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Hope and despair outside 10, Janpath

Tara Shankar Sahay and Josy Joseph in New Delhi | May 18, 2004 23:27 IST

The throng outside 10, Janpath waits, they scarcely know for what.

Over the past few days, people had come to join it; others had left to resume the threads of their lives. Yet for well over 72 hours now, the entity –- one vast throng, eager to partake by propinquity the upset victory of the Congress-led alliance in the just concluded elections -– has remained in place.

Over the hours and days, it has buzzed with speculation and rumour, greeting each fresh morsel of information with cheers or jeers, as appropriate.

Until, at 1730 IST, May 18, a sudden hush descends. Conversations taper off in mid-sentence as news spreads that Sonia Gandhi had declined the prime minister-ship.

The news had been broken by just minutes before; it had been relayed to the waiting crowds via the ubiquitous cell phones.

It takes a while for the import to sink in -– the leader of the single largest party in the 14th Lok Sabha, holder of letters of support from a little over 320 MPs in a 543-member House, has declined the fruits of victory.

And then the crowd erupts in sloganeering -– democracy's time-honoured mode of self-expression.

"Sonia pe vishwaas hai, baki sub bakwaas hai" (We trust Sonia, the rest are trash)

Some 20 women, brandishing the Congress flag, lie down in the middle of the road; they shout that they would remain prone, until the Congress chief changes her mind, revokes her decision, for "the good of the country".

"Soniaji is our leader, it is not just up to her to take the unilateral decision," shouts Sumila Vyas of Rohtak. "We got the votes in her name, we worked day and night (to make the Congress win possible), so we have the right to take the decision. And our decision is, she has to take up the prime minister-ship."

The assertion is heard by those nearest, and relayed to those on the fringes of the crowd. The words are greeted with a drum roll of applause. A band begins to play. Flags are waved. Sections of the crowd break out in dance.

It is almost as if the crowd has to do something, anything, to help absorb the impact of the news.

Typically, at times of confusion and turmoil, crowds look for enemies. This one found its own hate object – in Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushma Swaraj, who had vowed to resign her Rajya Sabha seat if Gandhi became prime minister.

Slogans again rent the air -– this time, angry ones, attacking Swaraj and her party.

"Desk ke dushman desh mein, BJP ke bhesh mein" (The country's enemy is within, in the form of the BJP).

Members of the constabulary, posted in the area to control the crowd, lean on their lathis, and grin. Television cameras and their mike-wielding anchors roam the crowd, seeking to capture the speaking image, the telling sound-byte.

A correspondent for a foreign television channel balances himself atop an aluminium ladder. His crony kneels below, holding up a boom mike while the camera captures scenes of anger and passion -– crowds shouting slogans, threats of suicides, bands playing, people dancing…

"We will commit suicide," Rakesh Kumar, a 20-something from the slums next to the Yamuna river, yells.

Kumar's family, and 100s of others, were forced out of their homes on the banks of the Yamuna in course of the clean-up drive launched by the BJP some months back. Having taught the party a lesson, they are now here in force to compel Gandhi to become the prime minister.

Salman Khurshid offers sound bytes to any and all television reporters. Ashwini Kumar moves purposefully through the throng, looking for the BBC reporter. Renuka Chaudhury, appearing tired and close to tears, is escorted through the crowd and into 10, Janpath, even as Girija Vyas comes out.

Manmohan Singh drives up, but is forced away by agitated Congress workers taking out their anger on the PM-in-waiting. He is forced to swing around, enter 10 Janpath through the side gate in Akbar Road, next to the AICC office.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav drives up, and is greeted with cheers. The crowd sees a saviour in him, hopes that he can persuade 'Madam' to change her mind.

Some time later, Yadav emerges from 10, Janpath. Congress supporters, eager to know the latest, immediately swamped his car. Yadav refused to emerge. His silence tells its own story.

"Sonia nahin aandhi hai, doosri Indira Gandhi hai."

Slogans periodically rent the atmosphere, like so many exclamation points to the unfolding drama.

At 1900 IST, someone yells out that the Congress Parliamentary Party is about to meet in the Central Hall of Parliament. The news was enough to touch off fresh hysteria, renewed speculations.

In the adjoining 24, Akbar Road headquarters of the AICC, television sets show Gandhi addressing the CPP earlier in the day, and emphasising her decision not to take up the mantle of head of government.

The screen shows veteran Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar entreating her to reconsider, assuring her that only she could lead the party. Members of the CPP applaud; members of the crowd, watching the events on the television screen, add their quota of applause and slogans.

On screen, newly elected Congress MP from Chandni Chowk Kapil Sibal is heard asserting that the members of the Congress trusted her, and no one else, to lead them.

More applause, inside the CPP and outside on the roads.

Time passes, without bringing any hint that there will be a change of heart.

The crowd -- that had over the days run the gamut from anxiety as counting began to hope as initial trends showed the party doing well to euphoria as the party swept aside the Opposition to delight at the initial news that Sonia would be PM to dismay when she announced her decision to not take up the post -– has one last stop to make on the emotional highway: Resignation.

Gradually, people begin wandering away; the crowd begins to thin. And quiet, of a sort, returns to the road outside 10, Janpath.

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