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September 7, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Savera R Someshwar

'I told Indiraji, we would return their soldiers and land; in return, they would return PoK to us and accept that Kashmir was an integral part of India'

All the gates to the Ram Nivas Bagh in central Jaipur had been thrown open, barricades been erected, police bandobast made. For, on this day, September 6, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to arrive to convince the people of this beautiful capital of Rajasthan to elect his party with a resounding majority to Parliament. This, so that, as he emphasised in his speech about an hour later, no one could prevent him from being prime minister and, by default, his party from ruling the nation for the third time by a single vote.

Buses had been made available to the people of Dausa, Jaipur and Tonk constituencies so that they could catch a glimpse of their leader. More importantly, so that the huge Ram Nivas Bagh, which can accommodate somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 people, would not disappoint the caretaker prime minister with empty patches. Arrangements had been made for the janta janardhan to quench their thirst (ice cold water) and answer nature's call (mobile lavatories).

To attain this end, announcement boards had been put up in all the villages, pamphlets announcing the event had been generously distributed and, as mentioned earlier, buses had been organised to ferry the required numbers to and for. We suspect the Rain God had been appeased, for, though it was raining during the day, the clouds yielded to bright sunshine by around three o'clock.

At the three gates to the venue, a solitary cutout, which compensated in terms of size, welcomed both BJP supporters and those who were just interested in catching a glimpse of the star campaigner. The BJP had even organised street plays outside the gates to lure more reluctant members of the public. The fourth gate, reserved for VIP invitees, state BJP leaders and the press, was fronted by a granite statue of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Though the PM's address was scheduled for 5.30 pm, the public were encouraged to reach the venue by three or even earlier, so they could catch the best seats. Which they were doing, in long serpentine groups, accompanied by dancers and drums, with the young helping the old and infirm. The matayen and behene, though, were not much in evidence, despite the fact that a separate, surakshit area had been created for them to the left of the stage. But there would be no reservation for the general public for this particular event, though reservation is a major issue in the electoral process in Rajasthan this year.

The ground itself was gaily decorated with the BJP's green-and-saffron flags -- large, small and massive -- to which a fringe of gold added the required glitter. We reached the venue at four and, after two halts where our passes were checked and one halt for the mandatory physical and bag check, we were in. The whole process -- unlike the trial by fire we had to undertake when we covered Congress president Sonia Gandhi's speech at Dhule, Maharashtra, last year -- took us less then three minutes.

Ashok Pandya, BJP general secretary for Jaipur, made some full-throated attempts at rousing the mainly rural crowd. As did Kalicharan Saraf, who held the ministerial berth for law and industry in the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government. But nothing less than Vajpayee's presence would animate the crowd. For their responses which were so lacklustre -- a solitary voice to the left and a few sad voices from the rear -- changed dramatically when it was announced that Vajpayee had landed, a few minutes before five at Jaipur airport.

Girdharilal Bhargava, who is contesting the Jaipur seat for the fourth time, used this opportunity for his two minutes of fame before a crowd that was now gaining mammoth proportions. And the proverbial two minutes it was, for there were others waiting in the wings -- Parvender Sharma, ex-president, Rajasthan University, and a senior BJP worker called Uttara.

So he raced through Vajpayee's rashtrabhakt image. Sonia's foreign status. "Don't forget," he waggled a warning finger at the crowd, much to their delight and amusement, "if this country commits the misfortune of voting for Sonia, she will turn around and tell the whole nation, 'Main maike chali jaaogi, tum dekhte rahiyo.' " Kargil. How the BJP government had introduced insurance for crop and credit card for farmers. How the Congress, who could not find someone from Jaipur to face him, had brought in a stranger from Ajmer. How this time his beloved constituents (Bhargava is the current MP from Jaipur) should remember to press on the button. And, this, he stressed, was very important. They could not do any daan without their better halves by their sides, so they should take bhabhiji to the polling booth and make her participate in the matadaan process.

And then he told the audience his only desire was to lay his head at Vajpayee's feet. And at the collective feet of the crowd gathered at the Ram Nivas Bagh. And generally, it seemed, at the feet of anyone who would help him win this election.

Organisational precision, one must say, has been the hallmark of the BJP. When they said Vajpayee would be there at 5.30, they meant it. What seemed to help the BJP was the fact that their prime minister eschews excessive security measures. Vajpayee only had about half-a-dozen SPG officers and not a single one hovered protectively around him. In fact, photographers from the press were allowed, one by one, on the dais for close up pictures of Vajpayee and shots of the vast audience.

It was Shekhawat's turn who decided to introduce a two-faced Vajpayee to the crowd -- as the caretaker prime minister and the prime ministerial aspirant. He reminded the crowd of Dilip Kumar's hit, Ram Aur Shyam and assured Vajpayee that his film would be a super hit during the 1999 electoral process. He got the loudest cheer when he promised that Rajasthan would deliver to Vajpayee the required seats and make up for the disappointments he suffered from the state in previous years.

The waiting was finally over -- Vajpayee rose, and the crowd got what it came for. The prime minister's speech, just for them, even if it was, with minor variations, the same thing that he has been repeating all over the country.

Vajpayee began by paying his respects to Rajasthan, and to Lt Amit Bharadwaj who lost his life in the recent battle at Kargil. Then, it was straight for the jugular -- as he fumed about recurrent elections forced on the nation by an irresponsible Congress. Of how they voted out his government on the strength of one vote when they realised the government that they thought could not be formed was actually working, and working well. How they lied to the President. How they could not form an alternative government. How his government had increased foreign exchange reserves. Food grain production. Industry. Sugargate. Pokhran. Kargil. Lahore. India's international status.

Particular emphasis was laid on Kashmir, on how India would never cede the state to anybody. "We do not believe Kashmir should belong to Pakistan just because it has a Muslim population. There are Hindu Pandits in Kashmir, there are Buddhists in Ladakh. India is a multi-religious country and everyone will be protected by the government. During the war for the freedom of Bangladesh, we had captured 90,000 prisoners of war plus land that was part of Pakistan. This was the time, I told Indiraji, to resolve the issue of Kashmir once and for all. We would return their soldiers and their land; in return, they would return Pak-occupied Kashmir to us and accept that Kashmir was an integral part of India. That did not happen. We returned everything to them without getting anything in return."

He also reviled the allegations of corruption that were being hurled against the BJP, and him personally. "I have spent 40 years as a member of Parliament and no one has ever accused me of misconduct. Now, when the day of reckoning is nearing, the Congress is getting worried that they might lose. So they denounce BJP leaders as corrupt. If that is so, why don't they go to the Lok Pal? Unlike the Congress, we have even brought the prime minister under the purview of the Lok Pal. He too can be hauled up by them. But they have not done that."

The crowd which had dotted Vajpayee's speech with cries of "Atal Bihari ki jai" erupted as soon as he left the stage. They made for the flags, fighting each other for that prized possession. So much so that, at points in time, the police had to intervene to prevent people from beating each other up.

"You see," smiled a senior police officer, "you don't get flags like this in the villages -- flags that are of this quality. They will take it with them and plant it in their villages, even over their houses."

A tall bearded farmer, who had successfully managed to nab a flag, agreed. "I will put this up in the village panchayat. After all, our whole village votes for the BJP."

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