India

The Indian politician with the reputation of a Bond villain

Raja Bhaiya
Image caption Raja Bhaiya is seeking re-election for the sixth consecutive term

Pratapgarh, in the election-bound northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is one of the most backward districts in the country. It's also my hometown.

Over the years, whenever I tell people outside of the state that my roots are in the district, invariably I'm asked if I know Raja Bhaiya.

Raja Bhaiya (Royal Big Brother) is how Raghuraj Pratap Singh, a member of the former royal family of Kunda - which falls in the district - is popularly known.

The 47-year-old father-of-four is seeking re-election for the sixth consecutive term from Kunda, which is among the 53 constituencies in the state where voting takes place on Thursday.

Over the years, legends have been built around him with his rivals painting him as a larger-than-life James Bond villain who feeds his enemies to crocodiles in a private lake on his palace grounds.

To separate the man from the myth, I caught up with him as he travelled around his constituency one day last week, addressing rallies and canvassing for votes.

Image caption A supporter shows off a wooden saw, Raja Bhaiya's election symbol

"I have no idea where this story of crocodiles came from," he tells me. "My children learnt to swim in the lake. I breed fish there and if there was a crocodile, wouldn't it eat up all the fish?"

As he hits the campaign trail, young men on bikes escort his land cruiser, shouting "Raja Bhaiya zindabad [Long live Raja Bhaiya]" every few minutes.

Men, women and children stand by the side of the road and bow and join their hands to greet him. He raises his hand in salutation and waves at them.

At every turn, waiting young men run after his car, forcing him to slow down. They all want to shake his hands, and many put their hands in through the rolled down window to touch his feet.

Sometimes he gets out of the car to hear out groups of villagers, asking for a favour.

Similar scenes play out as we travel from one village to another in this rural constituency.

Raja Bhaiya says since he joined politics in 1993 and first contested the state assembly election as an independent candidate. He has won every single poll since then, often beating his rivals with record margins.

Image caption His supporters include a large number of women

"He's now gained respectability and shed that image of a don, but Raja Bhaiya shot into the limelight for all the negative reasons," senior Lucknow-based journalist Sharat Pradhan who has followed his career since 1993, told the BBC.

"He came from a feudal background, his father was a raja (ruler) before the privy purse was abolished in 1972. Members of the high Rajput caste, the villagers were in awe of them as if they were still their rulers. In Kunda his writ ran large and even the police and the administration would not dare to stand up to him," he said.

"Although he's never joined any political party, Raja Bhaiya has always remained on the right side of whoever is in power and is also a minister in the outgoing government of the Samajwadi Party," says Mr Pradhan.

Except that is, for Ms Mayawati, low-caste Dalit icon and four-time state chief minister, who in 2002 accused him of conspiring to topple her government.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Raja Bhaiya had an epic falling out with Ms Mayawati

"She had me arrested under the dreaded anti-terrorism law and sent to solitary confinement in jail. My father was also arrested and jailed," says Raja Bhaiya.

At the time, Ms Mayawati denied that politics or caste conflict were behind his arrest. But at a press conference, she accused him of "spreading terror since ages" and said that "the people of Kunda were leading a life of slavery. They did not feel they were living in a free country".

Raja Bhaiya says dozens of "false" criminal cases were filed against him. "I was accused of rioting, extortion, robbery, assault, kidnapping, attempted murder, conspiracy to murder and even murder. I was accused of stealing pots and pans, a few thousand rupees. I was named in all sorts of trivial thefts."

He describes his years in jail as the "most enlightening" because he got the time to read a lot.

"I've always been fond of Hindi literature, especially poetry, and solitary confinement gave me a lot of opportunity to read. I also read Hindu religious books like the Bhagvad Gita and Ram Charit Manas," he says.

Image caption Sumitra Devi Sonkar is seeking Raja Bhaiya's help to get back some land that she claims her neighbour has illegally taken over

I ask him if he ever felt disheartened?

"I'm a positive man so every day I'd think that I was one day closer to release," he says.

"After returning to power in 2007, Mayawati hounded him further; he was accused in the murder of a police officer," Mr Pradhan says.

But he has been cleared by investigators and the courts in all cases, except in one where he has been accused of minor violence.

Despite the clean chit, Raja Bhaiya seems to have lost the battle of public perception - his critics say he's been cleared because people are too frightened to testify against him.

His mother Manjulraje blames sensational media coverage for that.

Image caption At every turn, he stops his car to talk to waiting villagers

"Local television channels showed him riding horses and photoshopped images of him feeding crocodiles were flashed on screen. Magazine covers had splotches of blood behind his photograph.

"People were painting him black all the time," she says, adding that it was very hurtful for her.

"He's had a raw deal. I don't know why they are against him. Maybe it's in his stars," she says.

For his supporters though, Raja Bhaiya remains unblemished and they says the charges against him are "rumours".

So what is behind his appeal?

Image caption For his supporters, Raja Bhaiya is unblemished despite the rumours that surround him

As Raja Bhaiya's convoy reaches the rally ground, loud firecrackers are set off to announce his arrival.

Local leaders greet him with red roses and garlands of marigold flowers. Supporters wave wooden replicas of saws, his poll symbol.

"Anyone can bring you roads, electricity and water. But I don't just work for your development," Mr Singh reminds his cheering supporters.

"I also sort out your other problems. I resolve your fights over land so you don't have to spend all your money on court cases. I also resolve your family feuds, including those between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and even between husband and wife."

Image caption Raja Bhaiya says he helps sort out day to day problems of the people in his constituency

To his supporters, he's "a messiah of the poor", even "God"; to the villagers his word is often law and his weekly "courts", where he settles their disputes, draw large crowds.

Sumitra Devi Sonkar, who works in a bank, tells me she is seeking his help in getting back some land that belongs to her family but a neighbour has snatched away. "He's promised to sort it out once the elections are over," she says.

Farmer Meku Pal says he votes for Raja Bhaiya because "he keeps peace in our region".

Lateefur Rahman says he's voted for him in every election since 1993 and will continue to do so until his dying day.

It's the loyalty of such voters that makes Raja Bhaiya unbeatable.

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