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February 13, 1998


Vinod Khanna is carrying lotuses to BJP territory

Prem Panicker in Pathankot

From Amritsar to Pathankot is some 130-odd kilometres in terms of actual distance. And light years, in terms of attitude.

In the former, despite the dais containing no less than state Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, senior cabinet colleague Manjit Singh Calcutta and suchlike Akali Dal bigwigs, the crowds are thin on the ground, the response to exhortations muted.

In Pathankot, at the Ram Lila grounds, there is electricity in the air. The show is a sell-out, well before the curtain goes up. And the roars of approval are quick, spontaneous, and prolonged.

A matter of attitude, I suppose. In Amritsar, the SAD-BJP candidate is introduced almost apologetically. At Pathankot, Vinod Khanna -- debutant, with the added disadvantage of being an import from Bombay, plus being a film star and, therefore, presumably lacking in seriousness -- is introduced jauntily. With an in your face flair.

"In Vinod Khannaji," says the speaker, "I see the image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, of Lal Kishinchand Advani!" It is political aura by association, and judging by crowd response, it works.

Khanna eschews the khadi so favoured by actors playing politics, and is attired in a sober suit, the vermilion tilak a rather odd contrast to the Western attire.

His leitmotif is simple, direct. "I had no need," he says, "to come here to Gurdaspur. I could have stayed in Bombay. But I said I wanted to do something useful, represent a backward constituency, see what I can do to be of use."

I mean, when you are wooing a girl you don't tell her that you've seen corpses with better complexion -- what you do is pet, pamper, find something, no matter how improbable, to praise.

But VK follows up with: "I want to tell Advaniji that Gurdaspur is backward. During my campaign here I have spoken to people, understood the misery of their lives, and explained it all to Advaniji. I have briefed him. And he has promised me that when a BJP government takes office at the Centre, its first attention will be towards the Punjab!"

Attaboy, the crowd goes. Or the Punjabi equivalent thereof. VK quickly follows up with a request, a demand, that the voter ensure that Vajpayee is returned with an absolute majority. "He won't indulge in horse-trading. So if he doesn't get a majority, he cannot form the government." The unstated corollary is obvious -- this one's for you, guys, you don't want to stay backward, vote BJP.

A quick dig at the Congress - "Its symbol is the hand -- use your hands to wave tata to it!" -- draws the predictable laugh. And VK, well ahead of the game, quickly yields the floor to L K Advani.

Veterans on the campaign trail say you can judge the prospects in a constituency by the mood Advani is in when he speaks. When faced by a crowd that could be potentially hostile to his message, thus, he oozes charm and reason, his sentences are measured, his points made with lawyer-like precision. When he is faced by a crowd that, in his estimation, can be pushed over to his side of the fence, he is fire and thunder, his oratory laced local with passion -- the metaphorical kick in the butt he figures his audience needs.

Here, though, he is relaxed. Playful. His body language is clearly confident. Hey, it seems to say, I'm not here to ask you to vote for us, I know you will anyway, so I figured I'd just drop in, shoot the breeze a bit, you know, spend some time with a bunch of friends.

Thus, there is no measured reasoning. No fire, nix on the brimstone. What we get is a little peroration full of laughs -- Advani enjoying the comedy every bit as much as the crowds.

"The Congress," he says, "is very sick. They think it needs oxygen. It's another matter that they had to get the oxygen cylinder from Italy..." pause for the laughter laughter, which comes bang on cue. "But oxygen can only keep you alive for a while longer -- it cannot cure your illness!"

He has, Advani informs the crowd in a very gossipy fashion, already toured most of India. And seen, as he saw in 1977, a wave in favour of his party. And that cues him into anecdotage. "It was June 1976, they invited me to attend a parliamentary conference in Bangalore. Delhi is very hot in June, so I though I'd enjoy two days in Bangalore's pleasant climate. That night they declared Emergency, next morning Vajpayee and I were arrested and thrown in Bangalore Jail. Thanks to Indira Gandhi, we enjoyed the Bangalore climate for 16 months!"

Laughter. And Advani, without missing a beat, moves into homespun wisdom mode. And talks about the trip he made to Amethi during the post-Emergency campaign." Everywhere," he informs the crowd, "I could see only four-colour posters of Sanjay Gandhi. I was," he adds, dropping his voice an octave, "nonplussed. So I stepped into a tea stall -- I was not so well known then -- and asked the man there, what do you think the result will be? He tells me, the boy will lose. But, I ask, even your shop is flying his flag! Ah, he tells me -- and I have never forgotten his words -- but do you notice that below the flag, attached to it, is a big stick? Today the Congress wields a stick, so I fly its flag. But when I step into the polling booth, what I do is between my God and me!" A long pause, then, "Sanjay Gandhi lost!"

"The Indian electorate is largely illiterate, true. And this was before television even. But yet, the Indian electorate did something unknown even in the advanced West -- it defeated a sitting prime minister that year. Somehow, the word spread about how great leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were ill-treated. And the electorate punished the Congress."

It is only much later, when you have time to think, that you realise the subtlety with which Advani makes his subliminal points. You may be illiterate, he is telling the crowd, but you are smarter even than the voters in the West, I know you will do the right thing.

Heck, you think, when it comes to working a crowd, Mark Antony had nothing on this man.

Follows, of course, that Advani had to then remind the audience what the 'right thing'; is. And he eases into it like a Formula One driver taking the band.

"Did you notice," he chattily asks the crowd, "that this time, the Congress is not naming its prime ministerial candidate? Now why is that? Always, from Nehru till Shastri and Indira to Rajiv, the Congress has been in a position to name its PM. But not this time. Why? Because it is not even hoping, even dreaming, of forming a government. It wants a hung Parliament, a Trisanku Parliament, so that it can manipulate, play games, function by remote control. That is its game -- the people are not falling for it any more. People have had enough of seeing prime ministers come and go. No, the word now is, Sabhko dekha bhari bhari, ab baari hai..."

"Atal Bihari!" the roar from the crowd is indication enough that they are right there with Advani.

Frankly, I figured that was it. I mean, how do you top that? First principle of speechifying, quit while you are ahead. But not Advani.

"You know," he confides, "the plane I travel in is a seven-seater. A small plane. It has two pilots. So on the first day of campaigning, I decided to get to know the pilots who would be taking me round the country. 'What is your name?' 'Captain Sitaram,' the first one answered. 'My name is Captain Kesri,' the second one said. And I thought, arre waah, I must thank Sitaram and Kesri for taking me around the country.

"And then I realised I must also thank Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president, for putting us on the road to power sooner than we expected. We were prepared to wait five years -- but no, says Sitaram Kesri, the country wants you now. And he causes elections in just 18 months. Well, I must think Sitaram Kesri -- and I tell him, and you, that we, the BJP, is ready! Atal Bihari Vajpayee is ready!"

And exit, on a quick Vande Mataram, Jai Hind, before the applause has reached a crescendo.

I mingle with the crowd as it slowly winds its way past the metal detectors and security personnel. I eavesdrop on conversations. And I realise the collective mood is, well, peculiar.

How do I describe it?

It's sort of like, the mood at a family gathering after the departure of a particularly favoured relative. A relative, what's more who was in sparkling form.

Quips are retold, and laughed over. And as I stand at a wayside cigarette stall, lighting up, I hear a bunch of childish voices raised in mimicry of Advani: "sabhko dekha baari baari, ab baari hai Atal Bihari!"

Adults, standing nearby, sport indulgent smiles. And in the environs, the feeling, the message, is clear. This is BJP territory.

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