The distracted mascot

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Kalavati Bandurkar, Rahul Gandhi’s ‘aam aadmi’, must deal with intense attention and cynicism as she joins the poll fray, says Shobhita Naithani

Shot to fame Vidarbha widow turned politician Kalavati says she owes co-villagers nothing
Shot to fame Vidarbha widow turned politician Kalavati says she owes co-villagers nothing
Photo: Deepak Salvi

AS SOON as she steps out of a white sedan at the Nagpur Press Club, Kalavati Bandurkar is swallowed up by a group of zealous cameramen. Then, like a practised politician, she greets the waiting crowd with hands folded; her face incongruously impassive in the chaos. As the cameramen jostle to get the perfect shot, the 48-year-old charily circumvents them; making straight for the conference room chock-a-block with journalists.

Minutes before the press conference, a sheepish Kalavati, of village Jalka in Maharashtra’s drought-hit Vidarbha region, had greeted an irate Kishore Tiwari, leader of the farmers’ advocacy group Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJS). Tiwari, in alliance with the Sharad Joshi-led Swatantra Bharat Party (SBP), has fielded Kalavati from Wani constituency in the forthcoming Maharashtra assembly elections. Things were going as planned until, on September 23, a local newspaper carried Kalavati’s statement where she had allegedly said that she was not interested in contesting elections and was being “pressurised” by Tiwari to do so. As the word of her turnaround spread, Kalavati was rushed to Nagpur to be “counselled” and to douse the raging fire.

At the press conference, Tiwari bats first. He affirms that Kalavati is contesting of her own free will. He then hands it over to the nervy novice. Kalavati speaks, but without an understanding of the issues she stands for. She symbolises, but without knowing whom she is representing. And the more she harps on the fact that she is here by choice, the more difficult it is to believe her. But what’s good about Kalavati is her spirit – when she bats, she does it well. She answers all the questions posed to her, doesn’t fumble, even responds with a joke to some tricky queries and shuttles, though uneasily, from one room to another, from one television camera to another. But as evening dawns and the circus gathers frenzy, Kalavati is evidently distracted. Her concern is anything but the upcoming elections. “I kept thinking about my children and my day-old buffalo calf back home,” Kalavati told this reporter the next day.

The entire village of  1,250 people is cracking jokes about Kalavati, slamming her character, and cursing her improved chances

Kalavati’s journey into this extravaganza called elections began only because Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi visited her house one July evening in 2008. A day later, Rahul mentioned her in his nuclear deal speech in the Lok Sabha. Since then, the mother of nine has become the face of Vidarbha farmer widows.

Her house — the first one you see when you enter village Jalka, 150 km away from Nagpur —is a different world today. Four freshly cemented rooms have replaced the tiny tin shack where Kalavati lived with her four children (five of her daughters are already married) until July 2008. A television, fridge, ceiling fans and newly-acquired tin boxes fill the space. When her husband committed suicide in December 2005, after being hit by debt and crop failure, all she was left with was a debt of Rs 1 lakh, a failing seven-acre farm and five children to look after. Though the family did receive some help from VJS, life began to look up only when Rahul Gandhi came calling. Sulabh International, a Delhi-based sanitation NGO, deposited Rs 6 lakh, of the Rs 30 lakh they pledged for her, in her account (She gets Rs 25,000 interest every month from that). She received Rs 20,000 from the Maharashtra government in cash and her encroachment in the village was regularised.

WHY POLITICS then, I ask, when everything is settled? “I’m indebted to VJS. They were the first ones to help me. So when Kishore Tiwari asked me to contest, I couldn’t refuse,” says Kalavati. The mentor himself, however, disagrees that it’s politics. “It’s only a symbolic gesture to draw public attention towards the ongoing agrarian crisis,” he says. But therein lies the problem. Kalavati is the perfect poll plank. She is a Vidarbha widow, lived in utter penury, was a nobody till Rahul Gandhi walked into her house and was later spurned by his office in Delhi earlier this year (an incident which further propelled her misery into the limelight). “This game that these NGOs, activists and political parties are playing with Kalavati is very disturbing. She is being treated like a football. The seriousness of the issue of farmer suicides is diluted by projecting her as a political candidate,” says Nagpur-based social activist Suresh Khairnar.

Village voice Rahul Gandhi speaks to Vidarbha villagers in Jalka, July 18, 2008
Village voice Rahul Gandhi speaks to Vidarbha villagers in Jalka, July 18, 2008
Photo: Monica Chaturvedi

Vijay Jawandhia, a leading farm activist in Vidarbha, agrees with Khairnar. “It is a political gimmick. We are pushing the real issue under the carpet. Farmer suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. The entire agriculture sector is in crisis. If a farmer is not committing suicide it doesn’t mean he is living well. He is living only because he has decided not to end his life,” says Jawandhia. “I wouldn’t have had a problem if Kishore Tiwari was fighting elections. My problem is that the organisation is using Kalavati as a buffer.”

Despite the ongoing moral debate, what’s unfortunate is that the men and women of Jalka have all turned against Kalavati. “Everyone feels that if she got money, then why did the others get left out? There are so many who find it tough to get two square meals a day,” says Anusuabai Kumbhre, the female sarpanch of the village. The entire village of 1,250 people is cracking jokes about Kalavati, slamming her character, condemning her conduct and cursing her chance of a better life. “If she represents the cause of Vidarbha widows, why didn’t she share her money with them?” says a neighbour who requests not to be named. “She is fighting elections for selfish reasons,” she adds. Kalavati, in contrast, appears unaffected by gossip. “When my children were starving, no one from the village offered me help. I am not the sort to go knocking on people’s doors begging for food. So why should they expect anything from me?”

Kalavati is caught in a trap that she is finding hard to break away from. With a surprise visit came many surprises — money, fame, an opportunity to participate in the electoral process and friends who have now turned foes. But unmindful of the widespread cynicism, Kalavati Bandurkar says she will contest elections. “Ab to chhalaang lagaa di hai (I’ve taken the plunge now),” she jokes. The end result is not something she ever fears. There are larger worries in her life – two more daughters to marry off, two more sons to settle and a day-old calf to tend to. At least that is clear.

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