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January 27, 1998


Water for blood

R R Nair in Varanasi and Kanpur

Har Har Mahadev!

The old Hindu war cry rose from the crowds thronging Varanasi's Vidhyapeeth grounds. And with that was dispelled any doubt about the new, softer face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It knows that the trident-wielding sadhus that have taken it to the portals of power will be of use again. So while claiming more pacific opinions now, the party turns a very saffron face to its backers.

Oddly, if those at the Varanasi rally were screaming for blood, fire and incense, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Atal BihariVajpayee, failed them badly.

It was after two public rallies in Gorakhpur and Allahabad, that Vajpayee found his way to Varanasi. And knowing he was coming up, the crowd surged ahead, everyone on their feet to catch a glimpse of the messiah. Cameramen were sent on their knees as they looked at Vajpayee far away on the dais. But Vajpayee didn't deliver, other than a pallid discourse on the shortage of stability and ability, and how political untouchability has denied his party the chance to rule.

Some believed he was tired, but many wished he'd gather himself around and lash out against the Congress, Sonia and all the other tormentors on the saffron masses. But Vajpayee seemed more worried about getting the middle-class, that huge BJP vote bank, to the polling booths. Blessings were not enough, voted, counted, he took pains to tell them.

He pre-empted any cynicism pointing out, "Politics is a game of numbers. Last time you helped us become the single largest party. But that is not enough. We need numbers. If you want the prices of onion and tea to come down you should not stop with just blessings. You should vote for us."

He was as cautious at Kanpur the next day, with again the same accent on drawing the middle-class to the polling booths. There were fewer cries of Jai Shri Ram and Vaypayee concentrated on issues like Hindu-Muslim amity, the value of tolerance, mutual respect and the need to build a nation together: "Kandhe mein kandha milakar desh ko aage badana hai. (Shoulder to shoulder, let us take this nation forward.)"

Muslims in traditional garb were among those who stood up and raised their arms shouting,"Raj tilak ki karo tayyari, aa rahen hai Atal Bihari" (Get ready for the coronation here comes Atal Bihari)."

Vajpayee also used the peaceful Azadari procession in Lucknow this year as an example of what dialogue could do. The procession usually ends in a Shia-Sunni conflict.

But his performance was lacklustre, said Baburam, a Kanpur native. A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker, Baburam expected that at least Bofors would be be raised.

"Now he has become old. He is not attacking the Congress or Sonia," a disappointed Baburam said.

But some of the old fire was on display when slogan-shouting workers of the National Textile Corporation's mills in Kanpur kept heckling him.

Initially, he ignored them. When the workers finally got on to his nerves he turned around and asked with some asperity, "What is happening?" No sooner was the complaint expressed that he promised a solution.

"I promise you that the mills would be reopened. We are only in the state government. If you let us form the government at the Centre we will reopen the mills and you will all have work."

Therefrom, his speech gained focus, becoming a covert attack on liberalisation, with asides about the neglect of the small-scale sector and the wastage of thousands of millions of rupees on an unwanted election foisted on the nation by a "coalition which changes its head on and off, retaining its body."

Though Kanpur was a recovery from Varanasi, party leaders admitted in private that "the speeches don't measure up to Vajpayee's standards." And the unkindest cut was that he refused to discuss Sonia, Bofors and the corruption charges against Congress leaders; he only discussed the positive aspects of the BJP and its allies.

But the local leaders didn't pull their punches, comparing Sonia to the daughter-of-the-soil Maneka Gandhi who is contesting from Pilibhit with the BJP's blessings. They also unleashed a personal attack on Sonia and the Gandhi clan.

But to keep the sizeable Muslim population happy, they project the BJP as a plain-speaking centrist party which would not dabble in vote-bank politics.

"Yes, we feel the change, said Tanveer Hyder Usmani, a Muslim leader. "We know we are being marginalised in politics. There is not a single Muslim member in the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly." Though the Muslims are prepared to vote for the more moderate Vajpayee, they will still have the more right-wing Advani in mind when they enter the booths.

According to Usmani, a UP legislative council member who joined the BJP during Vajpayee's rally in Kanpur, at least 15 per cent shift in Muslim votes is expected.

The BJP is caught between guarding the saffron citadel and yet swing some votes its way. The party also cannot afford to lose anything here for, in UP, the BJP is fighting 60 seats. A lot is at stake indeed.

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