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February 27, 1998


Campaign Trail/P Rajendran

'Let's stop the talk about mandir and masjid'

The BJP's star-on-the ascendant winds up his campaign...

I tell you, the kind of things people have to do to keep a job: Wave at 50,000 people -- individually -- for half hour, ducking into garlands and being smacked on the foreheads with gooey stuff that drifts to your eyebrow and further below. For a managerial position, it's odd how one has to bow to those you manage...

You could see how tired the party workers collected at the Ayyappa temple, Lotus Nagar, Trombay, were. They thought Pramod Mahajan, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate for their area, Bombay North-East, was big deal, all right. But they'd had a tough campaign and had been working late the night before. They were looking forward to a well-earned rest.

There were a few who could muster the extra effort required to show a youngster how to show off his orange and green shawls to maximum effect, but the rest stood chatting around, just wanting to get it over with.

Mahajan came late and without more ado, clambered into the Tempo Trax subtly camouflaged to look like a souped-up chariot Krishna would have died for, with ads for Sena and Sangh plastered liberally all over. His security men in mufti walked beside the jeep that moved in fits and starts, trying to keep their guns out of the elbows of the swarming supporters.

They called it a padayatra, So the BJP and Shiv Sena workers walked ahead of the chariot, shouting, "Pramod Mahajan aage bado; hum tumhare saath hai and waggling pics of the candidate and Sena chief Bal Thackeray in the faces of the passersby.

There's this problem about being put on a pedestal: the distance from other men can convince you of your own superiority, that you're doing this only to humour them for the moment. It could have been just the tiredness, but Mahajan preferred to keep at arm's length from the electorate.

He clearly didn't mind waving to those who just looked on, who nodded or who smiled; those more enthusiastic he actually waved down. Not, of course, that anyone noticed. After an initial salvo of crackers -- that had one terrified woman running, the whole thing was rather tepid.

Going into an area with many Muslims, Mahajan had beside him Muslim leaders Gul Khan from Bombay and Shakir Ali and Noor Mohammed Haji Quereshi from Delhi. There was also a woman clad again in saffron and green who smiled benignly, like a proud mother with a famous son.

A few women came up to do the aarti, but Mahajan indicated that they had better stand on a stool and he'd bend down to accommodate them.

Mahajan still didn't enjoy it. His head moved in small jerks and he looked everywhere but at the plate laden with gulal rice and the ceremonial lamp. When a younger woman clambered on the stool, he did a double-take before letting his eyes finally settle on the plate. At Shiv Sena shaka number 183, he suddenly got out of the Trax, conferred shortly with his men, slid into his Maruti 1000 and whizzed off. That was another padayatra finished with.

But later in the day, when he spoke at Bainganwadi, Govandi, before a silent crowd that was 90 per cent Muslim -- the rest being supporters, policemen and some journos -- there was a new urgency, a new fire, in him. And a fez cap on his head that one could have got him confused for a Muslim at a distance.

"Let's stop the talk about mandir and masjid. A happy home, good surroundings, a life lived in amity... What else does a person want?" The question was rhetorical and the crowd looked on stony-faced. In the half-second of silence, one could imagine one heard the buzzing of flies over a dead puppy beside the gutter. Raghu Rai would have loved it.

Maybe the hovels he was visiting affirmed all that his early years in the RSS had taught him, for Mahajan was clearly against excessive mollification of hurt feelings.

"I will win anyway," said Mahajan, a warning note creeping in unbidden. And then his voice turns conciliatory: "Par meetha jeeth ka doodh mein Musalmaan ka chini rahega to..." He smiles and the crowd relaxes a trifle. And the supporters on the stage cheered.

A man -- who later events showed was a supporter -- climbed up on stage and began putting a garland around him. Mahajan smiled and bowed. But when the man came up with another floral wraparound, Mahajan hissed at him urgently, "Time, time." The crowd heard and tittered as the mike caught it.

That was what was urging Mahajan on -- the clock. At five, the Election Commission had decreed, all campaigning must cease. He had already cancelled his last meeting at Cheetah camp, perhaps being delayed by a Thackeray public meeting at Ghatla. Now there was just a minute left and the policemen standing around were creeping closer.

He thanked the crowd for their time again, threw up his hands to make a point and flashed a look at his watch, again sought their votes, promising them a clinic and school if he was returned, and performed his namastes. Time!

Suddenly Mahajan looked more relaxed, and the strain off them, his backers bow him down with garlands. He waved to those around him and, looking suddenly more relaxed. He smiled happily and absently raised his hand to the people as he went off, in a flurry of security men, supporters and cops.

Campaign Trail

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