Annu Tandon has taken quite a ride to enter the dusty fields of electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh
COME IN,” SAYS Munisa, “It’s such a large house you’ll be surprised.” The room isn’t big enough for a single person, and Munisa, a widow at 30, shares it with six children and her mother-in-law. She works as farm labour, earning Rs 35 a day, and can’t make use of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) because the chronic pain in her legs won’t allow her to do hard labour.
Two years ago, an NGO did a survey in the village, part of India’s largest Lok Sabha constituency, Unnao, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), and found her to be the poorest. They gifted her a cow. “It gave milk because I fed her. And then six months ago, she died.” But Munisa is grateful. She will still vote for the candidate who runs that NGO. So will her neighbours. “Here’s someone who has at least proven her concern for the poor,” says one.
Annu Tandon, the Congress candidate who’s been running this NGO, is unabashed about such handouts. She only insists it’s not an NGO: “It’s a private charitable trust set up in my father’s name in 2002, funded entirely by my family.” She won’t provide any figures, though. “NGOs typically do projects in an ad hoc manner. I do things differently. I establish an emotional connect,” she says, sitting in an old haveli in Unnao town, built by her zamindar-lawyer grandfather. For instance, cataract surgeries conducted by the trust are followed up with visits and care for a month. “When somebody commits suicide, I don’t give money to the family. Instead, we buy a milching animal for Rs 20,000 or so, which earns them some money and makes sure there’s milk for the children,” she says.
A local journalist in Unnao estimates that 800 animals have been distributed. That is Rs 1.6 crore spent on livestock alone. And this is just one of many schemes. It can safely be said that the trust must have spent more money in less than five years than the Rs 10 crore allotted to each MP for local development.
Free buffaloes. It’s a wonder that no party puts this in its manifesto. But there’s more to the ‘emotional connect’: anyone in Unnao who invites Tandon to a son or daughter’s marriage gets a gift kit worth nearly Rs 15,000. A bed, an almirah, some clothes and some cash, on occasion.
Her opponents, however, disparage her as a ‘Reliance candidate’. Until eight months ago, she was the chief of a software company floated by Reliance. She is a trustee of the Reliance-supported Observer Research Foundation, a director with Observer Group of Publications, and most of the Rs 41 crore in wealth declared by her is in the form of Reliance equity shares held by her and her husband.
Her husband, Sandeep Tandon, is a director with Reliance Industries. He’s a group adviser too, a confidant so close to Mukesh Ambani that he was closely involved in the corporate leader’s dispute with his brother. A former Enforcement Directorate official, Sandeep is a Reliance adviser on taxation and overseas investments.
“My husband does not [directly] work for Reliance,” says Tandon, “He is a lawyer and Reliance is one of his clients. And I’m proud about that. Why is corporate considered bad?”
Moreover, corporate experience is a help. “Corporates do research before they enter a market. So, before my trust started work in Unnao, I got local unemployed youth to conduct a survey of every hamlet to find out the district’s problems,” she says.
One of the problems spotted was the high incidence of disability caused by fluoride in drinking water, the result of leather tanning industry effluents. Countless free crutches and wheelchairs were to follow. Ask her if this amounts to buying the electorate, she does not sound as defensive as you’d expect. “Who asked my opponent to spend Rs 5 crore buying his ticket from Mayawati? I’m proud of the money I have spent. They don’t know how to spend their money.”
But what about being a ‘Reliance candidate’? “These are just Amar Singh’s ideas,” she says, and stops. “I don’t want to speak much about Amar Singh. He’s a creation of the media. You guys should simply shun him,” she says of the Samajwadi Party (SP) leader who had gone on record saying an alliance with the Congress did not materialise because the Congress’ Digvijay Singh did not leave the Unnao seat for the SP as part of a seat-sharing pact for the Lok Sabha polls. Known for his closeness to Anil Ambani, Amar Singh also said that the Congress’ Unnao tightfistedness could be traced to Digvijay Singh’s favouritism towards a candidate who works for the same company as his son. “This is rubbish,” says Annu Tandon, “Digvijayji’s son does not work for Reliance.” She is willing to admit, however, that “all this is because of the dispute between the [Ambani] brothers.”
“You will see that the people of Unnao will reject money and power,” says SP candidate Devendra Kumar. But Tandon’s main rival is from the BSP, Arun Kumar Shukla alias Anna. If Annu is about money, then Anna is about muscle power. In fact, he is entangled in a legal case (‘guesthouse incident’) for allegedly being part of a group that attacked BSP leader Mayawati in 1995, but that didn’t prevent him from joining the party last November.
The Unnao seat is currently held by the BSP, which expects Anna to fetch Brahmin votes to add to the Dalit tally this time. But will voters be more impressed by Tandon’s social work? Her trust was in operation long before her candidature, to be fair, and the do-gooding has been so heartily welcomed that she can plausibly hope it outweighs caste allegiances. She joined the Congress, she says, on the insistence of friends such as Salman Khursheed and Jitin Prasada. Even film star Salman Khan paid Unnao a visit, but not to campaign, she says. “Salman came for Holi celebrations. He’s a friend.”
The campaign has drawn to a close, the poor are still thronging her haveli with request letters, and her supporters want to burn an effigy of Amar Singh. “Please stop this, I don’t want any of it,” she says, sipping Diet Coke, her manicured nails looking freshly polished. “Now I can only lose if my opponents take to dirty tricks.”
Dirty tricks. The very term her opponents use for her campaign.