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November 24, 1998


Laughter, the best medicine

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A Ganesh Nadar in Gwalior

Station Road in Gwalior had barricades dividing the footpath and the road, a clear indication that someone important was visiting the city. At 1700 hours all roads leading to Phoolbagh were blockaded, with a cop stationed every 20 feet, and it was clear that it could only be the prime minister.

Phoolbagh was already crowded but the people kept on coming, a lot of them women. At the first gate I was thrown out because I was carrying a bag -- no battery allowed and therefore no camera. I was told to try the next gate. There one cop grabbed me and put his hand in my bag while I was trying to explain myself to him. Luckily for me, the BJP media in-charge Uday Agarwal came to my rescue. The cops relented with a smile and let me in.

It was then announced that the PM had already landed and was on his way. The press corps had been given special ID cards, with the photographers sporting bright yellow jackets of the thinnest available cloth.

At 1730 hours the prime minister appeared on stage without a fuss. He looked grey and tired. He sat down for about three minutes and then began his address.

He accused the Madhya Pradesh government of five years of misrule. It was formerly one of the most progressive states and now it was rotten. ''Development funds have been misused. This election is a challenge. The Congress doesn't talk about what they did for five years. They talk about what we have done in eight months. We have done what was not done in 50 years...''

The crowd cheered and clapped. ''They are blaming Pokhran for the onion and potato price rise. They are saying we dumped tonnes of onions and potatoes in Pokhran to suppress the blasts.'' ( laughter). The crowd went into raptures at this point. ''We did not do anything like that. We didn't need to. They are criticising our progress in the nuclear field.'' The crowd keeps up its refrain.

''In 1974 we did not criticise them.'' More claps. ''We are making the country strong.'' More applause. He then raised the pitch of his voice. ''We are standing on our feet under extreme pressure.'' The crowd clapped even louder. ''Sanctions are on but we will not buckle under pressure.'' The crowd continued cheering and clapping.

He advised the Opposition to canvass nobly and not stoop low. He regretted the floods and cyclones, which had destroyed the crop this year. ''Our formers do not plan. Sometimes there is excess crop and hence no good price. At other times there is scarcity. There are vegetables but no cold storage. For 45 years what did they do? We still import cooking oil and dal. The foreign dal cannot be cooked easily.'' Everybody laughed. ''We need desi dal. We are taking steps to improve agriculture.''

''A rumour sparked off a salt shortage. Why should you stock salt, how much salt can you eat?'' Loud laughter greeted this remark. ''We are trying to find the rumour-monger. Why do people believe in rumours?'' Then he narrated an anecdote, something for which he is famous.

''In my youth, I used to go from Gwalior to Kanpur to study. One day a youth ran on the streets in Kanpur shouting 'Chal gayee... chal gayee'. Some people thought lathi chalee, others thought goli chalee. Everybody started running in panic, we were in college. We left for our hostel. The police later arrested the youth. He said, 'Meri chavanni chalee gayee' that is, I lost four annas.''' The crowd rolled with laughter. ''Before the elections many such chavannis will be lost. Be careful.'' The crowd simply roared.

The PM next said the minorities were safe in India unlike our neighbouring country where Sunnis and Shias keep fighting. He declared that Ayodhya would be settled by the judiciary or through negotiation. The crowd clapped.

He said a woman was a woman whatever her religion. ''You shouldn't give rape a communal colour. Rapists will be hanged.'' The clapping wouldn't stop.

He blamed the Congress for backing out of its promise on the women's reservation bill. He taunted the Samajwadi Party for snatching the bill from his minister in Parliament and running away with it. ''These people do not know how to oppose a bill in the Lok Sabha.''

He said the Congress couldn't stay out of power. ''We did so for 40 years. But even when they cannot form a government they keep trying to create instability.

''The Akali Dal-BJP alliance was a symbol of Hindu-Sikh unity. And the AIADMK-BJP alliance was a symbol of north-south unity.

''The BJP has overtaken the Congress and now it was the largest party in the Lok Sabha.'' The crowd cheered.

''Today you can go from Kashmir to Kanyakumari without setting foot on a Congress-ruled state. Earlier they ruled everywhere. Why this decline? Because of corruption.

''I as prime minister have included the post in the Lok Ayukta bill. The prime minister should be beyond suspicion. The Gangotri should be pure. Only then can we wipe out poverty. We will change all this. We will do what we promise.

''In Madhya Pradesh bring in a honest government that will work. If you vote in a BJP government in MP you will strengthen my hands at the Centre. I appeal to you as a son and citizen of Gwalior.''

At 1805 hours he finished his bhashan and left as quietly as he came. Then they played Vande Mataram. Some people uprooted the BJP flags and started walking out with them. An organiser announced, ''Those bamboo sticks on which those flags are tied have been rented. We have to return the poles. Please do not carry away the flags.'' The crowd laughed, but nobody heeded him. Is that what lies in store for the BJP here?

Assembly Election '98

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