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Allow me to repay my debt with India: FM

By P Vaidyanathan Iyer in New Delhi
April 26, 2004 09:59 IST
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The cool confines of North Block must be a distant memory as Finance Minister Jaswant Singh travels over 500 km in 12 hours in the Rajasthan heat.

He would have flown on Saturday from Udaipur to Barmer -- his son Manvendra Singh is contesting from here -- but a sandstorm forced him to hit the road.

Yet Jaswant keeps his cool. The only luxury he allows himself during the arduous journey is occasionally getting down from his Tata Safari to wash his face and taking a sip of mineral water.

Otherwise, the finance minister is continuously on the move, getting down only to address public meetings in villages like Mosalkar, Asotra, Dhori Manna, Sedwa and Chauhatan.

Manvendra is not accompanying his father. Jaswant is instead travelling with his younger son Bhupendra. A senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader says this is a ploy to ensure that father and son meet as many voters as possible.

Typical of his diplomatic demeanour, Jaswant refuses to utter a word about Sona Ram Chaudhary of the Congress and the sitting MP from Barmer.

His speeches in chaste Marwari start with the usual "BSP" (bijlee, sadak, pani) factor, but the finance minister's sense of timing -- be it at an industry chamber or in an address to a group of illiterate villagers -- shows no signs of wavering. Just when the villagers show signs of boredom, Jaswant comes up with a winner: "I have a dream," he repeats in each of his meetings, "to bring the Narmada from Gujarat to Barmer." The issue is close to the local farmers' hearts and predictably thunderous applause follows.

Sensing the mood, he goes for the kill: "I have a huge debt with India. And if I am able to repay it even partly by serving you all in the next five years, I will be very fortunate," Jaswant says. The claps that follow just won't end.

A senior BJP member says bringing the Narmada to Barmer is not an empty promise. The finance minister sanctioned Rs 387 crore (Rs 3.87 billion) to the Rajasthan government in December 2003 to pay Gujarat for completing the Narmada nehar that will bring water to his state via Kutch.

The audience seems to know that. Says Kishen Singh, a Rajput from Jodhpur: "Jaswant is adamant. If he says he will bring Narmada, it will be done."

That must be music to the ears of Manvendra's campaign managers. But Jaswant obviously has his feet on the ground. When the crowd shouts "Jasol Jaswant Singhji ki jai," the finance minister bows, and then repeatedly says, "That's okay, but don't forget to press the button in favour of the lotus on May 5."
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P Vaidyanathan Iyer in New Delhi
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