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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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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