October 10, 2000


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PM 'cheerful, relaxed, alert'

Savera R Someshwar

He stood outside Breach Candy hospital, behind the metal police barrier, clutching a faded plastic bag in his hand. His white kurta-dhoti was stained with dust. He wanted to meet the prime minister, but seemed intimidated by the posse of policemen guarding the entrance to the hospital.

"I want to ask Atal Bihari Vajpayee: He promised us Ram Rajya, then why are we having so many problems?"

Seventy-five-year-old Govabhai R Patel is the same age as the Indian prime minister. Unlike the prime minister, he has lost most of his hair and teeth, wears thick glasses and speaks only Gujarati. An ardent supporter of the BJP, he has lived though the freedom movement and is a great believer in "Gandhi babu. In those days, he always had the time to listen to our grievances. Then why can't I meet Vajpayee now? Why doesn't he have time for us?"

Govabhai is rather upset about the way his country is being run these days; and he is particularly upset about the drought in north Gujarat. "When there is so much water in the country, why can't the government do something about the water situation in Gujarat?"

Though Govabhai is a farmer, he says he is not "lalchi. I live alone and my land has been good to me; I have enough money in the bank to look after me till I die. So, even if my land turns barren, I will not starve." To prove it, he brandished his tickets for a tour he is undertaking to Singapore and the Far East. Sometime later, he wants to go to America to see how the people live there.

Govabhai lives in Gujarat. He just decided to spend a few days with his nephew in Bombay before leaving for Singapore on October 19, when he heard the prime minister too was in the city. Which is when he insisted he wanted to meet him. "I told him," said his nephew, "that it is not so easy to meet the prime minister, but he won't listen."

Govabhai wants an explanation; and he is determined to get it before he dies. "I want to ask the prime minister why life is so difficult for the common man," he asks angrily, in rather unparliamentary language. "What is Vajpayee doing? Is he aware of what is happening in the country?"

He has even sent a letter to the prime minister in New Delhi "by registered post." He is now waiting for a reply. The postal receipt, carefully folded, is preserved in a cheap, orange-coloured postal envelope. He takes it out as proof that this is not the first time he has attempted to take issue with the prime minister.

And he is prepared to wait -- all day, if necessary.

On the other side of the road, right in front of the hospital gates, a woman in a red Maruti van is furious. "Arre, if I want to go in this direction, why can't I take a U-turn here? Why do I drive ahead and then turn? You know how much petrol I will waste? You are not paying for it."

The traffic policeman angrily gestures for her to move ahead. She makes her U-turn 50 yards ahead, and as she once again passes the cop, he glares at her, "So how much petrol did you waste? Can't you just obey the rules?"

All this happens under the benign face of the prime minister painted on the billboard outside the hospital, where he is shown thanking the people for their good wishes.

Under the two gaily-coloured sun umbrellas on the right side of the hospital gate, a couple of BJP workers shake their heads.

"A woman, na… How much further did she have to go? Only 50 yards or so… Why did she have to create such a fuss? Is this the way to treat the prime minister of the country?"

They are manning two tables, set up for the convenience of the aam janta. A cardboard box, covered in white, bears the legend, 'Wishes for the prime minister.' People have been stopping here since noon on Tuesday, when the box was actually set up, dropping in their wishes and greetings for the prime minister. They even leave their bouquets there. The BJP personnel manning the tables provide you with pen and paper, even as they politely request you to put down your name and address, assuring you of a reply from the prime minister himself.

Which, of course, is what the temporary PMO in Bombay has been busy doing for the last few days. "Before the operation," said a member of the PMO, "we were busy with the pre-operation good wishes. Now, we are being flooded by post-operation inquiries."

The not-so-aam janta manage to make it inside the air-conditioned out patient's department, which has temporarily been converted into a visitor's waiting room. This is as far as most high-profile visitors make it, though certain others like Home Minister L K Advani (who has now returned to New Delhi) and IT Minister Pramod Mahajan have practically camped on the seventh floor (the prime minister is staying in room 707).

This is where the mail addressed to the prime minister at Breach Candy is received, as are the bouquets sent by his well-wishers. Some of the visitors who did not make to the seventh floor included Union Ministers Manohar Joshi, C P Thakur, Jaywantiben Mehta and Vasundhara Raje Scindia, businessman Harsh Goenka, the mahapramukh of the Swaminarayan temple at Mahalaxmi, BJP MP Vinod Khanna, Anoop Mishra, Gopinath Munde, Anna Dange and D Y Patil.

Bouquets have been received, among others, from flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and actor-director Dev Anand. Messages have also been received from Baba Amte, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, former prime ministers Chandra Shekhar and Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, Nawab Mohammad Abdul Ali of Arcot, Chennai, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and Madhavrao Scindia. In the PMO, meanwhile, the phone has still not stopped ringing and the prime minister's well-wishers call to monitor the PM's progress.

Though Dr Chitaranjan S Ranawat, who operated on the prime minister, recommended no visitors, no phone calls and no conversation, the prime minister on Tuesday evening returned the calls made by the President and vice-president inquiring into his post-operative health.

Later in the evening, he spent almost 15 minutes with Advani. He also received quick visits from Governor P C Alexander, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Mahajan, besides members of his family (Ranjan, Namita and Niharika Bhattacharya) and members of the temporary PMO set up in Bombay.

"The PM," was the general consensus, "was looking quite cheerful, relaxed and alert. He was reading a magazine."

US President Bill Clinton is also expected to call the PM. "The people from the American consulate came here three days ago to take the numbers here. In fact, we are expecting that the US president will call in the next few days."

On Tuesday morning, the prime minister woke up at his usual time -- six am -- and said his prayers before going through the day's newspapers. Later in the day, he went through his physiotherapy.

The PM's surgery: The complete coverage

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