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February 11, 1998


Campaign Trail/Prem Panicker

Badal plays Vajpayee against R L Bhatia

"Booolaaaay so nihaaaaaal!" goes the Shiromani Akali Dal's resident master of ceremonies, through the microphone.

"Sat Si Akal!" comes the response. But only just. And that is strange, given there are anywhere between 3,000 and 4,000 people assembled at the venue.

Said venue is Sultan Wind Road -- named after one of the three village chieftains from whom, I am told, Guru Ramdass bought the land on which Amritsar now stands. And the occasion is an election rally, addressed by no less than 'Loknayak' Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab's chief minister.

Which brings me back to the beginning, and the strange lack of fire and spark in the audience response to the Sikh war-cry.

Why strange? Not merely because so many people, ergo so many voices, should have made the rafters ring in the still of the evening, but more because the line the Akalis are selling the voters is power at the Centre. No more, no less.

And if self-interest doesn't make you yell with vigour and vim, what will? That question is already worrying the 'Loknayak'. The voter turnout in recent elections has hovered between the 25 and 35 per cent mark and, if precedent is repeated, then the odds should favour Congress candidate and sitting MP, R L Bhatia, who is aiming for a shut-out by retaining the seat for the third time running, and the fifth time overall.

"Nothing," admits an SAD factotum, snatching a moment to talk to me in between making sure the arrangements for the CM's rally are all A-okay.

What, no local issues? "No local issues, no national issues," he shrugs. "The only issue is power."

Could it be that the Akali-BJP combo is missing a bet here? Dalbir Singh, chief of the Punjab Khalsa Diwan, certainly thinks so. "There is the issue of Sikh maryada," he says. "Our pride. Sonia Gandhi has apologised for Operation Bluestar -- thus admitting that her mother-in-law was wrong. But what does a 'sorry' at election time mean? Just crocodile tears -- and they cannot wash away the blood of over 600 people who died in the Golden Temple, they cannot repair the damage to the Akal Takht (the seat of Sikh temporal power, within the Temple complex). The Congress should be branded as the murderers they are."

Singh, who is introduced to me as a leading industrialist, appears to feel strongly about it. Judging by the nods of nearby auditors, others do, too. But strange -- that word again -- in a rally lasting a shade over two hours, there is no mention of it.

Since politicians are never slow to pick up on debating points, the reticence makes you wander. Why is the SAD-BJP combine not picking up the cue? "I don't know," Singh says.

What the Akalis are doing is focusing on the 'instability' factor. Speaker after speaker -- and the line-up includes the likes of Badal's cabinet colleague Manjit Singh Calcutta and deputy speaker of the state assembly Baldev Raj Chawla -- harps on the fact that India has had three prime ministers in 18 months.

"The country needs a stable government, one which can last the full five years," thunders Calcutta.

"The BJP-SAD combine will rule in Delhi," says Chawla, who belongs to the former party. And if he constantly omits to mention the BJP's other regional allies, the audience is in no mood to point out the omission.

For noticeably, the only times when speakers at the rally draw roars of approval is when they mention the prospect of sharing in the next federal government.

While the other speakers do quick, three-minute routines, it is left to Badal to elaborate on the Akali stance.

The SAD chief's thrust is aimed at the Congress jugular. "Why are we having this costly election now?" he roars. "Because each time the Congress felt that its corruption would be exposed, it withdrew support!"

Cleverly, thus, he deflects the 'instability' charge from Inder Kumar Gujral, whom his party is backing in Jalandar. "What was Gujral sahib's fault? That when the Congress raked up the Jain Commission, he refused to let down his ally? Is that a fault? We Sikhs know the value of loyalty," says Badal.

And back to the main theme -- Congress-bashing. "As someone who has been associated with Punjab politics for years, I can say that all our problems are the fault of the Congress. Punjab was a prosperous state, till the Congress introduced militancy here," he says. "The Congress is an enemy of Punjab, it is an enemy if the country."

A dig at Sitaram Kesri hiding behind a woman's skirts draws an approving laugh from the predominantly male audience. And cues Badal into a more direct attack on the Congress's star vote-catcher. "What does she know, or care, about our cultures, our traditions? What does she care whether we live or die? Once there was a woman leader who, when she was told that the poor people had not bread to eat, replied, 'then let them eat cake!' Sonia Gandhi is like that!"

Again, the menfolk lap it up, and laugh. Never mind that in characterising Marie Antoinette an a 'leader', he is doing less than justice to the poor guy who actually wore the crown -- a certain Louis XVI. Or that Badal has cleverly transposed the most famous quote of pre-Revolution France on to a lady of Italian origin. A European by any name, and the crowd freaks.

Badal winds up with another firm push on the self-interest button. "I asked, I pleaded with Vajpayee- ji to contest from the Punjab. Finally he said he would have loved to, but was afraid he would be accused of running away from a battle in Lucknow. But he also told me," long pause here, for maximum effect, "that when he becomes prime minister, the interests of Punjab will be closest to his heart!"

For all his rhetoric, though, Badal has a major problem, and he knows it. To wit, the BJP-SAD candidate in Amritsar -- Daya Singh Sodhi, the state BJP chief, is a total unknown. And judging by the way the audience vamoosed as soon as Badal wound up his speech -- despite the CM's plea that the people stay back and listen to Sodhi, there was an embarrassing exodus -- no one seems overly keen to want to know him, either.

So Badal cannily changes the very nature of the contest. Having given Sodhi a few plaudits, the chief minister says, "And remember -- a vote for Sodhi is a vote for Vajpayeeji as your prime minister! And a vote for the Congress is a vote for instability, for corruption, for Chacha Kesri!"

So much for hat-trick aspirant R L Bhatia -- you are, Badal exhorts the crowd, electing a government, not a candidate. "And only the SAD-BJP alliance can guarantee you that!"

What remains is a fervent appeal for votes -- lots of them. "You must all vote. A 50 per cent turnout is not enough," Badal harangues, "You must ensure at least 90 per cent voting!"

The corollary is not mentioned -- but it appears to hang in the air, over this city that is the fount, and focus, of Sikhism. That a low turnout at the hustings could well see the Akalis eating humble pie in Amritsar. While R L Bhatia makes it to the Lok Sabha in style.

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