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November 20, 1998


Gwalior, where Scindia is still supreme

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A Ganesh Nadar in Gwalior

The train hurtles through a pitch-dark tunnel. And emerges into the light in Gwalior, the erstwhile capital of the Scindias famous for its palaces -- even the station is designed like one.

But the autorickshaws are atrocious, ready to cut your throat if you are not good at bargaining. And in the evenings, the traffic is terrible. Pollution is worse, thanks to the run-down condition of most of the autos and the ancient three-wheeler Tempos which are operated as minibuses.

It was 1800 hours on Monday, November 16. The Congress was holding a public meeting. Naturally, the star speaker was Madhavrao Scindia, scion of the former royal family, who is still known and addressed as 'Maharaj' by all the people of Gwalior.

Suddenly 25 women led by a young man came screaming in, shouting slogans. They joined a group of 15 women who had already assembled at the venue. All were over 40 years old.

A local cable television channel, 'Hulchul Gwalior', had put up a banner proclaiming 'Live Telecast' of the meeting. The dais had portraits of Sonia Gandhi on both sides and a large 'palm', electoral symbol of the Congress, in the centre.

All the politicians milling around on stage were attired in white. The famed Gandhi cap -- or should one say the Congress cap? -- was prominent everywhere. All roads leading to the venue were closed to traffic. One fellow asked his friend to join him in the VIP enclosure. "No, thanks," he replied. "I'll stand with the media. This is the only place where you don't get beaten or pushed around."

There were four chairs on stage. A local politician bored the assembled crowd, warming up the microphone, as it were, for 'Maharaj'.

Scindia arrived at 1930 hours with 20 others in tow. He went up on stage and took his place -- sitting cross-legged on the floor. Promptly, all the others followed suit. The chairs were swiftly discarded. Cries of "Maharaj Scindia zindabad" (long live King Scindia) rent the faithful air.

Scindia smiled. His expression kept changing as he scanned the crowd. Quite obviously, the man has charm.

The local politicians droned on as the crowd whispered, joked and laughed among themselves. Scindia ran both hands through his rich shock of hair, Rajnikanth-style.

The welcome and 'warm-up' speeches over, the leaders and some of the people took turns to garland Scindia. Everyone who garlanded him touched his feet. And they also had groups of chamchas (lackeys) in the crowd to clap at that specific moment.

Scindia accepted all the fuss calmly, until a very old man came up with a garland. Then he rose quickly, took the garland from the old man, and put it round his neck instead. The crowd lapped it up. Scindia's clearly up there with the best in PR.

The former Union minister must have collected about 300 garlands that evening. People seemed to have forgotten all about human bombs carrying garlands.

All the speakers raised the Ayodhya Ram temple issue and praised Scindia. 'Soniaji' was mentioned just once.

A boy leapt up on a chair and screamed, "Maharaj Scindia zindabad". Local candidate Ramesh Agarwal declared that he would serve Gwalior till the last drop of his blood.

Balendu Shukla, a Scindia acolyte who was recently appointed working president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress unit and is contesting the Gird seat, pointed out that no non-Congress government had ever lasted its full term at the Centre. For good measure, he also criticised Kalyan Singh's jumbo cabinet in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, Scindia rose to speak. Immediately, crackers went off in all corners of the ground amid shouts of zindabad.

Scindia spoke in a drawl. He recounted how he had entered politics and Parliament in 1971, when he was just 25, from neighbouring Guna. Thirty years later he is still an MP. He thanked the people for this.

Next, he compared politics in 1971 to that in 1998, and noted that the difference is like that between the earth and the sky.

Then he listed India's manpower and natural resources, but regretted that the country had not progressed enough. This, he said, is because voters never look at the candidate, never ask if he is honest, never find out if he will work for everyone's welfare. Instead, they look at his party, his caste, his religion. Caste and religion are destroying the country, he told his listeners. We are fragmenting.

Some movement was constantly going on in the crowd. Some people were moving in, others were moving out. But an impressive 50,000 stayed right through Scindia's speech.

'Maharaj' then spoke about the law-and-order problems in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the only rival of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. "Nobody's safe in those states," he declared.

He then moved to the topic of religion and caste, emphasising how only the Congress treats them all equally.

And thus the speech went on. Actually, Scindia didn't say anything we had not heard other politicians say before. And only after the meeting ended did I realise that nobody had so much as mentioned the Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, the man whose performance the electorate is supposed to judge on November 25. Strange indeed are the ways of politicians.

Assembly Election '98

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