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October 2, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Syed Firdaus Ashraf

She came, she waved, she conquered

The atmosphere in Jais is hot and dusty. A mild breeze is blowing. Otherwise, there is complete silence even though almost 500 people are crowding both sides of the road, in bylanes and on rooftops. Some children are even perched atop cars.

Everyone's eyes are glued to the road from Amethi, waiting for Priyanka Vadra, who is supposed to visit the village just before campaigning for the last phase of the 13th general election closes at 1700 IST.

Suddenly, two men are spotted at a height in the distance. People think they are the Special Protection Group vanguard. If the SPG is here, can Priyanka be far behind? Loud cheers of "Zindabad, zindabad [long live], Sonia Gandhi zindabad, Priyanka Gandhi zindabad" go up.

But soon their hopes are dashed. Turns out that the men are Congress party workers riding horses and not SPG commandos standing in a jeep.

The horses are decorated as if for a wedding. And the riders are wearing turbans made of the Congress flag. But the SPG men posted in Jais intervene and ask for the horses to be moved away as they may cause a disturbance that could lead to a stampede.

The Congress workers are adamant. But the SPG issues an ultimatum. Priyanka will not pass if the horses are not taken to a safe distance. Reluctantly, the men leave their horses some distance away.

The enthusiastic residents of the bustee (colony) in the narrow lane are near delirium. "Welcome" reads the hand-written scrawl on the road. A red ribbon tied to two electric poles bars the way. Vadra is supposed to cut it and proceed.

"Wipe this now," yells a loudmouthed man, shoving some children forward. The bearded man who has just added a fresh paan stain to the neat design on the road looks sheepish. As 500 pairs of eyes glare at him, he tries to wipe the stain with his foot and slinks away.

Suddenly, the crowd notices the convoy approaching in the distance. Men can be seen standing in the vehicles. But this time, you can clearly see her.

The people are thrilled. Here she is, Priyanka, accompanied by her sister-in-law Michelle, standing in an open-top car, dressed in a green sari and white blouse. The zindabad routine rents the air once more with gusto.

Vadra bangs the rooftop and tells the driver to stop. An SPG commando posted in Jais told "Ever since she has come to Amethi for campaigning, she is breaking all rules meant for VIP security."

"It is very difficult to maintain security in this kind of places when people are close to her," he continues. "The crowd is unruly and always wants to go close and shake hands. These people are very excited by her campaign. This makes our life very difficult."

Even as the commando laments about their troubles, Vadra's vehicle arrives at where the crowd is collected. She is supposed to inaugurate a small Congress office for the village. People are straining at the ropes tied to form a barricade and keep them away from Vadra.

The SPG car in front instructs Vadra's driver not to stop. Soon, she passes the crowds. The new office remains uninaugurated. The people are disappointed, but they run after their vehicle.

Vadra notices a group of 10 children lined up on a rooftop waving Congress flags. She waves back. The children are thrilled and scream, "Priyanka Gandhi zindabad."

I ask an eight-year-old girl if she knows what the fuss is all about and who the visitor is. "Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Sonia Gandhi," she enlightens me.

The convoy is moving at a mere 10 kph. The lead SPG car's sirens are blaring, trying to clear a path through the people who are now thronging the road. Policemen are using their batons for the same purpose.

Vadra gets upset and almost pushes a policeman. She is annoyed at the way the people of Amethi, who will decide her mother's fate on October 3, are being treated.

Zameeruddin Shaikh, 60, a tailor, says, "She reminds me so much of her father [the late Rajiv Gandhi]. When he had come here for the first time, there was so much enthusiasm in our constituency. I feel the good old days have returned. Ever since he died [on May 21, 1991], India has forgotten Amethi. It is only now that she [Vadra] has put new life in our constituency."

This is Priyanka's second visit to Jais. On her earlier trip, she had made a small speech, asking the people to vote for the Congress. "I feel so good that Amethi is once again seeing a candidate from the Gandhi family," Shaikh says.

Ram Shankar Pandey, a fruit vendor, agrees. "The media and the nation considers our view important only if someone from the Gandhi family contests the election. For the last three elections, nobody bothered to come and ask how we were doing or whom we would vote for," he says.

The people's desire to see Vadra cut the ribbon before entering the predominantly Muslim and Harijan bustee also remains unfulfilled, the lead SPG car refusing to stop and driving straight through it.

Vadra continues to wave to the people, sometimes on the left of the road, then on the right. There is no microphone in the car, so she cannot make a speech. She just continues waving.

All activity in the town has come to a halt. Everyone seems to have taken the day off to see the pretty lady.

Vadra's car turns into a dingy, stinking lane. Cowdung is splattered all over. There are Muslim women too, in burqa (veil), waiting to catch a glimpse of Vadra. For the people, the dung and filth is of no concern. They only want to get close to Vadra and touch her hand.

Says Mohammad Shabbir, also a tailor: "You see, this road had no potholes and was a clean, plain road. But ever since Rajivji died, no one has done any work in our constituency. These roads were never repaired after they were constructed 10 years ago."

As Vadra's car drives further inside, the road gets narrower and smellier. People keep treading on one another's toes in their eagerness to catch a glimpse of her.

Suddenly, three men at the front fall to the ground in a minor melee. The police act immediately and use their batons. The SPG too begins pushing the people back to make way for Vadra's car.

One photographer who sees a golden opportunity tries to take pictures standing on the footboard of an SPG car. Annoyed, the commandos start beating him. The photographer shouts back: "How dare you do that? You are not allowing me to do my job. I am keeping 10 feet distance from her and clicking photographs. You can't touch me!" Suddenly, a crowd assembles there.

Vadra orders her driver to stop and tells the SPG to call the photographer over. The disgruntled man is led to the vehicle. Vadra apologises: "Main aap se maafi mangti hoon. Oonkay behaviour ki wajaha se aapko kasht hua. I am extremely sorry," she says, folding her hands.

The photographer, mollified, smiles: "I don't mind. I was only doing my job. They had no right to hit me. But I'm used to these things, it's okay."

By now, the place is echoing with cries of 'Priyanka Gandhi zindabad.' Some youngsters and children are running behind her car. Women are throwing rose petals at her, some are even throwing garlands. Vadra catches a couple of them and passes them on to sis-in-law Michelle.

The lucky ones who manage to get close to her hand over the garlands and shake hands. Vadra makes it a point to shake hands with almost everyone.

She stops at the local mosque. A bearded maulana comes to her and hands over a memento. But the SPG does not wait for more than 10 seconds and drives the car further down the lane.

Vadra asks the SPG where the Harijan bustee begins. She wants the car to move even more slowly there. The SPG is confused. They too don't know. They start asking the local people. One man shouts, "You are already in the Harijan bustee. In fact, you'll be out of it shortly."

Vadra seems to be well aware of the importance of the Harijan votes. These votes had shifted to the Bahujan Samaj Party last time, causing a lot of damage to former petroleum minister Satish Sharma who lost to Sanjay Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a result.

In the Harijan bustee the roads are still more uneven and the houses are made of mud. There are no power cables. But all the women have assembled in the bylanes to see Vadra.

Says an old Harijan woman, "Humko Priyanka bitiya say haath milana hai. Hum nay uskay pita Rajiv say bhi haath milaya tha. Kya koi humari madad kar sakta hai? (I want to shake hands with her. I once shook hands with Rajiv. Will someone help me?)."

But no one bothers. Luckily, Vadra spots the old woman and bangs on the car roof again, to stop. As she stoops to shake hands, the old woman feels as if she has achieved heaven. She just says, "Humara aashirwad tumhare saath hai."

It is 1630, half an hour from close of campaigning. The Election Commission's stipulations cannot be defied. Vadra asks the driver to speed up. No more shaking hands and touching. Now she only waves from the car as it pulls away from the village, several youths and children following in its wake even as the SPG and police try to prevent them.

Calm is returning to Jais once more. But there is a murmur as people discuss her looks and her mother's prospects. Says Surya Kumari Devi (70), "She has got all the features of her grandmother [the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi] and father. I am surely going to vote for her. For the last 10 years, nobody has bothered about us. Today everyone is coming because Priyanka bitiya has come. My vote is for the Congress.

The feeling in Jais about Priyanka Gandhi can be summed up as: she came, she waved, she conquered. Whether she also won the battle of the ballot will be known less than a week from now.

The Rediff Election Specials

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