave and mature leader who consciously shuns extreme ways and uses a restrained language even in political discourse. People of Lucknow seem unambiguous about their political choice. “There is no challenge to Rajnath Singh in Lucknow” is a common refrain.
Having said that, “it will be a mistake to take Lucknow voters for granted”, as an old Lucknowite cautioned once again. People of Lucknow take pride in their distinctness so much, he said, that they have history of defying the prevalent trend. Reciting an Urdu couplet by noted poet Krishna Bihari Noor, he summed up Lucknow: “Main ek katra hi sahi, mera alag vajood to hai, Hua kare jo samunder meri talash me hai” (I am a mere drop but I do have a distinct identity, let there be an ocean who yearns for me).
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