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September 10, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Savera R Someshwar

'I have heard Chandra Swami is doing a havan so that I will be defeated!'

Rajesh Pilot Wednesday, September 8, 0330 hours. I am not too fond of getting up this early in the morning. But we have been told the only way we could talk to Rajesh Pilot is get to his constituency headquarters in Dausa by six in the morning. "Saath baje thak to saab nikhal hi jaate hain," we had been repeatedly told on the phone.

By quarter to five, we are racing towards Dausa, a good 70 km away from Jaipur where we are based. The ride is bumpy, but we still manage to snooze. When we wake up an hour later, Dausa is still 25 minutes away.

The main town in Rajesh Pilot's constituency is quiet, this early in the morning. There are many cows and hardly any people. Yet, the first person we ask immediately guides us to the local Congress headquarters.

The decorated gate, the Congress banners and posters of a confident Rajesh Pilot in a Rajasthani safa (turban); this had to be Chaudhari Dharamshala where his workers have been stationed.

0630 hours. Pilot's 'office' is just waking up. A few old men, dressed in white, squat on the chairs, scanning the day's newspaper. Others, who have just woken up, roam around bare-chested. Some only have a thin towel wrapped around their waist, as they lug a bucket of water for their bath.

"Kartar Singh?" we enquire. "Kartar Singh kahan hai?" A finger points to a somnolent figure, stretched on a table fronting the dharmshala's courtyard. Our driver shakes his head and heads for a bath, we hang around waiting for Kartar Singh to wake up.

Ten minutes later, a kindly Congress worker does the needful. The words, "Bombay se aayen hai," work their magic. Donning a kurta, rubbing sleep from his eyes, Kartar Singh joins us. Cups of freshly brewed tea in disposable plastic cups appear. "Saab tho Jaipur mein hain..."

Jaipur? Hello, isn't that where we came from? And did we not call yesterday and ask you when we could come to Dausa? And did you not ask us to come at six the next day? Wasn't that why we were sitting at the Chaudhari Dharamashala, surrounded by cows, trees, dust and squirrels?

"Woh kya hai na," Kartar Singh is very apologetic, "his programme can change at any time. Actually, he was supposed to return to Dausa yesterday. He was using the helicopter... and I think he got late... well, he decided to stay in Jaipur. His wife has a house there and she is an MLA you know, Ramaji."

Rajesh Pilot and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot have apparently decided to merge their programmes, that is another reason why he decided to stay in Jaipur. And he was scheduled to leave his home at eight thirty! Frantic efforts to call him prove futile. The only phone in the Dharamshala is not working and all the STD booths are closed.

"Aisa karo," we are given a tiny scrap of paper with an address scribbled on it, "why don't you go here? This is where Pilotsaab is staying in the city." But Pilotsaab is scheduled to leave his home in an hour-and-a-half. With a few minutes to spare before the clock chimed seven, we whiz past camel-carts and tractor-trailers and raced back towards Jaipur.

0830 hours. Pilot's home. He is, thankfully, still at home. We wait under the gaily-erected pandal, with other people who have come to meet their candidate. Fifteen minutes later, Pilot steps out, crisp in white dhoti, white kurta and maroon jhootis that are a little dusty, a little worse for the wear.

We introduce ourselves, relate our sad tale and pour forth our request. Sure, no problem, he is going to the CM's house -- of course, we can go with him and, yes, we can go inside as well -- from whence he will commence on his campaign for the day.

0910 hours. It seems we are finally ready to go. In the interim, Pilot moves in and out of the house. He disposes the two supplicants -- one wants a favour for her nephew. The other wants him to sign on some documents protesting against child labour. "No, I can't sign this now," Pilot is firm. "Bina padhe kaise sign kar sakta hoon?"

Rajesh Pilot Dramatically dressed Black Cats move in and out of the gates. Pilot indulges in hectic whispered confabulations with workers. The sense of urgency is palpable. Two of the workers squabble, Pilot steps in. "Kya ho raha hai?" Everyone subsides.

0913 hours. Frenetic activity. Everyone races for the cars. We are ready to go. Outside, three police vans wait. Pilot drives his blue Maruti Gypsy himself. Two Gypsies ferry the men in black. Sirens whine as we speed towards the CM's house. We have the right of way.

0917 hours. The CM's house. We are four cars behind Pilot, he is already in the house by the time we step out of the car. The CM's special security blocks our way. As all others who provide security to political figures, they are very rude. "But Pilotsaab has given us permission to go in with him. We are press."

"Lekin aapka naam list mein nahin hai."

"Well," we query," why don't you check with Pilotsaab then?"

"But who are you?"

"Where have you come from?"

"Your name is not on the list..."

"You can't go in there..."

"Photography is not allowed."

Pointing to our bags, "Kya hai is mein?"

By now, we are close to losing our cool. "Arre, aap ek minute Pilotsaab se poocho. We are press. We are with him." But no one checks with Pilot.

"Pehle kyon nahin bataya press hai?"

"Bol nahin sakte, abhi tho sabhi modern dikhti hai."

In the midst of this inane conversation, Gehlot and Pilot emerge. They wave to the security, indicating that we are okay, and make for their car. We race towards ours. Thirty seconds later, we are zooming towards Kotpulti. We are now a cavalcade of one pilot police jeep, three Ambassadors, five Gypsies (three for the police and two for Pilot's men in black) and one ambulance.

1100 hours. Kotputli. We are approximately 115 km away from Jaipur. The ride to Kotputli is one of the fastest of my life. For the last hour or so, we have been racing at speeds of 100 kmph on the Jaipur-Delhi highway, slowing down only when we hit small towns where the police sirens clear the way for us. We had narrowly missed hitting a pig and caught glimpses of the Jai Mahal, the Ramakrishna temple, the Jaigadpur Fort that house Jaipur's biggest cannon, a group of elephants, a cemetery devoted to maharanis, hills defaced by quarrying and huge cans of milk being transported on motorbikes.

On the way, we stop at Amer, where 75-odd people surrounded the CM's car. Gehlot-Pilot mount the stage, accept numerous marigold garlands and turbans, but reject the demand for a speech. The garlands then festoon the CM's car, but scatter on the road as we hasten along.

Next stop, Chandwaji. Gehlot-Pilot repeat their performance with the handshakes, the greetings, the garlands, the stage and the safas. Immediately, we are on our way again.

At Kotputli, a respectable crowd of about 30,000 people has gathered for the event. It is hot under the huge shamiana, the huge stage is filled with almost 50 people. Pilot and Gehlot crossleg in front, and every one else pushes, shoves, and even fights for seats near them. Most of the arguments can be head on the mike, leading to much smiles on the faces of those who have come to hear the speech. And then, the mike falls off.

The man in charge of the podium is old and obviously does not want to displease anyone. He reels off names at top speed as the people concerned climb over each other to garland the two leaders and present them with safas, money, shawls -- at this, a sweating Pilot registered a mild protest -- and more money.

Rajesh Pilot The speeches being. Once again the old man calls on a host of speakers, almost 15 in all. Each say they will speak for a minute -- one has actually composed a few poems in honour of the occasion -- but speak for almost four, with absolutely no response from the crowd. Except for a manic young man who jumps up occasionally and exhort the crowd, "Rajesh Pilot..." to sober "Zindabads", which only seems to irk him further.

Finally, the old man requests Pilot to speak to the crowd. Many members of the audience stretch their necks to spot him on the crowded stage. At which point those who have not got their four minutes before the mike, register their loud and angry protest. But Pilot it is. The stage though is so jam-packed with people that Pilot finds it hard locate the mike. He even stumbles over a couple of local personalities.

Pilot's 20 minute speech touches on recurrent elections, unemployment, lack of industry in the villages, Kargil, the inefficiency of the BJP government, corruption (with specific emphasis on how the BJP has forgotten its baying for Sukhram's blood now that he has joined them), the Gehlot government's good deeds, how Gehlot needs time to implement the party's promises and the importance of one vote.

He is a good speaker and has the crowd going -- they laugh, murmur, sigh at the right times and give the impression of being totally involved with what he is saying.

Pilot agonises about how the BJP was emphasising on his caste. "In the rest of the country, in Delhi, in Parliament, in non-election times, I am just Rajesh Pilot. Why are they bringing up my caste? I am not here because of my caste. I have not been serving you for so many years because of my caste."

A special potshot is reserved for Chandra Swami, much to the amusement of the crowd. "Why does the BJP run to Chandra Swami every time they want to put up a candidate against me? I have heard Chandra Swami is doing a havan so that I will be defeated! Tell me, if a havan could ensure success or failure in elections, would I not be at Hardwar myself, doing a havan in order to win? Why would I come here to trouble all you good people?"

It is Gehlot's turn. He is a disappointing speaker -- soft, unexpressive, with a strong lisp -- as he exhorts the crowd to vote for Pilot. He talks about frequent elections, the achievements of his government, the BJP's step-motherly treatment towards his government, the shallowness of the NDA, the sugar, wheat and telephone scams, how he and Pilot entered Parliament at the same time and how Dausa has become famous because it is Pilot's constituency.

As he winds up, we race towards our car. We are hot and thirsty. The next 10-minute are pell-mell madness as sirens wail and people surge around the cavalcade, making movement difficult. But the cars surge through and race towards Jaipur, en route to Shahpur.

1330 hours (approximately, by now, I have lost all track of time). We are at Shahpura. The roads in the town are bad, full of potholes and stones. Congress workers on foot escort the CM's car. We pass two jeeps full of BJP supporters; they look amazed at the show of strength. A smaller crowd, around 20,000 people, have gathered to hear Pilot and Gehlot. The speeches are the same, the responses identical. Only the organisers are more efficient. There are fewer people on stage, fewer speeches before the main speakers. The sun is scorching.

An hour or so later, we make for the rest house for a lunch break. Later, the CM lounges on the bed and tackles an impromptu press conference. He knows the reporters by name, but dishes out the usual attack on Vajpayee ("Why is he fighting elections again when he said last year that it would be his final attempt?") and how the Congress would sweep these elections as well. Pilot watches quietly, refusing to be drawn into the conversation.

1500 hours. The CM races towards Jaipur. Pilot makes for the local Congress office. Cornered by well wishers and Congress workers, he is unable to speak privately to his men-on-the scene. He gets back into the Gypsy and lets us join him.

The road is jammed with traffic. People come to shake Pilot's hand. He smiles at them, tells them to look after him, to make sure he wins...

There is a blue plastic bag on the floor of the Gypsy. We open it. It is full of chana. He eats fistfuls and distributes fistfuls. Then follow rock sugar and peppercorns. With over 500 meetings that he has addressed in the state, his throat is sore.

Someone clears the road ahead, we drive on, albeit slowly. We stop at a local dhaba. Pilot confers with his men; they discuss election day, voter turn out. In the Gypsy money changes hands. Workers come and pick up bundles of notes. Discussions over, Pilot makes his way towards the jeep. Someone stops him, hands him a bundle of cash. The sealed bundles of hundreds looks like Rs 10,000. The bunch of 500 notes looks like another Rs 10,000.

Pilot gets back into the Gypsy. "Achcha, bhaiyya, sambhal lena..."

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda


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