The Raja's Backyard
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Kunda, a small town scattered on both sides of National Highway-24 B that connects Lucknow to Allahabad, isn't known to take political sides. The few political posters here feature a young, bespectacled man with hair slickly combed across his forehead. This is Raja Bhaiyya, the man who is the only "party" and "leader" in this town of Pratapgarh district. The posters are in the red and green colours of the Samajwadi Party, but it doesn't matter to anyone that Raja Bhaiyya, who had to resign from the Akhilesh Yadav government last week after being linked to the murder of a DySP in Kunda, has never been a formal member of the Samajwadi Party (SP). The colours might change, but the "Raja" stays.
Raja Bhaiyya, born Raghuraj Pratap Singh to Uday Pratap Singh and Manjul Raje, traces his lineage to the erstwhile Bhadri princely state in Pratapgarh district. His grandfather Bajrang Bahadur was the first vice-chancellor of GB Pant Agriculture University and the second governor of Himachal Pradesh. After his graduation from Lucknow University, Raja Bhaiyya made his political debut when he won the 1993 elections as an Independent candidate. By then, stories of Raja Bhaiyya's involvement in criminal activities—several cases of murder and extortion were linked to him—had begun making the rounds. That was the time when Ram Janmabhoomi politics was at its peak and several strongmen or bahubalis were dabbling in politics.
A friend-turned-foe of Raja Bhaiyya's, who didn't want to be named, says that when Raja Bhaiyya made his debut in 1993, it was for the first time that somebody from Bajrang Bahadur's clan was contesting an election and word had already gone out that he was a strongman. "Over the last 20 years, such incidents instilled fear among the people of Kunda. Every time a crime happened, it came with a set of myths surrounding Raja. Whether Raja was involved or not, these cases strengthened him politically," he says.
There are stories of how Raja Bhaiyya fed his adversaries to crocodiles that he kept as pets in his lake in Bainti village, how he got people drowned in the Ganga, got people beaten to death and so on. These stories were never proved but they all beefed up his strongman image—both in Lucknow, where he was valued for his hold on the Thakur MLAs, and in Kunda, which kept sending him to the Assembly. Though Mayawati went after Raja Bhaiyya and put him in jail during her stints in power, he could never be damaged politically.
Raja Bhaiyya's exploits—some would say generosity—have earned him titles as diverse as "noor-e-nazar" (light of the eyes) to "Kunda ka gunda" (as BJP leader Kalyan Singh is known to have called him). The town has sent him to the Assembly five times in a row. When he became a minister in the Samajwadi Party government in March 2012, it was his fifth stint as minister under five chief ministers.
A town of more than 21,000, with almost half the population illiterate according to the 2001 Census, Kunda town has a small bazaar, four senior secondary schools and two colleges. Two of these schools—one for girls and one for boys—and one college are run by Raja Bhaiyya. The town also has an institute for girls run by Kripalu Maharaj that takes in students from Class 1 till graduation.
Though people in the town are unable to recall any big development that Raja Bhaiyya has brought in during his five terms as MLA, they say the schools he ran helped children from the area. "Most of the educated people in Kunda and neighbouring areas would have studied at his schools and college at some point," says Mohammed Wasim, a grocer in the town.
But even in Kunda town, Raja Bhaiyya does have his detractors.
Muslims, who form about 30 per of Kunda's urban population, say they feel vulnerable, especially after the recent incident in Asthan village in Pratapgarh district where a mob burnt down houses of Muslims after the alleged rape of a Dalit girl.
A Muslim doctor who runs a clinic in the town says Raja Bhaiyya never comes to Muslims seeking their support. Besides, he says, the community hasn't forgotten how he was with the BJP in the days after the Babri Masjid demolition. "Our votes do not matter. The Congress and the BSP are almost non-existent here and the SP does not field its candidate. So, it is safe to say that we vote for Raja," he says.
There have been no traders' associations in Kunda for the last 15 years, says a trader on the condition of anonymity. "Traders have not been able to form Vyapar Mandals. There are no organisations here, whether for minorities or for children. Everyone is on his own," he says.
On the outskirts of Kunda town are two colonies built under the Kanshi Ram Urban Housing Scheme of the previous Mayawati government. Both are yet to be occupied. Sitting in his hut in Chakiya village, right beside the colony, Raghu, a Dalit, says he would be very happy and even vote for Mayawati if he gets a flat in the colony. "Our condition has seen no improvement. We have been living in utter poverty all these years. Why would we not vote for Mayawati if she does something for us?" he says.
It has been just an hour since Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav left Balipur village after distributing cheques of Rs 20 lakh each to the widows of Nanhe Lal Yadav, the village pradhan, and his brother who were killed on March 2. Kunda Circle Officer DySP Zia-ul-Haque was shot dead the same day.
"Murders are committed by someone while someone else is implicated for it. Raja Bhaiyya is our god," Pratapgarh zila panchayat member Ghanshyam Yadav shouts to media cameras. Like all other elected representatives from the area, Ghanshyam knows it pays to make his allegiance known.
A few metres away from the house of the slain pradhan, Ram Prasad Yadav, Rajesh Yadav and Ram Khilawan Yadav sit in a huddle, discussing the turn of events. When asked if they are from the SP, Ram Prasad and Rajesh, pradhans from two neighbouring villages, simply say they are with Raja.
Ram Khilawan, who calls himself an SP worker, takes it upon himself to explain what the pradhans meant. "They are saying that they are not Sapayee (SP men), but Rajayee (Raja's men). Rajayee are those who are with Raja and will serve any party Raja is with. On the other hand, Sapayees are those committed to the Samajwadi Party's ideology."
While Ram Khilawan, who has never been elected, can afford to call himself a "Sapayee", others who hope to win elections know they can't be anything but a "Rajayee" in Kunda.
At the entrance to Balipur village, the slain pradhan had erected a signboard that has 'Raja Bhaiyya zindabad' written in bold. In almost every village in Kunda, the pradhans follow this as an etiquette.
"This is one of the few things that show how Raja Bhaiyya has such a tight grip over a constituency that has a large population of Dalits, Muslims, Brahmins, Yadavs and Kurmis, besides the Kshatriyas who are naturally tilted towards the Raja. Everyone supports him here. Kuch bhay vash karte hain, kuchh prem vash karte hain (some support out of fear, some out of affection)," says a pradhan on the condition of anonymity.
A teacher in Kunda town explains the reason behind Raja's hold over the area. "In villages, people rarely vote according to individual preferences. When every village pradhan, block development committee member, district development committee member... in short, every person who matters in the area is with Raja, how many votes can go against him?" he asks. He says every village has about a dozen people, most of them with criminal records, who work for Raja.
A village with a population of about 8,000, Bainti is better known as Raja Bhaiyya ka gaon. It is here, in the multi-acre Bainti kothi with its fortress-like entrance, that he lives and where he holds his weekly janata durbars. "Raja sits in the sun all day, listening to people from Bainti and adjoining areas and hearing their problems. The number of applicants outside his kothi sometimes reaches 5,000 a day," says Pahari Nai, a resident of Bainti.
The village in Kunda tehsil has a government primary school and a private one. Dushyant Kumar Mishra, the headmaster of the private school that's a few metres away from Raja Bhaiyya's house, says anyone with a problem can go to Raja and he will come back happy. "I had gone to Raja seeking a hand pump near the school. Raja asked me to go to the block development officer. In a few days, the government installed a hand pump," he says.
About a kilometre away from Mishra's school is Raja Bhaiyya's infamous lake spread over more than a 1,000 acres, which the Mayawati government converted into a bird sanctuary in 2003. Mishra says the stories of crocodiles in the lake are entirely cooked up by Raja's adversaries.
Ever since Raja Bhaiyya's debut election in 1993, none of those who contested against him has managed to get even one third of the votes polled in his favour. While his opponents say it is because of the fear that he instills in the minds of people, his supporters attribute his success to his accessibility. Many in the area prefer Raja's durbar to tardy government procedures.
Ramesh Saroj, 25, has always lived in a mud house in Bainti. He is landless and supports his family—his wife and two children—with the money he earns as a labourer. "Two years ago, when my eldest son was detected with blood cancer, I did not know how to get him treated. I approached Raja and he gave me Rs 3 lakh and my son was admitted to SGPGI in Lucknow for treatment. Though my son died, I can never forget what Raja did for me," he says. Raja Bhaiyya also helped him, he says, when his father died and he had no money to buy wood for the pyre.
The teachers at Raja Bhaiyya's school in Bainti talk of how he gets 151 poor girls in Kunda married off every six months, provides playing kits to village children and distributes a large number of tricycles to handicapped persons.
"Raja Bhaiyya is popular because the common man wants a person who is strong enough to provide him instant justice—even if it goes against the complainant," says Indra Narayan Pandey, a teacher at Raja Bhaiyya's school. He dismisses talk of Raja Bhaiyya's highhandedness. "If anything, he has finished off all the gundas and criminals in the area. They do not dare commit any crime here as long as he is around," he says.
1993: Elected MLA for the first time, won with more than 67,000 votes
1997, 1999 and 2000: Was made minister in the BJP governments of Kalyan Singh, Ram Prakash Gupta and Rajnath Singh.
2002: Was arrested with father Uday Pratap in connection with a POTA case when Mayawati was Chief Minister
2004: Became minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav government
2010: Jailed again in a case of alleged murder, kidnapping and robbery
2012: Won for the fifth time from Kunda, made minister in Akhilesh Yadav government
March 2013: Resigned from Akhilesh Yadav cabinet
KUNDA, a small town on either side of NH-24 B that connects Lucknow to Allahabad, has a railway station where three of the passenger trains plying between Lucknow and Allahabad stop. Kunda has vast tracts of green, including several mango orchards, thanks to Raja Bhaiyya's father Raja Uday Pratap Singh who is the chief patron of the Gardens and Environment Protection Committee that works for forest conservation in the area.
The Raja, his family
Raja Bhaiyya's biography with the state assembly shows he was born in Kolkata on October 31, 1967. He is married to Bhanvi Kumari of Basti royal family and has two sons and two daughters
His grandfather Raja Bajrang Bahadur Singh was the first vice-chancellor of GB Pant Agriculture University and the second governor of Himachal Pradesh. Since he had no son, he adopted his nephew Uday Pratap Singh as his heir
Raja Bhaiyya's father Uday Pratap, who went to Doon School, has lately lived the life of a recluse at Bhadri kothi. "This is the time of Maharaj's relaxation. He can not meet anyone," a servant said
Raja Bhaiyya's mother is Manjul Raje of the erstwhile Samthar princely state. Manjul Raje is said to be quite religious