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September 1, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Amberish K Diwanji

'He was finance minister for five years, did he say a word about the crimes committed against the Sikhs?'

The Sikhs of South Delhi are in a quandary and Dr Manmohan Singh is responsible for it. After the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the community vowed never to vote for the Congress. But how does one not vote for a candidate like Dr Singh, rated as the ideal candidate?

On a visit to the South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, that boasts 1.3 million voters, it becomes evident that Dr Singh's positive image is stronger than the Congress's negative image. Most Sikhs are veering towards Dr Singh, even if not the Congress. Beyond the fact that he is today one of the tallest Indian leaders around, there is also an element of community pride in his amazing success story.

Nevertheless, Dr Singh is leaving nothing to chance. "One cannot afford to be complacent," said the former finance minister. He is aware that even if his image is miles ahead of his nearest rival, Professor Vijay Kishore Malhotra of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP is a very well organised party with a well oiled machinery that can upset the most popular candidates. And despite being close to 70 -- he will be 67 on September 26 -- he is campaigning hard in his constituency, meeting as many as possible despite the awful August heat of north India.

The heat means campaigning is in two parts, morning and evenings. Dr Singh's motorcade is off by 0630, touring various pockets earmarked by his electoral managers (and over which he seems to have little say), to end five hours later. And in the evening, it is the same, off by 1800 hours to end the day by 2300 hours.

Today, Dr Singh is visiting the Sikh-dominated areas of his constituency, convincing the voters to let bygones be bygones and vote for him and the Congress. He starts with Anand Vihar where his supporters have already gathered with the necessary accoutrements such a dholak and microphone.

First, Dr Singh visits the local gurdwara in this middle-class locality. Then he sets out on foot, with hands folded and a shy smile, meeting people his supporters gather. The people are given garlands with which they garland him. People are enthusiastic about meeting him or wave to him from the balconies. "Not every leader can be sure that people will come out to greet him," claimed one party worker.

Dr Singh also visits the local temple, where the priest blesses him with victory. Then at around 0800, he mounts an open jeep, where for the better part of the next few hours he will stand, waving to the people. And the crowds throng to meet him, greeting him along the way.

At a gurdwara in Fateh Nagar, he has a prayer meeting for about half an hour. Outside, crowds of Sikhs await his return.

Will you vote for Dr Singh? I ask two Sikhs. "Certainly," said the first, "because he is the best candidate we have in the country."

The second declares: "I have never voted for the Congress party."

How about this time?

He hesitates. "I don't know. I like Manmohanji and he is a deserving candidate," he says, adding, "I'll decide on the voting day. Maybe this time I'll vote for him."

Another group of Sikhs are animatedly discussing the merits of Dr Singh's candidature. "I would like to ask what Dr Singh was done for the Sikhs that he wants our votes," says an elderly Sikh, "He was finance minister for five years, did he say a word about the crimes committed against the Sikhs in all those years?"

But others are more lenient and more willing to let bygones be bygones. "I will vote for Manmohanji because it is important to vote for clean and honest candidates. That will benefit the country. And anyway, if the Congress committed crimes against the Sikhs, the BJP too has its share of violence," says another elderly Sikh.

A middle-aged Sikh adds, in grand patriotic terms, "We will vote for Singh in the interest of India even though we detest the Congress, since his presence will benefit the entire country."

Dr Singh comes out of the gurdwara -- it is around 0930 -- and suddenly his campaign managers realise that he was to address a slum-dwellers' settlement at 0700 hours. Panic, and the motorcade zooms to the settlement where the poorest people of this vast constituency patiently await his arrival. Open drains greet the visitors, while the children come out to gawk at the cars.

One of his managers introduces Dr Singh who then gives a speech. No grand talk of economics or the fiscal deficit. Just basic issues after apologising for the delay. "I know you people live a hard life and I promise to look into all your troubles. Certainly, there will be more schools, jobs and running water for all of you. That much I promise you," he says.

Despite being a staid speech, the crowd is happy. The famous Dr Singh is in their midst, and he, they know, is not like most venal politicians of India. "I will vote for him. I have always voted for the Congress, but this time there is a better reason," says one voter, who identified himself as Ram.

Dr Singh returns to Fateh Nagar to continue his campaign. More gurdwaras and temples, more people who throng to meet him and greet him. The response is positive. Boasts one supporter, "If Sonia Gandhi had declared him as the prime minister, the Congress would have won at least 30 more seats across India!"

The turnout is not because of faith alone. "His support comes from all communities -- Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Even now, there are many Sikhs who will never vote for the Congress and we can hardly blame them. But he will win because of his support from all people, rich and poor, of all religions," said the campaign manager.

The largest turnout was in Okhla, dominated by poor Muslims, two days earlier. And as Dr Singh stresses, "I am not promoting myself as a Sikh leader at all though I realise that my presence has brought the Sikhs back to the Congress. I see myself as an Indian."

South Delhi is an urban constituency, with a predominantly cosmopolitan middle-class population, though at the ends of its spectrum are the poor slum-dwellers and the very rich of India. It is also a highly literate constituency. "Here, people are very politically conscious and you cannot fool them on the basis of religion or false promises," points out one of Dr Singh's campaign managers. "And they support him because of his image!"

Image! That is the key word. Posters and stickers speak of Dr Singh as an honest man, a truthful person (qualities few politicians can boast of). It is his USP. And Professor Malhotra did not help by making certain ungentlemanly remarks against Dr Singh, including one that doubted his faith. "Actually, that statement questioning Manmohanji's faith helped bring the Sikhs to us," claimed his campaign manager.

Dr Singh is not an impressive orator. He speaks simply, softly, almost shyly. Strangely, in an era of rhetoric, his plain speech is seen as being positive, indicative of a simple person with minimum fuss rather than a man of tall promises.

By now, it is extremely hot and humid. Dr Singh had started his day in a sparkling white kurta-pyjama, now the kurta is stained brown with dirt and perspiration. His last port of call is a small corner meeting where about 30 Sikhs are waiting for him. After giving another speech, there is a small get together where the people tell him their problems. And wish him success.

The morning campaign is over. A tired Dr Singh returns to his car which speeds away to his home.

Campaign Trail

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