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February 16, 1998


Campaign Trail/Prem Panicker

Gurdaspur sees stars

The makeshift stage is erected at the nodal point of a T-shaped intersection of roads.

And if, just five blocks down the vertical limb of the 'T' is located the home of Congress candidate for Gurdaspur Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, then that is, of course, merely a geographical accident. The campaign managers for the rival BJP-SAD combine, Vinod Khanna, merely happened to forget that little detail, but of course they did.

In the event, by dusk on February 13, the entire area is a milling, throbbing, pulsating mass of humanity. "Look up there, on Bhinder's terrace," a BJP volunteer, trying to shepherd me through the mass, laughingly points out, "Even Bhinder's terrace is full of people." So it is, and the same volunteer gleefully points out that the road in front of her house is completely blocked as well.

The consensus in unanimous -- Gurdaspur has never seen anything like this before.

The BJP party orator, uplifted by the sight of an audience he could never have dreamt of, is in his elements as he launches into as excoriating attack on Bhinder. The crowd, in holiday mood, obliges him with frequent bursts of applause.

And then suddenly, in the midst of a particularly impassioned flight, he loses his audience. First a restless shifting of bodies, then a murmur that swells into a throbbing, prolonged roar. "They are here!" the speaker screeches into the mike.

And so they are. Filmstars Jeetendra, Mukesh Khanna and Ranjeet, all smiles and waves, ascend the dais in single file.

The trio, with Randhir Kapoor who, at the moment, is addressing a similar rally elsewhere, landed in Pathankot earlier in the afternoon and, after a brief interval to refresh themselves, have been rushed the 45-km to Gurdaspur, to the epicentre of Bhinder-land.

Jeetendra speaks first. Quick, brief, to the non-point. A reference to his own Punjabi credentials. And endorsement of Vinod Khanna's Jat pedigree. A eulogistic appraisal of Khanna's stature in Hindi filmdom. A reminder that Gurdaspur is lucky to have Khanna as their candidate. "If he was standing in Bombay, he would have won without campaigning," Jeetendra reminds the audience.

It is a short speech, that takes a long time to deliver. Simply because every line is punctuated by huge roars, sustained applause. Then again, judging by the mood of the crowd, the applause would have been as intense had the star merely stood there going Jack and Jill went up the hill...

Mukesh Khanna is in Bhishmapitamah mode, his voice and dialogue delivery weighty. His peroration is pretty much along Jeetendra's lines -- same dialogue writer, perhaps? Except that there is a bit of politics thrown in. A quick attack against the Congress. A ringing endorsement of that "subse mahan neta, Atal Bihari Vajpayee." A reminder that the Congress does not even have a prime ministerial candidate...

Meanwhile, the first signs of panic among the police personnel -- the crowd, pressing in upon itself, threatens momentarily to burst all bounds. The cops and volunteers strain to hold them back...

As Ranjeet, taking over from Mukesh Khanna, works the crowd. Vinod Khanna is his very good friend, he tells them. Of course, they have bashed each other up at times -- "hamare beech mein bahut maara-maari hua hai!" A pause, a laugh and a reminder that of course, all that was only for the cameras...

A security type meanwhile comes up to whether we -- assorted press people and members of the VK entourage -- are standing, beside and below the dais, and suggests that we get the hell out. The rally is about to end, and the crowd could be unmanageable.

So, as Ranjeet asks the crowd who they will vote for and, proclaiming himself dissatisfied with the volume of their response -- trying to finish off Bhinder by noise pollution, you think? -- demands that they yell louder still, we sneak off to our cars.

Moments later, all hell breaks loose. The stars race down the dais after one final wave, dash to their ears, and pandemonium bursts loose. Security personnel are pushed aside and the cavalcade of cars are swamped by a surging sea of humanity.

The interior of the car I am in turns dark from the faces peering in from all sides, the whole framework shakes. Ahead, there is a sudden roar and the police swing into action with their lathis. The cavalcade inches ahead...

What seems like an eternity later, we stop on a deserted stretch of road en route to Pathankot, to assess the damage. And find that the windshield of the car carrying Mukesh Khanna has caved in completely -- the interior of the car is a mass of crystalline glass. The three stars, visibly shaken, smile nervous smiles. "Aisa bheed maine to kabhi nahin dekha!" says Ranjeet who, turning to a member of VK's think-tank, asks, " Arre yaar, when is the next train back to Bombay?!"

Laughter. In which a sense of relief is very apparent.

The absence of stars on the VK campaign trail is a much discussed point in Gurdaspur. Time and again, I am approached by people wanting to know is Akshaye Khanna coming, will Madhuri Dixit come? It seems pointless to say I am a newspaper reporter -- in Gurdaspur. If you are from Bombay then you mustbe ''Vinodji's friend. Which means you must have tea with us, just one sip, and tell us, have you actually MET Manisha Koirala?

Vinod Khanna, when I mention this to him, says he deliberately kept the stars out of the campaign. "As it is, the Congress is trying to trivialise my candidature -- a lot of stars running around would only have given them more ammunition!"

So these four who, VK says, were adamant that they wanted to come over and extend moral support, are held back for the very fag end of the campaign.

Shortly before their arrival in Pathankot, the Khanna GHQ -- Syal House -- is a buzz of activity. People rushing around ensuring that the accommodation is as good as it gets, others pulling strings to secure confirmed tickets for the stars's return to Delhi the following evening, still others busy charting the movements of the stars...

"We'll send Mukesh and Daboo to..."

"Are you mad?! Mukesh and Daboo can't stand each other, they are barely polite when they meet, you want to send them somewhere together!?!"

The next day -- February 14, is a reporter's nightmare. The four stars go in four different directions. Vinod Khanna is a fifth, and Kavita on yet another route.

I trail after one, watch a couple of meetings in adjoining hamlets, then race off on the trail of the next...

And everywhere, it is the same -- crowds! I'm in a little village off Pathankot, I could swear there aren't enough huts around to accommodate 60 people, but there's a couple of thousand milling around to see Ranjeet. Or Daboo Kapoor. Or Jeetendra. Or Mukesh Khanna.

Kids want autographs. Gray-beard elders fight each other for proximity. Jeetendra picks up a little child and hugs her before returning her to the arms of her mother -- and I could swear the woman levitated with pride, while her peers turned greener than the surrounding hush gehu-fields with envy.

Bambaiyya cynicism makes me wonder how many who have come to see, will stay to vote.

And then I realise that Vinod Khanna's promise to set up a studio and film institute in Gurdaspur, Kavita's frequent reference to the time her husband and she were last in the region, shooting the Akshaye Khanna launch-vehicle Himalayputra, and the presence of the quartet of stars concluding on the day, are all tailored to strike one particular nerve.

For the people of Gurdaspur, inhabiting a world of numbing ordinariness, a vote for Khanna is a vote for a sea-change in their world. A chance to reach out, to grab a star, and to anchor it in their midst.

For, who knows, proximity to a star could bring for them, in their turn, stardom...Hey, isn't that the eternal dream?

Campaign Trail

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