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