During May 1996, I was posted as an election observer in the Jhunjhunu Parliamentary constituency in Rajasthan. Jhunjhunu, with an inhospitable terrain and arid land, forms a part of the Thar Desert. There, apart from a little bit of rain fed agriculture nothing grows but bushes. However, the District consists of places like Pilani, (a leading education centre of India) Khetri (the copper mine area) and the heritage towns of Fatehgarh, Ramgarh, Navalgarh and Mandava. It forms the main part of the famed Shekhavati region known for its painted houses and havelis. It is also the hometown of the top ten business houses of India including the Birlas, Singhanias, Goenkas, Poddars, JKs, Khemkas and others.
The rural areas are being dominated by the Jats, whereas, the urban areas are dominated by the Marwaris and other trading communities. As I was travelling through the district, inspecting the polling arrangements, the name of a candidate Sheesh Ram Ola was coming up again and again. Sheesh Ram Ola was an independent candidate. In the past Jhunjhunu had been a stronghold of the Congress party and it was a bit surprising why an independent candidate should be so popular. Actually Mr. Ola had all along been a Congress party candidate from Jhunjhunu. However during the previous election, with the consent and support of Mr. Ola, the Congress party had put up a Muslim candidate. Somehow the public was not satisfied with him. Hence, this time round, Sheesh Ram Ji himself wanted to contest as a candidate in his favourite constituency. Unfortunately the party did not give him the ticket. It irked him and he decided to stand as an independent candidate.
Through the villagers, I came to know that Sheesh Ram Ji had been active for the last fifty years as a Gandhian constructive worker. He has been around from the time of the Quit India Movement. He has always mingled with the villagers and had remained their friend, philosopher and guide. He had served twice in the state cabinet of Rajasthan in the capacity of a minister, had tried to bring water to the desert and has done pioneering work in the field of education. The highest no of educational institutions in the country exists in Jhunjhunu District, curtsey his efforts and those of the rich Marwaris merchants of Jhunjhunu District, who support these institutions, from different parts of India.
Most of all, what impressed me was that Sheesh Ram Ji still lived in the small, humble, unpretentious house, which belonged to his father and in which he was born. In his political career of fifty years he had not even tried to acquire a house. I was delighted to find that such politicians do exist in India. I saluted him in my heart and hoped that I will have an encounter with such a servant of the people before I left Jhunjhunu.
On 7th of May, the counting was to take place. At five in the morning, while I was still in my nightgown sleeping in the circuit house, somebody knocked desperately at my door. Reluctantly, I opened the door. I saw a stately man, nearly seventy, wearing a wrinkled khadi shirt and a dirty dhoti, unshaven with unkempt hair; standing before me with a bleeding leg. He folded his hands and said I am Sheesh Ram Ola, the independent candidate. I was startled. All of a sudden, he was standing before me, larger than life. I was shocked to see his leg and tried to get to the phone to get him a doctor. He said, “Please don’t worry. I slipped on the stairs and fell. I will attend to it later but I have a problem. Please sort that out”.
Three of his counting staff had fallen sick. Two of them were the staff on the counting tables and one was the overall counting in charge in the counting room no. seven. He wanted substitutes to be posted in their places but the District Collector and Returning Officer were not agreeable. I promised him that I would get dressed and meet him directly at Jhunjhunu Arts College where the counting was to commence at 8 a.m. on the condition that he straight goes to get some first aid for his leg. At the counting centre I took up the matter with Mr. Tripathi, the Returning Officer, but he was unwilling to relent and felt that, since the deadline for making such changes was over, his request could not be considered. Moreover other candidates may also have a similar problem and it would not be possible for the administration to accommodate everybody at this late juncture.
Hearing this, Sheesh Ram Ji, was not at all convinced and was quite upset. I consoled him and told him that other observers and myself would alternatively, act as his counting agents in room no. seven and specially watch the tables where he did not have representatives. Conduct of free and fair election was our responsibility and he should trust us to ensure that every valid vote cast for him was duly counted. Somehow he was pacified and we went about our job of over seeing the counting. Normally, Sheesh Ram Ji would not have worried so much. He had won from this seat always in the past, but this time both the Congress vote and the minority vote had got split which gave him enough cause to worry. Moreover, he wanted to win and prove to the high command that he was still the people’s candidate. In these circumstances every vote mattered to him. It was interesting to see that a family of four had flown from Bangalore to Pilani to vote for him.
In a corner of the college compound a cook was making poori and baji for volunteers working for him. Sheesh Ram Ji himself brought some Poori and Baji, in a donna (leaf plate), for me to eat. I could not decide if I could eat the food offered by a candidate while the counting was still going on. He had brought it with so much of genuine affection, common in rural Rajasthan, that I just ate it, even as my fancy lunch was waiting in the next room. At the end of the day when the counting was over he had won by just 10000 votes. I heaved a sigh of relief for all the villagers who wanted him back.
During my two-week stay in the constituency he seemed to have found out everything about me and my tourism & cultural background. Before I could leave the district, he produced the officers and the staff of the tourist department before me and asked me to advise them about how to promote tourism in Jhunjhunu. I left Jhunjhunu admiring him and his dedication. He meant business and kept every government functionary on his toes. After the election he joined the Tiwari Congress and became a Central minister in the Gujral cabinet. May God give him a long and healthy life to continue to serve the people of our country.